Can Le Pen take the French presidency? This weekend will tell us a lot…and Macron is right to be worried
Marine Le Pen could take a big step towards the Elysée in local elections in France this weekend. A strong performance will give her National Rally party legitimacy and the momentum it needs as it eyes next April’s national polls.
The first round of voting in France’s local elections takes place this weekend, with a number of regional presidencies up for grabs – and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is on course to perform exceptionally well. If Le Pen manages to win a local presidency, it would be a first for her party and boost her presidential ambitions.
The regional election gaining most attention is the presidency of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, where the National Rally party is leading in the polls. Le Pen’s candidate, Thierry Mariani, who is a member of the European Parliament and a former transport minister, is the favourite to win the first round of voting.
Opinion polls reveal that Mariani has a substantial lead with 43% of the electorate intending to vote National Rally. His closest opponent, the Conservative incumbent Renaud Muselier, is trailing on 32%. Although Mariani’s lead looks insurmountable, this is not necessarily the case under the French system. Even if Mariani wins the first round of voting, he will then have to enter a second round and face off against his closest opponent – which will no doubt be Muselier. At this point, and we have seen this happen before, many voters coalesce around any candidate to defeat the National Rally.
This time, however, things seem to be different. Mariani is also leading in polls for the second round of voting, which bodes well for Le Pen’s bid for the Elysée in April next year. Interestingly, President Macron’s party has already pulled out of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur contest, instead lining up behind Muselier.
The region is a far cry from Le Pen’s strongholds in the poorer north of the country. Indeed, to win a regional presidency in the wealthy southeast of France will not only provide her party with a sense of legitimacy, but is evidence that she is eating into the traditional centre-right vote. Domique Reynié, a political scientist, has stated that if the National Rally wins in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, then it proves “they can take the country.”
Reynie’s analysis may not be too wide off the mark. Current opinion polls show that either Le Pen or Macron will win next year’s presidential election. In polls for the first round of voting, Le Pen regularly leads the incumbent, with the last two putting Le Pen on 29% and Macron on 28%. Frederic Dabi, the deputy general director of polling company Ifop, stated that “never before, with only one year to go to the ballot, has a National Rally candidate obtained such scores.”
So why is Le Pen in a far stronger position now than five years ago? Firstly, it is because of internal party reforms. Le Pen has been going through a long process of detoxification and shedding her party’s far-right image, and now it seems to be bearing fruit. Back in 2014, when I was the deputy leader of the UK Independence Party, I opposed our party entering into a European Parliament grouping with Le Pen. I argued that they were toxic and to be linked to them would only harm UKIP domestically.
Since then, Le Pen has removed many far right elements, including her own father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was thrown out in 2015 for making anti-Semitic remarks. She has also watered down the policies of yesteryear in a blatant attempt to appeal to moderate centre right voters. For example, she no longer calls for France to withdraw from the European Union, but instead seeks reform, and nor are there demands for France to leave the Euro currency.
The second reason Le Pen is performing better in the polls is the unpopularity of Macron. It is generally agreed that his presidency has been a difficult one, almost from the beginning. His response to the Yellow Vest movement, the anti-establishment protest group which regularly brought Paris to a standstill, was at first considered to have been dismissive, and then when he eventually capitulated and offered concessions, it was seen as weak.
Macron has also been criticised for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis. The delay in locking down the country was deemed to have caused many unnecessary deaths. But Macron characteristically refused to take any blame, stating that “I can tell you I have no mea culpa to make, no remorse, and no sense of failure.” By contrast, pollster Stewart Chau has observed that Le Pen has benefited from the Covid crisis as it “has ‘reinforced the idea of living in anxious times, the need for protection and national sovereignty.’”
Macron has been an unpopular president, even by French standards. The last opinion poll to give him a positive approval rating came all the way back in January 2018 – and recent polls show the president holding a minus 21% approval rating. The beneficiary has been Le Pen, who is viewed as the antithesis to the arrogant and out-of-touch Macron.
The president’s saving grace may well be the French electoral system, which allows two candidates to enter a second round of voting. In 2017, this resulted in a broad anti-Le Pen coalition forming and supporting Macron. He eventually secured 66% of the vote. But as polling suggests, even this safety valve is close to being breached, with Le Pen only marginally behind Macron in head-to-head polls.
Momentum is everything in politics. If the National Rally performs well over the weekend, and in particular succeeds in winning the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur regional presidency, then Le Pen will have what the Americans call the ‘Big Mo’ going into next year. If she can convince centre-right voters that she is a moderate alternative to Macron, then she will have a clear path to victory. There is, however, a long way to go and other contenders could yet appear. For the meantime, though, it looks as if the candidates will be Macron and Le Pen, and it is gearing up to be a bitter and close-run contest.
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