French politics: Macron faces test of character as Le Pen’s popularity grows

It would be a political earthquake as disruptive as the UK referendum vote for Brexit in 2016 and the election of Donald Trump as US president later that year.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s extreme right Rassemblement National party, is doing so well in the polls that she threatens to foil Emmanuel Macron’s re-election bid and could win next year’s presidential vote to become the country’s first far-right leader since the second world war.

Only last week, she likened herself to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the UK’s Brexiters — and by implication former US president Trump — as a politician who could triumph with the support of all kinds of voters. “There’s no more split between left and right, there’s a split between the globalists and the nationalists,” she said.

But is a Le Pen victory really likely next spring? The arguments among French politicians, so fevered that they have sometimes even displaced the deadly Covid-19 pandemic as a topic of debate, suggest there is at least the possibility of a political shock in France akin to Brexit and Trump.

“There are lots of ingredients that are the same,” says Chloé Morin, an analyst at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès think-tank. “A rejection of elites. Feelings of injustice. The desire to ‘take control’ of one’s country’s destiny.”

Marine Le Pen addresses supporters during her unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2017. The latest opinion polls suggest she is closer to pulling off a shock akin to Brexit next year © Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

The consequences of a far-right victory in the EU’s second-biggest economy would be momentous at home and abroad.

Le Pen has successfully “detoxified” her party and moved it towards the centre since she succeeded her anti-Semitic father Jean-Marie Le Pen as leader a decade ago. But she and her nationalistic supporters remain hostile to immigrants and free trade. They are short of economic experience, friendly towards populist autocrats such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and highly critical of the EU, even if she has withdrawn her threats to leave the bloc and abandon the euro. Most of these positions are the direct opposite of those adopted by the liberal, internationalist Macron since he took office in 2017.

There are other factors that might help to put Le Pen, who has called Macron “the last gasp of the old system”, within reach of victory. One is his handling of the pandemic, which has been marred — in the eyes of doctors at least — by his own recent reluctance to follow the advice of scientific advisers and impose a more stringent lockdown to curb a third wave of infections.

He finally extended restrictions on movement to the whole country from Saturday. But more than 96,000 people have already been killed by the virus in France, and the latest surge accelerated by the spread of new variants is overwhelming hospital intensive care units in Paris and in the north of the country.

Run-offs narrow against the far-right

Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jacques Chirac reached the second round in 2002
18-82%

Losing run-off margin for Jean-Marie Le Pen, left, against Jacques Chirac, right, in 2002

34-66%

Losing margin for Marine Le Pen against Emmanuel Macron in the second round in 2017

47-53%

Forecast losing margin for Marine Le Pen against Emmanuel Macron in 2022 (Harris Interactive)

Another problem for Macron is his reputation among many of the French as an arrogant know-it-all. With between 34 and 41 per cent approval for his performance as president in recent weeks, Macron is more popular than his Socialist and centre-right predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy at the same point in their terms, but anecdotal evidence suggests he is a divisive figure who has alienated many of those who voted for him and his “neither right nor left” message in 2017.

“She [Marine Le Pen] will win,” says Arnaud Montebourg, a Socialist who was Macron’s predecessor as economy minister under Hollande. “It’s like the Trump phenomenon or the Brexit phenomenon.”

Montebourg says it is Macron’s character and his “oligarchic” policies that have boosted Le Pen’s popularity, and that the president is fooling himself and France by trying to persuade people to vote for him as a “rampart” against Le Pen and the far right in a putative second round Macron-Le Pen runoff in the presidential race.

“Macron is hated because he’s arrogant,” says Montebourg. “So he’s not the ‘rampart’. He’s the one who will put Madame Le Pen in power.”

President Macron announces the latest Covid-19 restrictions on TV. His reluctance to follow scientific advice and impose a more stringent lockdown has been criticised by doctors and could help Le Pen’s electoral chances © Nicolas Tucat/AFP via Getty ImagesPandemic stalls reforms

Morin agrees that Macron is seen as “arrogant, scornful, haughty” and says support for his administration at a time of national crisis has masked his underlying unpopularity. Even though Le Pen is just as divisive, “there’s a whole bunch of people who detest Macron as much as they hated Sarkozy”, she says.

Yet it is not just Macron’s character that has thrown up obstacles to his re-election. The deep economic recession triggered by the pandemic is also likely to reverse his administration’s earlier achievements in reducing France’s perennially high unemployment rate, although jobs have so far been sustained by a massive, deficit-financed economic rescue plan designed to stop businesses such as restaurants and hotels from failing by paying both owners and employees.

Macron’s signature economic reforms, for example to the costly state pension and unemployment benefits systems, have also been stopped in their tracks by the pandemic. Those reforms had already been challenged by the sometimes violent anti-government gilets jaunes protests that erupted across the country in 2018 and persisted for more than a year, but they had appealed to many of the country’s centre-right voters.

By keeping the reforms on his to-do list, Macron alienates many working-class voters, and by failing to follow through with them he alienates entrepreneurs and much of the middle class. Significantly, many gilets jaunes protesters at the start of the movement were Le Pen supporters from outside Paris, even if some of the later demonstrations were taken over by anarchists and supporters of the far left.

A ‘gilets jaunes’ protest in Paris in 2018. The violent challenge to Macron’s economic reforms persisted for more than a year © Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

Nor has Macron much to show for his intense efforts in foreign policy, including his repeated attempts to court Putin and persuade Russia to make peace with Ukraine, and his abortive drive to reconcile Iran and the US under Trump to help resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Macron was the victorious insurgent candidate in the 2017 election partly because he championed what seemed like non-partisan economic reform and a vigorous sort of internationalism, but neither has produced the results he would have liked.

“Right now he has no foreign policy triumphs that he can point to in an election campaign and claim that France has more grandeur as a result,” says Nicholas Dungan, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. “In the domestic sphere Macron does have political accomplishments such as pension reform, but what he is missing is something where individual French people are likely to say ‘Here’s how he’s changed my life for the better’.

“In some ways Macron comes across as a French version of Obama, polished, cerebral, self-assured, highly intelligent and thoroughly professional,” adds Dungan. But the former US president “found it more natural than Macron does to convince people he feels their pain”.

A queue to vote in Marseille during the first round of the 2017 French presidential election. Macron was the victorious insurgent candidate who championed what seemed like non-partisan economic reform © Anne-Christine Pujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

The latest opinion polls suggest Le Pen has a real chance of winning, representing a significant threat to the French establishment and the unity of the EU. When her father shocked France by eliminating the Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in 2002 to challenge Jacques Chirac in the run-off for president, he lost by 82 per cent of the votes to 18 per cent. The front républicain, the defensive system under which voters choose a candidate they dislike to keep out the one they hate, showed its value: the left voted en masse for the centre-right Chirac.

Fast forward to 2017, and the gap had narrowed. In the second-round battle, Macron beat Le Pen by 66 per cent to 34 per cent. Next year, according to the latest opinion polls, Le Pen could lead in the first round and therefore be assured of a place in the final, and if it is Macron that makes it through as well then he is currently forecast to win by as little as 53 per cent to 47 per cent, according to a Harris Interactive-L’Opinion poll in March. The front républicain system is crumbling because many leftwing voters say they will abstain. Some may even vote for Le Pen, whose strongholds are in the industrial towns of the north once dominated by communists.

“Is it too early to start talking about this?” asks Dungan. “No it’s not. The polls right now show Le Pen and Macron pretty well neck-and-neck. It’s not that people are hostile to Macron. It’s that they’re not certain he understands them.”

Marine Le Pen launches a rightwing alliance of smaller political parties. Her main support is in the industrial towns of the north once dominated by communists © Ian Langsdon/EPA-EFE/ShutterstockIdentity crisis

The way the voting system works in France’s Fifth Republic — “in the first round you choose the candidate you like, and in the second round you eliminate the one you don’t” goes the political axiom — explains the unpredictable nature of its elections and the importance of the front républicain. While Le Pen can rely on a solid far-right support base, votes for her rivals risk being wasted if there are multiple competing candidates from the centre-left and centre-right in the first round.

It is this system which in 2017 almost delivered a run-off between Le Pen on the extreme right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the extreme left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party. No less than four candidates achieved first-round scores of around 20 to 24 per cent of the vote — although in the end the two finalists were Macron and Le Pen.

A protest against the murder of the teacher Samuel Paty, who was killed after showing pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Macron has run a campaign against Islamist terrorism and “separatism” in Muslim-dominated suburbs © Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images

Macron himself has benefited and continues to benefit from the weakness of the traditional parties. The once powerful Socialist party is particularly enfeebled and increasingly eclipsed by the greens. The centre-right movement has repeatedly changed its name in recent years — it is currently called Les Républicains — which suggests it has an identity problem, and several politicians are presenting themselves as possible candidates, including Xavier Bertrand, now president of the Hauts-de-France region, and Michel Barnier, who was the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.

The question now is whether Macron can rely on voters from the centre to get him through the first round and then attract enough additional supporters to back him against Le Pen in a run-off.

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The president has yet to declare his candidacy for re-election, but his strategy is clear: to present himself to voters once more as the person most likely to beat Le Pen. This infuriates politicians such as Montebourg on the left, who say the French are weary of Macron and do not want another Macron-Le Pen showdown.

Macron retorts that he is simply dealing with the political reality of France today. “I’m not the one who put Marine Le Pen there,” he told MPs of his governing La République en Marche party recently. “It’s the voters. She and her father before her have been there for 25 years. She was there before us.”

Battle for hearts and minds

Gérald Darmanin, Macron’s hardline interior minister, is leading the charge to appeal to far-right and centre-right voters — as well as old-fashioned secular republicans of the left — by trying to crack down on crime and restrict immigration, and by highlighting the president’s campaign against Islamist terrorism and “separatism” in Muslim-dominated suburbs.

In an FT interview in March, Darmanin said the danger for France was “to let Madame Le Pen become president of the republic because we’ve shown ourselves to be too naive, too soft”.

For Macron, some tricky months lie ahead as he seeks to navigate France through the pandemic, prepare for the French presidency of the EU in the first half of next year and consider his political future.

A Macron-Le Pen confrontation in the second round, let alone a Le Pen victory, is far from certain, even if each has chosen the other as their preferred opponent. There are other uncertainties too. It is possible that either Le Pen or Macron or both will fail to get through the first round of the election. Nor is the eventual winner of the presidency guaranteed to secure a parliamentary majority in the National Assembly elections that follow, a scenario that could condemn him or her to ineffectual “cohabitation” with a hostile government.

Edouard Philippe becomes mayor of Le Havre last year. The former prime minister is seen by business leaders as an alternative candidate to Macron © Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images

Business leaders who were once largely supportive of Macron and his economic reforms have started to wonder whether they should hunt for an alternative candidate — perhaps Edouard Philippe, the once loyal prime minister replaced by Macron last year and now mayor of Le Havre, who is believed to be biding his time for the following election cycle.

“The thought I hear from some fellow bosses is that ‘too many people hate him [Macron]; the handling of the pandemic, especially in the past two months, has been poor; Macron has lost it’,” says a senior French executive.

Macron’s electoral challenge, says Dungan, is that he needs to win the hearts and minds of the people. “He’s not a career politician: schmoozing is not his strong suit. His risk is not that Marine Le Pen wins; it’s that he loses.”

As for Le Pen, her weaknesses are evident, not least her poor performances in television debates, which sealed her fate when she confronted Macron before the final round of voting in 2017. And although she promises a “return to common sense”, “lower taxes” and “economic patriotism” as well as curbs on immigration, she has yet to convince voters that she or her government would manage the economy competently.

“When you see the opinion poll numbers, nothing is inevitable,” says Morin. “For the first round Macron and Marine Le Pen are ahead . . . but the others are not far behind.”

And surely Le Pen’s scepticism towards the EU and her recipe for economic sovereignty is too incoherent for pro-European voters to choose her as president? Dungan is not so sure: “Trump and Brexit have shown that’s a great way to get elected — not on the facts, but on the feelings.”

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