Le Pen’s Resilience Makes France’s Election a Much Closer Race

Le Pen’s Resilience Makes France’s Election a Much Closer Race

As French President Emmanuel Macron devoted his time to the war in Ukraine last month, Marine Le Pen was touring towns and villages, talking to blue collar voters about the cost of living crisis.

Purchasing power and the ability to buy goods is a top concern for French voters, especially with soaring energy and food inflation. Realizing that early on helped the 53-year-old nationalist leader broaden her appeal at a critical time and overtake far-right candidate Eric Zemmour, who in December presented her with a more immediate threat. 

It now looks likely that Le Pen will make it to the April 24 runoff against Macron after Sunday’s first round. Polls point to victory for the president, but the latest daily surveys show the gap is narrowing. Macron’s team is banking on the idea that war and uncertainty favor the incumbent, though isn’t complacent about the challenge she poses, according to one minister on the campaign trail. Macron warned supporters at a rally last weekend that political surprises can happen, citing the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union. “Nothing is impossible,” he said. 

Le Pen casts the election as a battle of David versus Goliath and has been courting voters who feel left behind by changes in the economy, despite promises by Macron to heal rifts. The president, 44, has spent billions of euros to try to contain energy prices and keep protests by the disaffected working classes at bay.

But Macron’s advisers say he needs to defeat her by a wide margin so that he has a mandate to push forward deep reforms, and they are concerned voters may not show up if they think victory is certain. What’s more, polls show that if Macron does prevail, it will be by a smaller margin than last time. “Our ideas have won already,” Le Pen said in an interview earlier this year. 

Le Pen’s Resilience Makes France’s Election a Much Closer Race

The latest surveys show Macron would beat Le Pen by 53% to 47% in a runoff. That six percentage-point gap, based on an average compiled by Bloomberg, has more than halved from a month ago. French stocks underperformed European peers on Tuesday and the country’s bonds were more volatile after the race tightened.

To win, Le Pen will need to convince her core electorate — younger, economically-deprived voters who often tend to abstain — to get out and vote. She also needs center-left voters to stay at home in the second round.

A lot will depend on how well Le Pen fares in debates in the two weeks between rounds, but she’s already shown her political resilience. Last winter, Le Pen looked like she was going to be knocked out of the race. That was after Zemmour, a 63-year-old prolific author and media pundit sanctioned three times for hate speech, burst onto the French political scene and divided the far-right camp.

But within months, his surge in the polls began to reverse as the novelty wore off. He indirectly helped Le Pen by lifting social taboos some voters previously had in expressing support for her. Zemmour’s radical views on immigration, Islam, security and women made her appear more mainstream, a change in positioning she had been trying to effect for years. Gradually, Zemmour’s support slipped to about 10%.

“It’s one of the perverse ways in which a more extreme candidate validates her claim that she is less extreme than she actually is,” said Marta Lorimer, an expert on the French far right at the London School of Economics. “Le Pen hasn’t really changed that much, substantively. A lot is the same. She has been both lucky and has demonstrated that she is more of a politician than Zemmour.”

For Le Pen, a better result on her third attempt to land the presidency would be empowering. Even if she were to lose, a strong performance would indicate the far right’s steady advance towards the Elysee that began under her father 20 years ago may continue. It would cement her position as its leader, particularly if the result strengthened her National Rally party.

Le Pen hasn’t ruled out trying again for the top job in five years. It would allow her to say “‘there is room for an alternative to Macron and that’s me,’” according to Lorimer.

It took Le Pen a year to recover from her defeat to Macron in 2017. She held tight and looked to Viktor Orban, who just won a fourth-straight term as prime minister in Hungary, and Matteo Salvini in Italy for inspiration.

She changed her party’s name to appear less aggressive and also intensified a strategy to soften her image, sharing personal stories about her life as a single mother with three children and her Bengal cats. She dropped a plan to ban dual citizenship — a calling card of the far right — and disavowed Russian President Vladimir Putin after his invasion of Ukraine.

“She’s made progress — she’s opened up to other people and listens to criticism,” said Robert Menard, the mayor of Beziers, who backs her and talks to her once a week. “Before, we didn’t speak, we just argued.” 

Le Pen’s Resilience Makes France’s Election a Much Closer Race

Le Pen has been focusing on social welfare since taking over her father’s party in 2011, essentially inching the movement that was economically liberal in the 1980s closer to the left, increasingly attracting less well-off people and the young working class.

On March 10, Le Pen cast herself as the candidate of the “little ones” against the “big ones” in the poorer Northern France region, slamming Macron for “giving everything to big companies.” She also pledged that gasoline prices would go down if she’s elected — a key issue for voters in rural areas who rely on their cars — with tax cuts on fuel, and new taxes on oil majors.

By contrast, Zemmour’s program veers more to the right. He wants the French to retire later, reduce welfare and cut taxes on companies and real estate owners. But at the end of the day, his supporters will likely back Le Pen in a runoff against Macron, according to an analysis by Gilles Ivaldi, a Sciences Po researcher.

“By pushing a social-populist agenda long before the war and increasing her rhetoric after the invasion, Le Pen is gambling,” Ivaldi wrote in a recent opinion piece. “So far, polls appear to be proving her right.”

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