Marine Le Pen had never been so close to power in France. The leader of the extreme right reaches the first round of the presidential elections, this Sunday, April 10, with the wind in her favor. The current president, the centrist Emmanuel Macron, remains the favorite for re-election, according to all the polls. But Le Pen has not stopped closing the gap in recent weeks. It is the third time that he has presented himself and the first time that he really allows himself to think that victory is possible in the second round, on the 24th.
The polls are unanimous: Macron and Le Pen, as in the 2017 presidential elections, will once again be the two most voted candidates in the first round. The latest survey by the Ifop institute, published this Friday, indicates a voting intention of 26% for the president. His far-right rival would get 24%. In third position would be, with 17%, the leader of the populist left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Macron, according to the same poll, would win the second round with 52% compared to 48% for Le Pen. A difference too close to the margin of error for the Macronists to breathe easy, and enough for the Lepenists to hope. Five years ago, the president took out 66%; his rival, 34%.
If the polls are correct, this election will doom, perhaps irreversibly, the two formations that have been the backbone of France since the 1970s: the Socialist Party (PS) and the Republicans (LR). Socialist Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, could fall below 5%. Valérie Pécresse, of the conservative LR, below 10%.
Abstention, which according to several polls will approach 30%, complicates the forecasts. In the 2021 regional elections, he damaged Le Pen’s National Rally (RN), and that is why this Thursday, at his last rally, in the Lepenist stronghold of Perpignan, he warned: “If the people vote, the people win.” And he predicted: “We will live, friends, a founding moment of a new era.”
The good prospects for Le Pen respond to its own merits. He has campaigned close to the ground and focused on economic issues. Thus has culminated a process, begun a decade ago, to demonize the RN, heir to the National Front, the historic ultra formation founded by his father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
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The rise of the RN candidate is also explained by Macron’s mistakes. She has hardly campaigned, as if she did not deign to go down into the electoral mud, or as if the great affairs of state – these weeks, the war in Ukraine – had not allowed her to do so.
In the five years of his mandate, Macron has not been able to contain the advance of far-right ideas, nor quell social unrest, which translates into the strength of those who challenge the status quo. It is not only Le Pen, but also the leftist Mélenchon.
Like Le Pen, Mélenchon appears for the third time. And like her, he has not stopped rising in the polls and dreams of causing a surprise and going to the second round.
The ultra commentator Éric Zemmour wanted to dethrone Le Pen as leader of the extreme right, but he has ended up benefiting her. Next to Zemmour and her outbursts and her charges against Muslims, she seems more moderate. Her polls place her at around 10%.
Le Pen, campaigning, talks about rising prices and purchasing power, and promises to lower the cost of gasoline and maintain the retirement age at 62 or lower it. He has dodged the most unsympathetic and easily identifiable proposals with tradition and ultra rhetoric.
“She has sweetened her personal image and has established herself as someone who defends the French, and is close to them,” estimates veteran political scientist Jérôme Jaffré, director of the Center for Studies and Knowledge of Public Opinion (CECOP). “Voters listen to nice music.”
On tour around the country, Le Pen no longer conveys the image of the harsh and polarizing leader. “She has become a likeable and familiar character to the French,” observes Jaffré. “The whole of France calls her Marine!” That is, by her first name, a sign of familiarity.
In these years, based on defeats, it has become more human. An anecdote: her love of cats — she got her breeder’s diploma — was teased at first, but she contributes to this image.
“It moves among the French today like a fish in water,” summarizes the political scientist. “When she travels”, he describes, “they welcome her with kisses and with demands for selfies. They tell him: ‘You are brave’. Nobody asks him how he will apply his measures without costing billions, nor do they tell him that if his policy is applied, they will end up kicking us out of Europe, or that he will destroy the European Union”.
With Macron, on his few trips, the scenes are usually different. “First there is a movement of curiosity towards him, but immediately they begin to anger him,” says Jaffré, and sentences: “He has had a bad campaign.”
Macron has not finished resolving the dilemma between the dual function between president and candidate. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine, on February 24, shot up his popularity and his vote expectations, above 30%. The choice seemed decided. But the Ukraine factor had an expiration date. It went from being a question of insecurity due to the return of war in Europe to economic insecurity: from the threat of bombs to the threat of inflation.
Overconfidence didn’t help. He delayed entering the campaign and never really entered it fully. He did not want to debate with the 11 remaining candidates. Nothing unusual: his predecessors in office did not debate in the first round either. But in his case it has reinforced the image of arrogance.
That one of his main programmatic proposals is to increase the retirement age to 65 years – a measure applied in most surrounding countries by governments of the left or right, but unpopular in France – may be an indication of sincerity. He says what he will do, even if he doesn’t add votes. But he also reveals enormous self-confidence to believe that this may be one of his star measures.
Macron maintains a high popularity, higher than that of his predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy at the end of the five-year period, and confidence in his management capacity. But he arouses a visceral rejection in a part of the electorate.
“If you are re-elected, will you stop despising the French?” a citizen asked him in an interview with readers published by the regional press group Ebra. Macron replied: “I have never despised the French and French women. If I despised them, I would not fight for them and with them.”
The first round will have something of a referendum on Macron, who is no longer the youthful and groundbreaking leader of 2017. In the second, and if the hypothesis of the polls is true, the referendum will be different: Le Pen yes or no. And so the battle will be between a candidate who will try to channel discontent and avoid scaring, and a president who will stir up fear that the far right will rule in France and conquer the heart of Europe.
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