Presidential election in France: Marine Le Pen and the stakes for Europe

France’s President Emmanuel Macron will face far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in the presidential election run-off on Sunday. This will be the second straight fight between the two politicians and Le Pen’s third shot at the presidency, and it is her best chance at winning the office so far.

She has rejected allegations of racism and xenophobia, and has positioned herself instead as a “nationalist moderate” with populist credentials who aims to free France from the clutches of a privileged minority.

In the first round of the presidential election was held on April 10, Macron, of the La République En Marche! (LREM) party won 27.8 per cent of the vote and Le Pen of the National Rally won 23.15 per cent. Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the far-left France Unbowed came third with a little under 22 per cent of the vote. For a candidate to win an election in the first round itself, they must secure over 50 per cent of the vote, a feat that has never been achieved since the system was established in 1958.

Issues in election

French voters have traditionally cared more about the cost of living than any other issue. Amid a crippling power shortage, the cost of energy rose purchasing in 2021, food and commodity prices are currently at their highest levels in the decades, and the decline in power is the most pressing concern for a large number of voters. Long before the coronavirus and Ukraine crises, Macron, a private-school educated former banker, had felt the heat from protests over economic inequality as ‘yellow vest’ demonstrators took to the streets across the country in 2018.

Centrist candidate and French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a campaign rally Friday, April 22, 2022 in Figeac, southwestern France. (AP)

Immigration, for a long time a potent political issue, became a flashpoint in French politics following the European migrant crisis of 2015. The waves of men, women, and children arriving primarily from Africa and the Middle East are often alleged to have altered the ethno-cultural Dimensions of French society, with many citizens decrying the loss of jobs and social stability that is attributed to their arrival. Migrant arrivals are also blamed for a spike in incidents of terrorism, and concerns over national security have been a key election issue.

Macron has lost the temporary boost he got from his efforts to find a diplomatic solution as the war in Ukraine approached. Le Pen has voiced support for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in the past, but polls suggest that has not impacted voter preferences negatively. Macron’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change are also in play.

Could Le Pen win?

As campaigning ended on Friday, opinion polls showed Macron pulling away from Le Pen, widening his lead to 57.5% against the 42.5% support for his rival in an Ipsos survey. Some analysts, however, feel the race could be much closer than those numbers suggest — some earlier polls have put a Le Pen victory within the margin of error. She will in any case almost certainly improve significantly over her performance in 2017, when Macron won by more than 32 points.

Despite Macron’s attempts to persuade voters that he has capped energy prices, reduced inflation, lowered unemployment, and created more industrial jobs, Le Pen remains popular in France’s industrial heartland.

While Macron has pledged to curb illegal immigration, Le Pen has proposed a referendum to impose major limits on immigration. She has also said Muslim headscarves would be banned in public, and has promised to raise the bar high for foreigners to benefit from France’s generous social services. These pledges appeal to her low-income, industrial-worker base, many of whom feel left behind by the tide of globalisation that has cost them jobs and status in society.
It is often said that the French vote with their heart in the first round and with their head in the second, meaning they choose their ideal candidate first and then go with the lesser of two evils in the run-off. Macron’s supporters hope Le Pen’s extreme views towards immigrants and Muslims will repel more thoughtful voters.

Le Pen on the other hand could benefit from voter apathy. Mélenchon has urged his supporters to not vote for Le Pen, but has also not backed Macron. If Mélenchon’s base deems neither candidate deserving, Le Pen’s prospects could improve. She has previously attempted to ingratiate herself to those position by backing unions and herself as a champion of the working class.

Has Le Pen changed?

Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the anti-globalist, anti-immigrant National Front party in 1972, held openly racist and anti-Semitic views and was called ‘le diable’ (the devil) by his critics; Le Pen, who was herself given to making provocative and controversial remarks, was referred to as ‘la fille du diable’, or ‘the devil’s daughter’.

In recent years, however, Le Pen has worked to distance herself from her father, expelling him from the party in 2015, and rebranding it in her image. She has dismissed much of the old guard and modernized the party, improving its social media outreach and making its narrative more palatable to moderates. In 2018, she changed the name of the National Front to National Rally.

She has also worked to change her own image among voters, choosing to focus more on bread-and-butter issues, and softening her stance on issues such as gay rights. During the campaign, she has refrained from making openly Islamophobic comments, and her performance in presidential debates has been a vast improvement over 2017.

Despite all this though, she is in essence a politician of a nativist bent, and many of her extreme policy proposals remain unchanged.

What if Le Pen wins?

That is a remote possibility, based on current opinion polls. But if she does win the presidency, it could mark profound changes in France and its relationship with Europe.

Le Pen wants to take France out of NATO’s integrated military command structure, wrecking the unity that has been the West’s showpiece achievement against Putin’s aggression. She has a history of strong ties with the Kremlin, and has spoken against sending weapons to Ukraine.
For Le Pen, France comes ahead of the EU at all times, and while she is no longer calling for her country to leave the union, many of her policies are incompatible with EU principles. In particular, she has declared an intent to unilaterally reduce France’s contributions to the EU budget, to restrict the freedom of movement across borders, and to prioritise French law over EU law.

Victory for Le Pen could accelerate Europe’s march towards populism, embolden autocrats across the continent, and perhaps tip the scales in their favor in countries like Italy and Poland. But even if she fails to capture the presidency, she has already catapulted the far right into the French and European mainstream — and that, some would argue is in itself a victory.

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