The first round of the French Presidential elections went along expected lines. The 44-year-old incumbent Emmanuel Macron finished on top with 27.8% of the votes. Marine Le Pen, his challenger from the far-right National Rally (formerly known as the National Front), came second with 23.2%. The leftwing populist Jean-Luc Melenchon finished a close third with 22%. With France having to choose between Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen in the runoff on April 24, Mr. Melenchon’s voters could play kingmaker.
But Mr. Melenchon, in his concession speech, had just one message for his followers: “Do not give a single vote to Le Pen.” Significantly, he stopped short of endorsing Mr. Macron, leaving his supporters the option to abstain. Recent polls indicate that as much as 44% of Mr. Melenchon’s voters may abstain, while 18% may even vote for Ms. Le Pen, which means Mr. Macron has his work cut out to win them over.
This was not the case five years ago when Ms. Le Pen made it to the run-off for the first time, in her second Presidential run. Back in 2017, the so-called republican front — consisting of parties and voters from the extreme left to the centre-right who were loyal to the French republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity — mobilised a ‘cordon sanitaire’ against Ms. Le Pen, ensuring a landslide victory (66% to 34%) for Mr. Macron.
This time, however, though the ‘republican front’ is back in place among the politicians, its hold over the electorate seems shaky. Polls suggest Mr. Macron may scrape through with 51%-54% of the votes — a margin that’s within striking distance for Ms. Le Pen. If he can no longer count on the ‘cordon sanitaire’ to see him home, much of the credit must go to Ms. Le Pen, who has worked hard to make her party, and herself, more palatable to the mainstream — a political challenge that’s rooted in what has also been a personal challenge for the 53-year-old daughter of the man who founded National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen (93).
As Ms. Le Pen details in her memoir, A Contre Flots (Against the Currents), her introduction to politics — a rather traumatic one — came when, as an eight-year old, she survived a bomb attack on her home in Paris. In her own words, “That night I went to sleep like all little girls my age. But when I woke, I was no longer a little girl like the others.” It was also her introduction to the hatred and revulsion that her father evoked in French society — among her peers, teachers, friends.
When Mr. Jean-Marie founded National Front in 1972, it was more with the aim of creating a political platform for racist, anti-semitic ultra-nationalists than with any earnestness about grabbing state power. He revelled in making provocative comments designed to spark outrage — even going to the extent of describing the Nazi gas chambers as “a historical detail”. In his five Presidential runs, he made it to the run-off only once, in 2002, and lost by a massive margin (18% to 82%) to Jacques Chirac.
Ms. Le Pen grew up having to deal with the opprobrium evoked by her father’s neo-fascist politics. When she was 15, the stigma attending her surname went up a notch as her mother left for another man and, to heap ridicule on her father, posed nude for Playboy, which happily printed extra 250,000 copies to meet public demand. Ms. Le Pen has said her parents’ very public divorce hurt her deeply, and she wouldn’t see her mother for 15 years.
She began spending more time at her father’s office and joined the party in 1986, at the age of 18. After she got her law degree in 1991, she helped the party in legal affairs and rose swiftly up the party ranks, helped in no small measure by her surname. After holding a series of posts at the municipal and regional level, she became a Member of European Parliament in 2004 and a Member of the French National Assembly in 2017. But all through these years, she was at loggerheads with her father’s penchant for airing politically outrageous views that not only did nothing to further the party’s electoral prospects but alienated it even further from the political mainstream. Determined to do something about it, she began a project to “de-demonise” the National Front whose aim was to launder it of its neo-fascist image and rebrand it as an economic nationalist party.
The de-demonisation programme picked up steam after her father stepped down and she took charge of the party in 2011. She softened the party’s hostility to same sex marriage and abortion, and sought to nuance the party’s Islamophobia by making a distinction between Islamist ideology (bad) and Islam as a religion (not bad). In 2015, when her father again crossed the line with a remark that amounted to Holocaust denial, she had him expelled from the party and went on to say that he should “no longer be able to speak in the name of the National Front”. In 2018, she changed the party’s name from National Front to National Rally. It would appear that the daughter’s repudiation of the father was complete. But for Ms. Le Pen, this was a strategic retreat that would only empower her to take her father’s legacy forward, and so far, it seems to be working.
Unlike Mr. Macron, who hardly campaigned before the first round of voting on April 10, Ms. Le Pen hit the campaign trail several months before the polls, projecting an aura of accessibility among the working classes and rural households in what analysts have dubbed a “proximity campaign”.
The softening of her image is also aimed at presenting a contrast to Mr. Macron, who is perceived as aloof, and Ms. Le Pen lost no time dubbing him as a “president of the rich”. She steered clear of xenophobic rhetoric, preferring to raise issues of ‘pocketbook politics’ such as the rising cost of living and Mr. Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age — a strategy that is increasing her appeal among Mr. Melenchon’s voters, who do not want to see more of Mr. Macron’s pro-market policy choices that inevitably end up squeezing the working class.
At the same time, though Ms. Le Pen may have walked back on the National Rally’s hardcore anti-Semitism and racism, it would be a mistake to think she has given up on the party’s anti-EU, anti-immigrant politics. Her vision of expanding welfare for the French working classes hinges on a rather narrow conception of what ‘French’ means — for instance, it doesn’t include people who wear hijab in public. She believes in discriminating between French citizens and immigrants for jobs, social housing and other welfare benefits, and wants to both drastically cut the number of immigrants entering France and make it tougher for immigrants to get French citizenship.
The Putin factor
With the outbreak of the Ukraine war, her old admiration for Vladimir Putin is back in the spotlight, as is her assertion that if she becomes President, she will pull French troops out of NATO command. While Ms. Le Pen has condemned Russia’s invasion and voiced her support for the NATO-led military aid to Ukraine, she has also reiterated her call for a rapprochement between NATO and Russia once the Ukraine war ends. On the European Union front, the ‘Frexit’ agenda is a thing of the past but she stills wants primacy of French legislation over EU laws on French territory — a position that, along with her call for discriminatory laws against immigrants, puts her on a collision course with the EU.
As for Ms. Le Pen, she has said she views the French people as an extension of her family, and believes that between a puppet of the wealthy who serves the EU’s interests, and a woman fiercely protective of the French people as a wolf mother is of her cubs, the choice is obvious. If she wins, the twice-divorced mother of three could become the first woman President of France. But it’s not an outcome that feminists or liberals would want to celebrate.