Presidential election in France: Marine Le Pen and the challenges for Europe

French President Emmanuel Macron will face a far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s second round of presidential elections. It will be the second straight fight between the two politicians and Le Pen’s third shot at the presidency, and it is his best chance to win the job so far.

She has dismissed allegations of racism and xenophobia and instead positioned herself as a “moderate patriot” with populist credentials who aims to free France from the clutches of a privileged minority.

In the first round of the presidential election took place on April 10, Macron, from La République En Marche! (LREM) obtained 27.8% of the vote and Le Pen of the National Rally obtained 23.15%. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far left France Unbowed came third with just under 22% of the vote. For a candidate to win an election in the first round themselves, they must obtain more than 50% of the vote, a feat that has not been achieved since the system was introduced in 1958.

The stakes of the election

French voters traditionally care more about the cost of living than any other issue. Amid crippling power shortages, the cost of energy has risen dramatically in 2021, food and commodity prices are currently at their highest levels in decades, and declining purchasing power is the most pressing concern for many voters. Long before the coronavirus and Ukraine crises, Macron, a privately educated former banker, had felt the heat of protests over economic inequality as ‘yellow vest’ protesters took to the streets across the country. in 2018.

Centrist candidate and French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a campaign rally on Friday April 22, 2022 in Figeac, southwestern France. (AP)

Immigration, long a powerful political issue, became a flashpoint in French politics after the European migration crisis of 2015. The waves of men, women and children arriving mainly from Africa and the Middle Orient are often accused of having altered the ethnocultural landscape. dimensions of French society, with many citizens lamenting the loss of jobs and social stability attributed to their arrival. Migrant arrivals are also responsible for the spike in terrorist incidents, and national security concerns have been a key election issue.

Macron has lost the temporary boost he got through his efforts to find a diplomatic solution as the war in Ukraine approaches. Le Pen has expressed support for Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past, but polls suggest that hasn’t had a negative impact on voter preferences. Macron’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change is also at stake.

Could Le Pen win?

As the campaign ended on Friday, opinion polls showed Macron moving away from Le Pen, widening his lead to 57.5% against 42.5% support for his rival in an Ipsos poll. Some analysts, however, believe the race could be much tighter than those numbers suggest – some past polls have put a Le Pen victory within the margin of error. In any case, she will almost certainly improve significantly on her performance in 2017, when Macron won by more than 32 points.

Despite Macron’s attempts to persuade voters that he has capped energy prices, lowered inflation, lowered unemployment and created more industrial jobs, Le Pen remains popular in France’s industrial heartland.

While Macron pledged to curb illegal immigration, Le Pen proposed a referendum to impose major limits on immigration. She also said the Muslim headscarf would be banned in public and promised to set the bar high for foreigners to benefit from France’s generous social services. These promises appeal to its base of low-income industrial workers, many of whom feel left behind by the wave of globalization that has cost them jobs and status in society.
It is often said that the French vote with their hearts in the first round and with their heads in the second round, that is to say that they first choose their ideal candidate and then opt for the lesser evil in the second round. Macron supporters hope Le Pen’s extreme views toward immigrants and Muslims will repel more thoughtful voters.

Le Pen, on the other hand, could benefit from voter apathy. Mélenchon urged his supporters not to vote for Le Pen, but also did not support Macron. If Mélenchon’s base deems no deserving candidate, Le Pen’s prospects could improve. She has tried to ingratiate herself with those voters before by supporting unions and positioning herself as a champion of the working class.

Has Le Pen changed?

Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the anti-globalist and anti-immigrant National Front party in 1972, held openly racist and anti-Semitic views and was called “le diable” (the devil) by his followers. critics ; Le Pen, who herself was used to making provocative and controversial remarks, was nicknamed “the devil’s daughter”.

In recent years, however, Le Pen has worked to distance himself from his father, kicking him out of the party in 2015 and renaming him after himself. She has cast off much of the old guard and modernized the party, improving its social media reach and making its narrative more palatable to moderates. In 2018, she changed the name of the National Front to National Rally.

She has also worked to change her own image with voters, choosing to focus more on bread-and-butter issues and softening her stance on issues such as gay rights. During the campaign, she refrained from making overtly Islamophobic comments, and her performance in presidential debates was a big improvement from 2017.

Despite all this, she is essentially a nativist-leaning politician, and many of her extreme political proposals remain unchanged.

What if Le Pen won?

That’s a remote possibility, based on current opinion polls. But if she wins the presidency, it could mark profound changes in France and in its relations with Europe.

Le Pen wants to take France out of NATO’s integrated military command structure, destroying the unity that has been the West’s flagship achievement against Putin’s aggression. She has a history of close ties to the Kremlin and has spoken out against sending weapons to Ukraine.
For Le Pen, France is ahead of the EU at all times, and although it no longer calls on its country to leave the union, many of its policies are incompatible with EU principles. In particular, she declared her intention to unilaterally reduce France’s contributions to the EU budget, restrict freedom of cross-border movement and prioritize French law over EU law.

Le Pen’s victory could hasten Europe’s march towards populism, embolden autocrats across the continent and perhaps tip the balance in their favor in countries like Italy and Poland. But even if she fails to seize the presidency, she has already catapulted the far right into the French and European mainstream – and that, some would say, is in itself a victory.

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