Three months ago, Marine Le Pen’s political future seemed smashed into irrelevance by the rise of Eric Zemmour. She was past it, a tired war horse with no project and a quasi-bankrupt party, watching her closest National Rally associates being shaved off one by one by Zemmour’s seemingly irresistible promise of rebuilding the French Right in his image, a mix of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz and De Gaulle’s 1950s RPF.

The Rally, the wisdom went, still operated like a family clan, even though Marine had fired her own father, the Front National’s founder, after he made one anti-Semitic joke too many. It looked to the past while Zemmour looked to the future, bringing together Marine’s own niece Marion Maréchal and former Sarkozystas from the hard fringes of Les Républicains, the Centre-Right party descended from the Gaullist movement. Le Pen was a spent name in French politics.

Fast forward to this week, however, the last before the first round of the Presidential election on Sunday, and Marine Le Pen is polling at 23% against Emmanuel Macron’s 26%. She is up two points and he’s down four in ten days — and, incredibly, the same poll credits her with 48.5% against Macron’s 51.5% for the 24 April run-off.

“This is well within the margin of error. There are configurations in which she could win,” says the political analyst Stéphane Rozès, who has advised every French President since Mitterrand. Bruno Jeanbart, the vice president of Opinionway, another pollster, concurs. “It’s harder to predict the run-off, mostly because voters don’t yet know how they will decide in reaction to the first-round results. But it’s no longer impossible.”

What explains Marine Le Pen’s extraordinary comeback from the political graveyard? Her platform hasn’t essentially changed: she still wants to reduce all immigration into France by 75%, and to create a legal discrimination between French nationals and foreign residents in their access to public jobs, benefits, and even private sector jobs. But she has softened it. Not only does she no longer advocate France’s exit from the EU, she has given up on leaving the Euro.

She wants to abolish Jus Solis, birthright citizenship, to deny naturalisation to the children of foreign parents born in France, but has given up on banning double nationality. She no longer wants a return to the death penalty, which she advocated as late as 2012. As for gay marriage, voted through during the François Hollande presidency, she prudently suggests “a three-year moratorium”, which means in effect it’s no longer in question. (In all fairness, Marine Le Pen has always been a social liberal; old Front hands used to bemoan her “gay Mafia” of advisers a decade ago.) And while she recommended leaving Nato before the Ukraine-Russian war, she has since rowed this back to merely pulling out France from Nato’s integrated command.

So far, so Souverainiste — and often hard to differentiate from the historic wing of the Gaullist party that defined itself in opposition to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

In 2017, Le Pen, a barrister by trade, had miserably crashed and burned during her single debate with Macron between the two rounds. She came unprepared, got names and figures wrong, even had to look at her notes mid-sentence. Facing her, Macron, a former top mandarin at the Ministry of Finance, reeled off his facts and talking points with the condescending smile of a younger man who’s passed all of his exams with flying colours. (He actually didn’t: intimates say his own lasting personal trauma was flunking twice the entry to the elite literary École Normale Supérieure.) Macron, the newcomer, didn’t necessarily come across as sympathique, but he looked a lot more competent than Le Pen. When she realised how badly she’d done, she reportedly spent two days locked at home in a funk before limping back to campaign for the last days.

She always knew she would run again: what else, after all, can someone called Le Pen do? She had been advised, sometimes haphazardly, by a motley group of some 80 senior civil servants, CEOs, Énarques, lawyers and former SpAds who took to calling themselves Les Horaces, from early Roman history, and disagreed as much among themselves as they did with the party faithful. When she started preparing her 2022 campaign, she halved the number of Horaces. She brought in new faces and tightened discipline under her 36-year-old chief of staff, Renaud Labaye, a former Army officer who attended HEC Business school before joining the Ministry of Finance. They are the ones who worked on her current manifesto — as well as drilled her for the probable rerun of the pre-runoff debate, which Le Pen has sworn to herself she will win this time.

Last week Le Monde ran a three-page analysis that tried to “decode” Le Pen’s platform to demonstrate that she was still, in effect, a fascist threat. Its main proof was her promise, if she’s elected, to organise an early referendum on an immigration and national identity bill; a bill passed in this way legally needs not be examined by the Constitutional Council. The constitutional lawyer Dominique Rousseau was quoted calling it “un coup d’état” — even though the recourse to referenda was introduced by Charles de Gaulle in his Fifth Republic Constitution in 1958 (it was used twice by Le Général, and seven times since).

Similarly, her projected measures “against Islamist ideology” differ less from those adopted by Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande or Macron (in his recent Bill against Separatism, for instance) than from Zemmour’s blanket claim that “it’s Islam, not just Islamism, that’s against the values of the Republic”. (He tried to walk back on this last week, telling 100,000 Parisian supporters that he had no problem with “assimilated Islam in France”.) Even Valérie Pécresse sounded harder during her ill-fated Paris rally a month ago: “It’s time to stop denying the link between terrorism and immigration.”

“Accusations [like Le Monde’s] help Marine Le Pen more than they hurt her,” says Jean-Yves Camus, France’s leading expert on domestic and international far-Right movements. “Rightly or wrongly, people compare her style — seemingly reasonable, becalmed — to Eric Zemmour’s; as well as her lack of ego to most of her competitors. She owned up to mistakes. She admitted that her niece Marion’s defection had hurt her, explaining she’d largely brought her up as a child. She has become humanised.”

Camus compares Le Pen’s platform to the Italian academic Emilio Gentile’s ten-point list characterising a fascist movement. These include the doctrine of taking power by force, having a paramilitary arm, aspiring to a monopoly of power, territorial ambitions, and more. “Simply put, the RN isn’t a fascist party,” Camus says.

Of all this year’s women candidates — the centre-Right Valérie Pécresse, the Socialist Anne Hidalgo, the Trotskyite Nathalie Arthaud, and Le Pen — it is the latter who has made the fewest formal feminist statements. And yet Le Pen, 53, is the one most perceived by public opinion surveys as having womanly, even motherly traits. These include being an avowed cat lady: she has passed a breeder licence to be able to mate her Bengals; once weaned, she gives the kittens away “to good homes” among her friends. It’s telling that besides her political Instagram account, which has 223,000 followers and 916 posts, she has a private locked one, to which she’s only admitted 166 followers, but where she’s posted 3,759 photos of her feline tribe, and none of herself.

All of which makes her, on paper at least, a complementary figure to Zemmour — if they got along, that is. He appeals to more affluent and educated voters, to urbanites, and to the Southern départements of Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur; but he fails with women (61% of his avowed voters are men). Le Pen’s strongholds, in contrast, are in France’s rust belt in the North and North-East, in any area of la France Périphérique, those small towns where businesses, public services and jobs have disappeared, and with women (55% to 45% men). He rouses his large audiences with old-fashioned flings of nationalist rhetoric; she comforts the members of her smaller gatherings and doesn’t shy from sharing her troubles with them.

Both have been unpardonably soft on Vladimir Putin — Zemmour because he has no foreign policy experience and relied on advisers whose rabid anti-Americanism fed their Russophilia; Le Pen because her party’s coffers are perennially empty and she twice had to beg for loans from Russian-owned banks based in Budapest, having been denied credit by virtue-signalling French banks. Ukraine harmed him much more than her, as he stuck to his positions for a long week, initially refusing the idea of welcoming Ukrainian refugees in France; while she condemned the invasion after a couple of days, calling Russia “the aggressor” and welcoming refugees.

Cunningly crafted or simply reflecting Le Pen’s real nature — but probably a bit of both — her new image gives her a unique strength in these days of defiance against professional politicians: she looks both sincere and somewhat reassuring. Every expert, starting with her own father, said she would lose out by trying to rebuild the renamed National Rally as a less aggressive force — her own expression was “detoxifying” it. Yet the advent of Zemmour was evidently a boon: as an abrasive candidate appealing to an energised base, but turning off less radicalised voters who nonetheless reject the traditional politicians on offer, he in effect completed her political “detox”.

But most of all, Marine Le Pen has been helped by Emmanuel Macron. Discontented voters chose him five years ago to spite the other, older, hackneyed candidates — a populist reflex for a man who used populist means for decidedly non-populist policies. His victory was built on the cold-eyed destruction of traditional political parties Left and Right, and he never stopped to consider the effect on public life. He cherry-picked the most compatible and the most docile personalities from both the Socialists and the Républicains, gave them seats in the House and Cabinet, stringently barred them from having any kind of independent views, and declared himself as being neither Left nor Right.

Like the spoiled child he has been for all 44 years of his charmed life, political and personal, Macron has never had to face consequences for his decisions; for him, turning the French Republic into an atomised wasteland of individuals matters not one bit. (He will be remembered as the Houellebecq President.) Under his presidency, France was shaken by popular revolts such as the Gilets Jaunes who felt no one was representing them in a country of weak unions and even weaker parties. His handling of the Covid crisis wasn’t much worse than that of any other government, but it was characterised by a range of baroque and contradictory measures, always presented as the réalité du moment, without ever acknowledging what had come before.

In recent weeks, possessed by his self-appointed mission as peacemaker in Ukraine, Macron felt safe enough to swerve campaigning altogether, loftily letting his spin doctors explain he was “held up” by more serious matters; he saw himself as the statesman, the others were mere candidates. His early attempts were certainly sincere and could have been useful, but he was slow in recognising the intractable nature of Vladimir Putin and the sheer scale of the most dangerous conflict on European soil since the end of the Second World War.

By April, voters felt it. He may yet save his job between now and 24 April — but if the French decide to vote for a middle-aged, not-so-scary cat lady, who seems to offer simple solutions to complicated problems, he will have only himself to blame.

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