Marine Le Pen has remade her image to obscure her far-right populism. There is a real risk French voters won’t see through it.
On April 24, French voters will go to the polls in a rematch of the 2017 presidential election: now President Emmanuel Macron versus far-right populist Marine Le Pen of the National Rally. While a Macron victory still appears most likely, much has changed since Macron and Le Pen last faced off, and the possibility of a Le Pen upset cannot be discounted.
Since their last contest, Le Pen has transformed her public image. She now presents herself as less abrasive and less obviously hardline. She has shifted her talking points from her party’s staple issues—nativism, immigration, and security—toward a classic populist critique of globalization and deindustrialization and the suffering they have caused many rural French. Le Pen brands herself today as “the candidate of concrete solutions,” proposing sweeping tax cuts on energy and income-tax exemptions for people under 30. These policy proposals directly address her electorate, which is younger, more rural and working class, and tends to be less educated. Le Pen’s renewed focus on economic issues plays well for her—and not only in the aftermath of the Yellow Vest protests that rocked the first years of the Macron presidency. As the price of gas and basic goods rises across Europe amid Russia’s devastating war on Ukraine, focusing on the cost of living and inflation is a potentially compelling response. Especially in contrast to Macron, the aloof and out-of-touch “president of the rich,” Marine Le Pen appears attuned to the top concerns of many of her compatriots.
Le Pen has also increased her electoral appeal since 2017 by taking a page from the Macron playbook. While her far-right competitor in the race, the even more extreme Eric Zemmour, insisted on the need to transcend the traditional boundary between right and far right, Le Pen claimed that she was “not interested in the right, nor the left.” In so doing, she followed a Macronist strategy to de-ideologize political discourse, embrace contradictions, and present a plausible third way. Trying to rise above the left-right divide, moreover, fits perfectly into the strategy of “de-demonization” that Le Pen has been pursuing for years.
Not even her party’s well-documented pro-Russian proclivities have compromised the National Rally candidate’s steady rise in the polls since the launch of Putin’s war in Ukraine. And it is unlikely that this will change in the remaining days before the second-round votes are cast. While Zemmour, who made no effort to dampen his pro-Putin stance, began to plummet in the polls when the invasion began, Le Pen jumped by 7 points between late February and the eve of the first round. The other factor contributing to this spike was strategic voting—Zemmour supporters defecting to her camp in order to ensure that a far-right candidate faced Macron in the second round of the presidential election. But it is not only voters on the far right who are joining Le Pen’s ranks. She has managed to capture much of the traditional right, too. In the first round in 2017, one in five voters cast a ballot for the center-right candidate François Fillon. Of those Fillon voters, 34 percent chose either Le Pen or Zemmour in the first round this year, whereas only 20 percent of them had chosen the far-right candidate (Marine Le Pen) in the 2017 runoff.
Macron, meanwhile, has lost the left. As identity, immigration, and law and order issues have come to dominate French discourse, shifting the country’s political center of gravity to the right, Macron’s political choices have left many of his centrist and leftist 2017 voters feeling abandoned, if not attacked. In October 2020, he declared an attack against “Islamist separatism.” In 2021, his Minister for Higher Education and Research announced an inquiry into postcolonial studies and “islamo-leftism” in universities, while his Minister for Education launched a reflection group to resist “woke ideology.” The French Parliament passed a government-backed “global security” law criminalizing the sharing of images of police officers and bolstering state surveillance. Meanwhile, progress on top issues for the left—climate, social inequalities, and racial injustice—has been paltry.
But it cannot be forgotten that hiding just below the surface of Macron’s opponent is the same Marine Le Pen of 2017. She may not, like Zemmour, explicitly endorse the racist conspiracy of the “Great Replacement” of the French by people of migrant descent, but she has called for a referendum on immigration, supports a ban on wearing head scarves in public spaces, and claims that immigration is “ruining […] social services.” She intends to write “national preference” into the French constitution, giving priority for employment, housing, and social benefits to French citizens—a move that experts say threatens French and EU law.
When it comes to France’s place in the world, Le Pen would follow a nationalist-protectionist path; the notion of French sovereignty is core to her vision. While she no longer claims to be pushing for “Frexit”—a French exit from the European Union à la Brexit—analysts are hard-pressed to see in Le Pen’s vision anything short of a decisive halt to European integration and enlargement. She calls for a European alliance of “free and sovereign nations” that would allow each member state to enjoy the primacy of its own national law over EU law.
Le Pen has an affinity for fellow far-right nationalist Europeans such as Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Italian senator and former MEP Matteo Salvini, and she is hostile toward European partners more eager to invest in the transatlantic relationship, especially Germany. Her warmth toward the Kremlin would likely push her to block EU sanctions against Moscow and resist further military support for Kyiv. Le Pen is highly critical of the United States, which she sees as domineering, provoking Russia through NATO enlargement, and overly hawkish vis-à-vis China. She wants France to withdraw from NATO’s integrated command and calls for a “strategic rapprochement” between Russia and the Atlantic Alliance once the war in Ukraine “has ended and has been settled by a peace treaty.”
Preventing such a future from materializing rests on the shoulders of young and left-leaning voters, who chose Macron in the second round in 2017, but might not do the same on Sunday. High abstention on April 24 would be bad news for the incumbent, who does not have a huge reserve of votes to draw on coming out of the first round. On April 10, abstention hit 26 percent, the highest France has seen since 2002, when a far-right candidate—Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father and founder of their party—made it to the presidential runoff for the first time. It is possible that, as in 2002 and 2017, the prospect of a far-right president will scare many to the polls. In 2017, 52 percent of leftist Mélenchon voters chose Macron in the second round, while 41 percent abstained or cast blank or null votes. But for many younger voters, and especially those on the left who voted en masse for Mélenchon in the first round this year, antipathy toward Macron may keep them at home. Already, more than 40 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds did not cast a vote in the first round.
French voters should not be fooled by Le Pen’s rebranding. The domestic consequences of a Le Pen presidency for marginalized groups as well as her vision for France and Europe should be alarming. Although many younger French voters, especially on the left, may be understandably disillusioned with Macron, treating the vote as a choice between two evils is a false equivalency. Abstaining would be “to remain indifferent to an outpouring of hate.” To quote the French philosopher and political scientist Raymond Aron, “the choice in politics is not between good and evil, but between the preferable and the detestable.”
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