With 10 weeks until the first round of the French presidential election, government parties – the conservative Les Républicains and the Parti Socialiste – are mired in crisis. "Marine Le Pen can win," their leaders admit with a shudder.
Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing Front National, made "mastering our destiny by restoring the French people's monetary, legislative, territorial, economic sovereignty" the first of 144 campaign promises published on February 5th.
If negotiations with Brussels do not go her way Le Pen promises to hold a "Frexit" referendum on leaving the European Union. In any case, she would replace the euro with a devalued franc. It is hard to see how the EU or the common currency could survive the defection of a founding member and the Continent's second-biggest economy.
Le Pen also promises to take France out of the integrated command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
Markets are already reacting to fears of a Le Pen victory. This week French bond prices fell to their lowest level in 18 months, and the spread between French and German 10-year bonds has reached a four-year high.
Every poll of the past year has shown her reaching the May 7th run-off.
Le Pen has distilled the anger, disappointment, frustration and hatred of a quarter of the French electorate. Other presidential candidates come and go while “Marine” remains at the head of the pack. Every poll of the past year has shown her reaching the May 7th run-off.
Three opinion polls published on Wednesday show Le Pen winning the first round, on April 23rd, by a comfortable margin. The independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron would come second and François Fillon, the right-wing conservative, third. Polls indicate that Macron or Fillon would defeat Le Pen on May 7th.
Yet polls failed to predict the Brexit vote, last June, and Donald Trump's victory, in November. A Le Pen presidency would constitute what Le Monde calls a calamitous hat-trick. This is "the era of electoral insurrections", warns the former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine.
Le Pen gloats when she says that she has inspired Trump more than he has inspired her.
Trump says America first. Le Pen says France first.
Like Trump, she constantly invokes “the people”. At the first of 10 scheduled campaign rallies, in Lyons on February 5th, she promised to hold referendums for any motion gaining 500,000 signatures, because “the people alone are right, and no one can be right against them”.
Like Trump, Le Pen rants against elites. In a poll of 18,000 French people last December by Cevipof, a research centre of the selective university Sciences Po, 83.7 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposition that political elites ignore the problems of the people.
Le Pen has tapped into that disillusionment. French leaders are "a disconnected caste that functions for itself", she told Le Monde last weekend.
Trump inherited wealth from his father, Fred, a property developer. Le Pen also led a privileged life, growing up in the Chateau de Montretout, in the affluent Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud.
Yet Le Pen also learned early what it was to be a pariah. In Intimate Ambition, a biographical documentary broadcast by M6 television last October, Le Pen's sister Marie-Caroline recounted how other children refused to sit next to the three daughters of Jean-Marie Le Pen at school. As founder of the Front National, Le Pen pere was viewed as a neofascist.
Marine Le Pen was eight when the family's apartment was dynamited. "That night of horror made me discover that my father was a politician," Le Pen wrote in her autobiography. She developed "skin as thick as a crocodile", she told Le Monde.
Le Pen’s relations with the mainstream press, like Trump’s, are hostile. She too attempts to circumvent the press via social media.
A few days ago a TV reporter asked Le Pen if her past employment of her partner, Louis Aliot, now an MEP and a vice-president of the Front National, had violated EU regulations.
“Unfortunately I fell in love with my parliamentary assistant,” Le Pen said with her usual sarcasm.
“He was paid €5,000 a month for a part-time job?” the journalist asked.
“Yes, but he has a doctorate in law. Do you have any other disagreeable questions for me?” Le Pen snapped.
For 30 years, Le Pen told the crowd in Lyons, French governments watched while the country went to the dogs. Her description of “the impunity of delinquents, zones of lawlessness, the dictatorship of gang leaders in certain neighbourhoods, trafficking in drugs and weapons, burglaries, burnt-out cars” echoed Trump’s portrayal of “carnage” in the United States.
If she is elected Le Pen will make life as difficult as possible for foreigners.
Islamic fundamentalism in France is “the direct consequence of uncontrolled immigration”, Le Pen says. She accuses French Muslims of segregating men and women; imposing veils; forbidding women from wearing skirts, working or going to cafes; and of establishing “prayer rooms in businesses, street prayers, and cathedral-mosques”.
Almost two-thirds of the French believe that there are too many foreigners in France. The percentage rises to 99 per cent among Front National voters, according to Pascal Perrineau, a Sciences Po professor.
If she is elected Le Pen will make life as difficult as possible for foreigners. She would use a referendum to enshrine “national priority” in the constitution, meaning French citizens would be given preference for housing, jobs, education and medical care.
No undocumented alien would ever be given legal status, much less become a naturalised citizen. Le Pen would impose a tax on foreign workers, and force foreigners or dual nationals convicted of crimes to serve prison sentences in their countries of origin.
Le Pen says it is in France’s interest to support Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, and has called for a Franco-Russian-US alliance against Islamic fundamentalism.
Le Pen, like Trump, has only scorn for the European Union. She has coined the words “europist” and “globalist” to express rejection of the EU and the globalisation she says it fosters.
The "straitjacket" of EU membership would prevent rival candidates from controlling borders, abandoning jus soli – birthright citizenship – curtaining immigration or fighting unfair competition, Le Pen says. "They are lying . . . The EU has kept none of its promises, least of all regarding prosperity and security. It has put us under tutelage, keeps us on a short lead."
Le Pen appears to be in sync with voters. Only 29 per cent of French respondents in a Eurobarometer poll in December said that they had a positive image of the EU.
One day, Le Pen promises, “this tyrannical europist system” will be only “a bad memory”.
Strong words for a party whose 24 MEPs bring in more than €13 million in European taxpayers' money each year. The party is accused by the EU's anti-fraud agency, Olaf, of using EU allowances to pay some 20 party workers at its headquarters in Nanterre, outside Paris.
Le Pen was ordered to reimburse the €340,000 paid to her closest aide, Catherine Griset, and her bodyguard Thierry Légier. Starting this month, half her salary as an MEP is to be withheld, to begin to recuperate the funds.
"It's unbearable to hear FN MEPs constantly attacking Europe while they use its money so shamelessly," the Green MEP Pascal Durand told L'Obs magazine. "It's intellectually dishonest, like spitting in one's soup."
Le Pen is also accused of underestimating her wealth to French tax authorities, and of illegal campaign financing in 2012. But she is a Teflon candidate: none of the accusations sticks. Supporters see her as Robin Hood or Joan of Arc.
Angry white men
Front National voters, like Donald Trump’s, are mainly angry white men. Le Pen’s advisers are trying to forge a softer image, to make her more appealing to women.
This week the Le Pen campaign published four million copies of a four-page glossy pamphlet, modelled on women's magazines, titled simply Marine. Subtitles describe Le Pen as "a woman with a heart", "a female politician in a man's world" and "a woman of conviction".
Le Pen “confronts difficulties without flinching. She has the exceptional qualities of a stateswoman,” the pamphlet says.
Le Pen professes to want to defend French women. “Female sensitivity sometimes helps one to understand, to better perceive injustice . . . to defend the weakest,” she says.
Le Pen has always shielded her children from the public eye, but the pamphlet shows Le Pen holding one as an infant. She gave birth to her daughter Jehanne and to her twins, Mathilde and Louis, in less than a year, it says.
Le Pen is shown with her sisters Marie-Caroline and Yann above the caption “Like them, Marine was persecuted in her youth and childhood because of the name she carries. This painful experience brought the three sisters closer.”
The new warm-and-fuzzy image goes hand in hand with Le Pen's role as the heroine of the downtrodden. A study by Nonna Mayer and Céline Braconnier of Sciences Po shows a huge shift by poor voters from the left to the Front National since 2012.
Her support falls dramatically among university graduates and the affluent
In an interview with Causeur magazine last month Le Pen boasted that fellow party members call her "the leftist of the FN". She has promised a 10 per cent cut for the lowest income-tax brackets and a "purchasing-power bonus" of €1,000 a year for low-wage earners and pensioners.
Forty-one per cent of French workers, 35 per cent of the jobless and 44 per cent of those who "find it hard to make ends meet" said they would vote for Le Pen, according to a December poll for Cevipof and Le Monde. Her support falls dramatically among university graduates and the affluent.
Bastion of support
The police and military are a bastion of support for Le Pen. More than 50 per cent of French security forces told Cevipof last June that they intended to vote for Le Pen.
This week, as France faced unrest over the alleged rape by police of an African youth in the Paris banlieue of Aulnay-sous-Bois, Le Pen visited police and promised to give them more men and equipment and to establish a "presumption of self-defence" in cases involving accusations of police brutality.
The "Penelopegate" scandal, in which her presidential rival François Fillon is accused of putting his wife and two of the couple's five children on the parliamentary payroll for fake jobs, has strengthened Le Pen and Macron.
Le Pen is trying to attract Fillon’s economically liberal and traditional Catholic voters with talk of “our Christian heritage” and a promise to restore tax-free overtime hours, a measure Fillon enacted as prime minister.
While Fillon struggles to recover from Penelopegate, Benoît Hamon, the socialist nominee, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left independent (who are running fourth and fifth), grapple with their inability to agree on a single left-wing candidacy.
Other candidates help Le Pen by attacking each other. Mélenchon, for example, mocked the euphoria of Macron’s campaign as a “hallucinogenic mushroom”.
Macron's policies are still ill defined
Macron stands the best chance of defeating Le Pen. He wants an open, tolerant, pro-European France that would embrace moderate economic reforms to help it adapt to globalisation. But Macron’s policies are still ill defined – he does not intend to publish his programme until next month – and his desire to reconcile left and right, economic liberalism and the welfare state, remind many of his former mentor François Hollande.
On February 6th, Macron, whose wife, Brigitte Trogneux, is 24 years older than him, attempted to quash a long-standing rumour about his sexuality by showing up unexpectedly at a rally for his movement, En marche!
"If you are told that I have a double life with Mathieu Gallet" – the chief executive of Radio France – "or anyone else, it's my hologram that got away from me, but it can't be me!" Macron joked, alluding to Mélenchon's use of a hologram to stage simultaneous rallies last weekend. Macron's campaign said Fillon's entourage had propagated the rumour.
Macron wants to be the rampart against Le Pen. “Our battle is to do everything so that whatever happens does not benefit the Front National,” he said in Lyons on the eve of Le Pen’s rally. “Because today the democratic leprosy of distrust is settling into our country.”