Marine Le Pen, President of France? That was unimaginable five years ago. Now that the French presidential elections are drawing to a close on April 24, the impossible has become a definite possibility.
Le Pen is currently 43-45 in polls% behind President Emmanuel Macron. With such a small margin of error, anything can happen.
Once viewed as a dangerous far-right ideologist whose father Jean-Marie was honorary president of the Front National, Le Pen has recently reinvented her image and upgraded her discourse – while continuing to champion anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic ideas, such as the headscarf ban in public. But today many of these ideas are popular with a majority of French people.
Terrorist attacks that began in Paris in 2015 have sparked anti-Islamic sentiment across much of French society and politics. The French are also concerned about the decline of secular values, as 2016 polls showed that 30% of French Muslims believe Sharia law is more important than civil law.
Meanwhile, the French are unhappy with President Macron’s style of government: the brutality of an unapproachable and unempathetic authoritarian leader. They accuse him of wanting to stifle the primary debate by focusing solely on the war in Ukraine.
Although this tactic worked for a month, his February 7 meeting with Vladimir Putin and subsequent phone calls did him no favours. The French have been put off by Macron’s refusal to campaign or participate in debates with other candidates.
Since the first ballot showed LePen was getting closer to victory, Macron has stepped up his rallies and interviews, and met with the French, who have long been unhappy with him. Last weekend he held a rally in the southern city of Marseille, targeting supporters of the Left and the Greens.
A photo of Macron, released later that day, lounging nonchalantly, his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a chest full of hair, should probably boost his likeability factor as well. (Although many observers suspected the image was Photoshopped).
His tactics could pay off after last Wednesday’s televised debate, in which Macron put in a good showing against Le Pen. Polls now show he’s progressing with an increasing lead. But one cannot underestimate how much the French detest Macron. The anger that fueled the Yellow Jacket protests that erupted in 2018 over falling middle-class living standards is still smoldering — and could even explode again if Macron wins the election. Meanwhile, his blunt, cantankerous statements like “I want to piss off the five million anti-vaccination” come off as deaf and only tarnish his image.
Le Pen, on the other hand, built her campaign for the National Rally Party around the economy. Immediately after the first round of voting, she focused on France’s rising inflation rate and promised French families between €150 and €250 a month to boost household “purchasing power”.
At 53, this is Le Pen’s third chance at the presidency, and Sunday is likely her last chance to enter the Elysée Palace. A divorced mother of three, she began her career as a lawyer and lives with six cats who have now become part of her public persona. Through multiple TikTok appearances, the cats have helped soften the paper trail of their previous racist and anti-Semitic remarks, which have twice doomed their political hopes.
It has also adopted a more moderate approach to international relations. France will not leave the European Union – triggering a “frexit” – if elected. But while she claims she wants to stay in the EU, she has said the issue is “reforming it from within”. Le Pen said she will break the Franco-German alignment, the decades-long engine of European construction, because it is not working properly – and the French agree.
Le Pen appears unwilling to become a French Donald Trump, having so far dismissed the former US President’s extremely populist tone. Nevertheless, she wants to make France diplomatically independent. This appeals to the French people who are nostalgic for the days of General Charles de Gaulle. Putting France first, aligning less with the United States, and deviating from NATO’s integrated military command structure are their priorities. Like Trump, Marine Le Pen will prioritize bilateral diplomacy over forced multilateralism.
While Le Pen has softened her tone to attract more centrist voters, the question now remains whether the French will back out at the last minute in secret from the polling booth, concerned about the consequences of such an election victory. They are already concerned about their country’s place in the world and its decline under Macron. A shift to the right could prove that France is not impervious to the winds of conservative populism that have swept through its supposedly less-refined allies Britain and America.
Georges Malbrunot is Le Figaro’s senior foreign correspondent in Paris.