In the final round of the French presidential election 20 years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right Front National was trounced 82 per cent to 18 by the centre-right incumbent Jacques Chirac as voters rebelled against the prospect of an extremist in the Elysée Palace.
A similar “republican front” of anti-extremist political parties and citizens emerged five years ago when Le Pen’s daughter Marine faced the centrist political newcomer Emmanuel Macron, who beat her by 66 per cent to 34 to win the presidency.
This year — with the two facing a rematch on April 24 after the first round of voting on Sunday — the latest polls give Macron a slight advantage. But they also show that the republican front is crumbling and Marine Le Pen could finally be in reach of a victory that would have huge consequences at home and abroad.
She and her supporters feel they have the momentum needed to win after her surge over the past month. “It’s all about the dynamic and that is now with Marine Le Pen,” said Jean-Paul Garraud, a judge who is set to be named justice minister if she wins. “There has been a psychological breakthrough in the public’s mind that she has the capacity and character to be president.”
But Macron has in the past proved a formidable political campaigner — when the going gets tough “I fight”, he said recently — and he has already arranged trips to northern and eastern France for Monday and Tuesday as he tries to hang on to the Elysée for a second term.
If Macron wins two weeks from now, he has pledged to continue his economic reforms and maintain his policy of liberal internationalism, which puts France at the heart of both the EU and the western alliance now confronting Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. His watchwords are “humanism”, “openness” and the “Enlightenment”.
“This contest is not finished and the debate we’ll have in the next two weeks will be decisive for our country,” he said on Sunday night.
If Le Pen wins, she has vowed to change French society by curtailing immigration and the rights of foreigners and banning Muslims from wearing the veil in public, while protecting French industry, rejecting EU laws and rules that she deems to be against France’s interests, and withdrawing from Nato’s military command structure. She talks about “protection” — from high prices and crime — and “law and order”.
Events in France and abroad in recent years have strengthened Le Pen’s hand as she and her increasingly optimistic campaign team push on with her third bid for the presidency.
At home, the traditional left versus right structure of France’s postwar democracy — already called into question by Macron’s innovative and successful “neither right nor left” campaign in 2017 — seems to have been buried by Sunday’s vote.
In its place comes a contest between liberals and internationalists such as Macron on one side and populists and nationalists such as Le Pen on the other.
The Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, won just 2 per cent of the votes on Sunday, while Valérie Pécresse of the conservative Les Républicains was at risk of falling below the 5 per cent threshold needed to reclaim campaign expenses from the state.
Closest to Macron and Le Pen was not a conventional candidate but the far-left, anti-Nato nationalist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who appears to have come close to beating Le Pen into the second round as he did last time. Some of his supporters have told pollsters they will vote for Le Pen on the opposite end of the political spectrum, even though on Sunday night he urged them not to support the far right.
Abroad, populists and nationalists such as Le Pen have been in the ascendant over liberal democrats for a decade or more, a trend exemplified by the Brexit vote of 2016, Donald Trump’s election later that year, and by the rise of authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Viktor Orban in Hungary.
Le Pen’s supporters say that by playing on Macron’s reputation for arrogance she could attract not only the 7 per cent of voters who in the first round chose Eric Zemmour — a far-right, anti-immigration candidate who briefly eclipsed Le Pen last year — but also many from the far left and from the right wing of Pécresse’s LR.
“There are lots of people in France who want to get rid of Macron,” said Gilles Lebreton, a member of the European Parliament who backs Le Pen. “We didn’t try to create the ‘anyone but Macron’ movement — he did that himself with the little phrases attacking and dividing people and his programme that favours the elites.”
Polling from both Ipsos and Elabe shows Mélenchon supporters splitting their votes three ways between abstaining, backing Macron and voting for Le Pen in a second round.
Until Sunday, Le Pen had stolen the show by criss-crossing France and hearing villagers’ complaints over the high cost of living, while Macron came very late to the campaign after being distracted by international diplomacy over the war in Ukraine.
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But Macron did win some 28 per cent of the vote — more than in the first round in 2017. Now that the first stage is over, all his fire will be directed at Le Pen, particularly her lack of his experience as head of state in times of crisis, what he sees as the incoherence of her economic policies and above all her links with Putin: Le Pen has been supported financially with bank loans first from Russia and now from Hungary, while her campaign literature originally including a picture of her proudly shaking Putin’s hand at the Kremlin.
Macron supporter Guillain Gilliot, 22, a political science student in Paris who has helped the president’s campaign, said it was necessary to explain who Le Pen really was beyond her public image as a cat lover and woman of the people. “She seems softer now but her programme is a hardline one,” he said, “and we have to explain that she’s still Putin’s ally.”
Georgina Wright, head of the Institut Montaigne think-tank, said of Macron’s speech after the first round results that “for the first time it felt like Macron was campaigning not as a president but as a candidate seeking a second term. But the race will be very tight — and he will need to convince people to get out and vote on April 24.”