FRENCH PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Closing in on Macron: Could Le Pen’s blandest campaign be her most successful yet?

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, the 2017 runner-up, is making her third run for the French presidency.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, the 2017 runner-up, is making her third run for the French presidency. © Jeremias Gonzalez, AP

Unruffled by defections and the rise of a far-right challenger, Marine Le Pen has steadied her ship in the final stretch of France’s presidential campaign, pulling ahead of rivals as she closes in on a replay of her 2017 duel with Emmanuel Macron.

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As he walked off the stage following his latest fiery address in Marseille on Sunday, an exhausted Jean-Luc Mélenchon spoke candidly to reporters about his chances in the upcoming presidential contest.

“Either the quartiers populaires vote in droves on April 10, or I’m a dead man,” he sighed, referring to the working-class suburbs of Paris and other French cities, where many tend to shun the polls. Turning to the principal obstacle standing in his way, the veteran leftist added: “I don’t understand how Marine Le Pen can keep rising in the polls without even campaigning, whereas we have to chase down each vote with our teeth.”

The upcoming presidential contest marks the third time Mélenchon and Le Pen have a shot at the Élysée Palace. It is also the third time the two candidates are vying for the elusive vote populaire – the working-class electorate that was once solidly left-wing but has since drifted to the far right.

French presidential election
French presidential election © France 24

As in the past two elections, the leader of the far-right National Rally has enjoyed a comfortable headstart over her left-wing rival in what has always been a lop-sided contest. With just 10 days to go before the first round on April 10, Le Pen is polling in second place behind the incumbent, President Emmanuel Macron. Crucially, polls suggest she is 3% to 7% ahead of third-placed Mélenchon, meaning she is likely to qualify for the all-important run-off on April 24.

Second-round data also looks encouraging for Le Pen, who has significantly narrowed the gap with Macron since she lost by more than 20 percentage points five years ago. A poll by the Ifop-Fiducial group published on Monday indicated Macron would win by just 53% versus 47% for Le Pen – a gap narrow enough to send alarm bells ringing in the president’s camp. 

Pollsters have warned that such figures are to be taken with a pinch of salt, pointing to an unprecedented number of voters who are unsure who to vote for or indeed whether to vote at all. Still, Le Pen’s solid ratings underscore the resilience of the National Rally leader, who was upstaged by her noisier rival on the far right – the former pundit and political upstart, Éric Zemmour – for much of the campaign.

Battle on the far right

Zemmour’s provocative outbursts offered him unrivalled exposure during the first months of campaigning, while his ability to poach high-profile figures from Le Pen’s entourage – including her own niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen – suggested a possible changing of the guard on the far right.

>> Pushing far-right agenda, French news networks shape election debate

Instead, the leader of the National Rally appears to have seen off her turbulent challenger, who is now regarded as a very long shot for the April 24 run-off.

“Le Pen may have lost some of her cadres, but the voters who have long backed her and her party are still there,” said Jérôme Sainte-Marie, head of the PollingVox institute, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “She is simply rebuilding her electorate from 2017.”

Far from weakening the National Rally, Zemmour’s incendiary attacks on immigrants and Muslims have helped trivialise his vision of the far right while allowing Le Pen – who has toned down her rhetoric – to come across as more respectable and “presidential”. This has helped Le Pen advance her great endeavour since she took over from her father, Jean-Marie, in 2011: to detoxify a party long seen as a racist, anti-republican hideout for nostalgics of the colonial era. 

“Just like in 2012, when she benefited from a positive comparison with her father’s excesses, Marine Le Pen is able to capitalise on Zemmour’s extreme radicalism, which in contrast makes her come across as calm, composed, open-minded and less divisive,” said Cécile Alduy, a professor at Stanford University and research associate at Sciences-Po in Paris, who has recently published a book on Zemmour’s rhetoric.

“Le Pen has one clear advantage, she has learned from her father the pitfalls politicians must avoid if they are to broaden their appeal: the gaffes, the wrong words, the ill-judged statements that forever haunt candidates and banish them to the fringes,” she told FRANCE 24.

>> Spooked by immigration, Islam and ‘woke’ ideas: Who are Éric Zemmour’s supporters?

The National Rally leader has noticeably softened her speech on the campaign trail, steering clear of controversy and putting a lid on the vituperations that once defined her party. Without renouncing her anti-immigrant stance, she has studiously avoided talk of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory championed by Zemmour, which even the struggling conservative candidate, Valérie Pécresse, has clumsily referenced. 

Instead, the veteran far-right candidate has demonstrated a measure of empathy and flexibility, said Alduy, noting that she “immediately spoke in favour of welcoming Ukrainian refugees when war broke out” – whereas Zemmour shocked the public by declaring that they should settle in Poland instead.  

Far-right hopeful Zemmour toughens already tough line on immigration
Far-right poll hopeful Zemmour defends "ministry of remigration"  during campaign outing.
Far-right poll hopeful Zemmour defends "ministry of remigration" during campaign outing. © AFP

The strategy appears to be paying off. According to an Ipsos study published by Le Monde on Monday, the number of people who see Le Pen as a threat has dropped two points since January to 51%. While 50% of people surveyed said they would “under no circumstance” vote for her, the figure was higher for both Zemmour (64%) and Mélenchon (53%).

On the surface, her party’s election platform has also undergone a makeover, abandoning some of the more controversial policies from 2017. Gone are the promises to quit the Eurozone, achieve “zero immigration” or ban dual nationality. Le Pen has also softened her stance on societal issues, dropping her opposition to gender-parity policies and shelving plans to call a referendum on reinstituting the death penalty.

When Zemmour surged in the polls in late 2021, critics suggested Le Pen had gone too far in her efforts to “normalise” the former Front National – turning it from radical to bland. But party officials have welcomed the shift in perception, noting that some analysts have stopped labelling the National Rally “far right”, adopting alternative labels such as “national populists”.

Jordan Bardella, the party’s youthful number two, defended the strategy earlier this month at a gathering of rival right-wing candidates hosted by the ultra-conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles, which has actively pushed Zemmour’s campaign.

“All the changes we have made over the past five years have been designed to transform what had long been a protest pitch into a path that is politically viable, juridically applicable and politically serious – in short, into a platform for government,” he said, striking a pragmatic tone that contrasted markedly with anti-systemic language of past campaigns.

The cost of war

Le Pen’s best efforts to appear “presidential” could easily have been derailed by the outbreak of war in Ukraine, which upended a lacklustre campaign and offered Macron a wartime bump in the polls.

Like Zemmour, Le Pen has spoken admiringly of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in the past, laughing off suggestions that he might pose a threat to Europe. Fears that this might hurt her campaign prompted some party officials to hurriedly get rid of brochures that feature a picture of the National Rally leader posing with Putin at the Kremlin.

Instead, the war has highlighted Le Pen’s ability to turn an apparent setback into an opportunity, shutting out Zemmour’s identity politics and placing the debate firmly on her preferred terrain: surging prices and the plight of France’s hard-up.

“Le Pen was very quick to blame Putin for the war and then shift the discussion to the war’s impact on people’s purchasing power, which has been her mantra since the start of the campaign,” Alduy noted.

While condemning Putin’s aggression, the far-right leader has criticised Western sanctions against Russia, flagging their impact on French households already saddled with surging energy prices. She has promised to tax the big energy companies that make “fat profits” from the crisis, a stance popular with her core, working-class electorate. At the same time, she has bolstered her ideological credentials with talk of limiting benefits to French nationals.

Marine Le Pen poses for a selfie during a campaign stop in Courtenay, central France, on March 19, 2022.
Marine Le Pen poses for a selfie during a campaign stop in Courtenay, central France, on March 19, 2022. © Guillaume Souvant, AFP

The campaign’s general shift towards the concerns of low-income workers has played into Le Pen’s hands, validating her decision to shun large rallies in favour of small-scale gathering in towns and villages – both a tactical choice and a consequence of her party’s dire financial straits.

While her rivals have bickered on TV sets and Macron has focused on the international stage, the National Rally leader has spent much of her time mingling with crowds in depressed areas, showcasing her ability to connect with ordinary people. She has cast herself as the “candidate of concrete solutions”, detailing how she plans to curb the price of gas, petrol, wheat and other staples. 

A lot of this has taken place below the media’s radar, fostering the impression that – as Mélenchon claimed in Marseille – Le Pen was somehow rising in the polls “without even campaigning”.

Macron’s polar opposite

While both Mélenchon and Le Pen have put purchasing power at the heart of their platforms, the latter’s pitch is likely to appeal more directly to voters, said Alduy, noting that “Mélenchon’s discourse is more political and ideological, whereas Le Pen talks about prices in supermarkets, fuel costs for fishermen and keeping people’s homes warm, all the while campaigning on the ground.”

The strategy is aimed at drumming up support among what is already a consolidated voting group, said PollingVox’s Sainte-Marie.

“Le Pen’s electorate has become a class-based one, combining blue-collar workers and employees, most of them low-earners from the private sector,” he said. “Their vote signals both support for Le Pen and her platform, and also a form of social identity.”

That social bloc has identified the National Rally leader as Macron’s polar opposite, and the one with the best chance of defeating him in the second round on April 24, Sainte-Marie added: “She represents a vision of the world and social categories that are the exact opposite of ‘Macronism’, making her a natural recipient of the anti-Macron vote.”

The trouble for Le Pen is that her working-class voters are also among those most likely to shun the polls. It was the case in last year’s regional elections, when the National Rally suffered its worst defeat in years amid record levels of abstention. 

Losing faith in democracy: France's abstention problem
Losing faith in democracy: France's abstention problem
Losing faith in democracy: France's abstention problem © FRANCE 24

“We’re talking about an economically vulnerable segment of the population that is typically torn between voting against the system or shunning the system,” Sainte-Marie explained. “In the absence of a mobilising campaign, anti-systemic parties tend to be hurt most by abstention, as was the case in the latest regional elections.”

Le Pen has clearly identified the threat of low turnout among her voters as the main obstacle en route to the second round. She has pleaded with supporters to turn out in large numbers on April 10.

“Don’t listen to those who claim all is lost and Macron will win,” she told a crowd of several hundred in the northern town of Bouchain earlier this month. “They’re trying to demobilise you, to demoralise you, to make you give up – in truth, to switch off the people of France. But we won’t let them. Rise up to say enough is enough!”

Whether or not Le Pen’s supporters “rise up” will depend, in large part, on their perception of her chances of victory, said Sainte-Marie. 

“It’s the big unknown factor, whether voters will resign themselves to the inevitability of Macron’s re-election,” he said. “Frankly, the circumstances of this campaign are so extraordinary we simply cannot make a prediction.”

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