The warnings from the French establishment are getting louder: politicians and pundits from Manuel Valls, former prime minister, to President Emmanuel Macron himself are sounding the alarm that voters could propel far-right candidate Marine Le Pen to victory in this month's election.
“It’s one minute to midnight,” Valls wrote in a column backing Macron in Le Journal du Dimanche a week before the first round of voting next Sunday. “Marine Le Pen could be elected president of the republic.”
Macron told supporters at a rally on Saturday not to sit back and believe the opinion polls that suggest he will beat Le Pen, albeit by a much narrower margin than his 32-percentage point victory five years ago. “The extremist danger today is even greater than it was a few months ago, a few years ago,” he said.
Over the past week, a lacklustre election campaign overshadowed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been electrified by hopes on the extreme right – and fears in the centre – that France might become the next western democracy to fall under the sway of a populist leader who is sceptical about Nato and the EU, protectionist on the economy and in favour of strict controls on non-European migrants.
Le Pen is not there yet – the latest opinion poll from Harris Interactive suggests Macron would still beat her by 51.5 per cent to 48.5 per cent in the second round. But she is almost guaranteed her place in the run-off against Macron on April 24th – and his lead has narrowed sharply to within the margin of error. Even if Le Pen loses, she is likely to deliver the best performance for her far-right party since her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded the National Front – now the National Rally – in 1972.
“The risk of a Le Pen victory is significantly higher than in 2017 . . . I don’t understand why people are not more afraid,” said Anne-Laure Delatte, an economics professor at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, who supports far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in third place in the polls. “What is shocking to me is that many in France seem to be ignoring the risks.”
Several reasons highlight Le Pen's recent rise. Political commentators say she has led a good campaign, generally downplaying her links with Russian president Vladimir Putin, and focusing more on the cost of living rather than on immigration or culture-war issues, just as the prices of fuel and other products have risen sharply as a result of the Ukraine war.
Éric Zemmour, the television polemicist who emerged as a far-right rival last year, has inadvertently aided Le Pen’s longstanding mission to detoxify her movement because his relentless focus on the supposed horrors of Islam and “out of control” immigration made her appear relatively moderate.
David Dubois, professor of digital marketing at Insead, said analysis of social media mentions suggested French sentiment about Le Pen was more favourable than for Zemmour and similar to that for Macron – in March she had 38 per cent negative mentions and 31 per cent positive, while Macron had 37 per cent negative and 32 per cent positive.
“She was able to change her brand image,” said Dubois. “She’s really made an effort to change her discourse from immigration to rising prices and how to increase the purchasing power of French people.”
On the other side, Macron has lost most of the polling boost he enjoyed after Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine on February 24th. He is also now seen as an establishment candidate after five years in office, whereas back in 2017 he was a revolutionary who shunned the old parties.
The combination of Le Pen’s newfound acceptability and widespread dislike of Macron as an incumbent portrayed by opponents as a “president of the rich” increases the chances that the “republican front”, the traditional bulwark against the far right in the second round, could fail in this election.
As in 2002, when the centre-right Jacques Chirac beat Jean-Marie Le Pen, and in 2017 when Macron beat Marine Le Pen, voters are supposed to reject the extremist by choosing the conventional "republican" candidate as the lesser of two evils.
Pollsters say it is at least possible that the front may not save Macron this time. Some voters on the right no longer see Le Pen as a beyond-the-pale extremist, while voters on the left may be unwilling to vote for Macron when his second-term programme envisages pushing back the retirement age and limiting aid to the poorest.
Assuming Macron and Le Pen qualify for the run-off, almost half of supporters of the far left’s Mélenchon have told pollsters they will abstain, while a chunk of both his and conservative Valérie Pécresse’s voters indicated they would choose Le Pen.
“The republican front was already showing cracks in 2017, and it seems even weaker this time around,” said pollster Pierre-Hadrien Bartoli of Harris Interactive. “For Le Pen to win, she needs both to happen – for the left not to vote for Macron, and for a non-negligible share of the traditional right to come to her. A Le Pen victory is not the most probable scenario – it remains Macron – but it is not impossible.”
With his lead narrowing, Macron is expected to spend the home stretch seeking to mobilise his base after a muted campaign. But if Le Pen wins, it would be a political earthquake for France and Europe. A report by the left-leaning Jean Jaurès Foundation said that although Le Pen's communication style was now "much smoother", her programme was "just as radical as before" especially on immigration and cultural issues.
She wants to make big changes to the constitution that would allow much tighter border controls and establish a so-called “national preference” that would allow her government to favour French people over immigrants, even those legally in France. Le Pen also wants to ban Muslim women from wearing the veil in public places.
Le Pen has abandoned her unpopular plans to exit the euro and the EU, but her manifesto shows she would challenge the EU from within, such as by reimposing border checks and championing the primacy of French law.
“It won’t be easy for her to get elected, but she can get a much better score than in 2017 and that’s already a problem,” political analyst Dominique Reynié told the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris. “We are still in the international populist wave.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022