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Marine Le Pen stumbles.. but can she still win?

Marine Le Pen in La Trinite-sur-Mer during campaigning for Brittany's recent regional elections - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Has Marine Le Pen changed her politics, or is it that France has shifted to the right?

Respectable France is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, again. In less than a year the country could have a far-right government. The fear is not new. The Le Pen family –Jean Marie and then more his user-friendly daughter Marine – have been stalking politics for decades.

As things stand, the only candidate with a realistic chance of fending off Marine Le Pen is Emmanuel Macron.

The insurgent four years ago, Macron quickly became the most unpopular president in the history of the fifth republic, quite the feat given the propensity of French voters to fall out of love almost instantly with the incumbent.

Since taking over the party from her father a decade ago, Le Pen has given her party a makeover. She is happy to call it Dédiabolisation. In political parlance that translates as detoxification, but it retains the notion of the previously demonic or diabolical.

That process accelerated after the last general election in 2017, beginning with the change of name from the Front National to the vaguer-sounding Rassemblement National (RN) or National Rally. Marine Le Pen herself has minded her language and learnt to smile.

The spin doctors went into battle. A report in Le Journal des Femmes revealed that she had become a registered cat breeder. A photograph of the jeans-clad leader, crouching to pat a feline on the nose, appeared alongside a piece reminding readers that while her father had a penchant for menacing Dobermans, she doted on cuddly felines. She has used soft soap interviews on the popular right-wing news channel CNews and another station, Valeurs Actuelles, to talk about her pets and her children.

Is it working? In last Sunday’s first round of regional elections, RN candidates stuttered. The party’s share of the vote fell back and the prospects of taking any of the 13 regional councils – which would mark a significant breakthrough – have diminished, although it still has a reasonable chance in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. PACA, to give it its ugly acronym, is known for wealthy retirees and high levels of immigration, particularly around Marseilles, the second city.

Le Pen was hoping her party would take a clear lead into this Sunday’s second round in both PACA and in Hauts-de-France, the more impoverished de-industrialised part of northern France. Yet there the centre-right Republicans performed surprisingly well. The incumbent regional leader, Xavier Bertrand, a former government minister, has boosted his chances of challenging Macron for the “respectable” centre-ground ticket in the presidential campaign.

It is far too early to conclude that the Le Pen bubble has burst. Her first response to the disappointing results was to blame turnout, a historic low of 32%. The assumption has always been that her vote is angrier and more committed and yet it didn’t bother to show up.

There is a more prosaic potential explanation. Voting day was warm and sunny. Post-Covid regulations are being steadily dismantled. The night-time curfew ended that evening; mask-wearing outdoors had stopped being compulsory three days earlier. Everyone seemed determined to go to the beach or the countryside, and those who remained in the cities spent the day in restaurants and parks. 

These elections were always going to be seen as a dress rehearsal for next April’s presidential elections. Will turnout in round two be significantly higher? All eyes will be on whether the anti-Le Pen supporters form alliances. Under an approach known as the front républicain, voters on both the left and the right are urged to vote tactically to block the far right. 

The only consolation for Le Pen supporters is that Macron’s La République En Marche fared even worse, garnering little more than 10%, a result described by one of his MPs as a “slap in the face”. LREM, constituted only in 2017 to help get Macron into the Élysée, has very little presence on the ground.

With 10 months to go before the presidentials, everything therefore is up for the grabs. The assumption that Macron, for all his unpopularity, would hoover up the centrist vote is now open to question.

Le Pen now has a difficult choice to make if she is finally to realise her goal.

The first thing to note, watching television coverage, looking at billboards or in discussion with political analysts is that she is now firmly implanted into the mainstream of public life. She is treated courteously by interviewers and is given the required airtime proportionate to her national vote. 

She has managed the feat of representing her party, while distancing herself from it, and espousing deeply divisive politics while pretending to be an everywoman.

Ask even her detractors whether it would be correct to call her fascist, the answer is a resounding “no”. Her party maybe; several key backroom figures have neo-Nazi hinterlands, but she is different, some say. Is she then more like Donald Trump? A bit, but she is far more sophisticated, they add.

Her identity politics are not derived straight from the Trumpian locker room, either. She is pro-abortion and could not be considered a Neanderthal on gender or sexuality. Previously her chief spokesman was openly gay, as are now key figures in the party.

The party has certainly come a long way from the days when Jean-Marie Le Pen famously described the gas chambers as “a detail in the history of the Second World War”. She expelled him from the party in 2015 but has since reconciled with him.

She even claims not to belong to the right, arguing that her economic and welfare policies are as interventionist as others’.

This rebranding, whether cosmetic or real, gives her a potential new audience, but has it demotivated her core? If they conclude that she is just another member of the hated establishment, why bother to vote? Or look for something unashamedly extreme?

Having once congratulated Nigel Farage for “finding the keys to get out of jail”, aka the European Union, Marine Le Pen seems, like other populists in Europe, to have learnt the lessons of Brexit.

She no longer advocates France’s departure nor even dispensing with the euro. Her soul mates are similar right-wing groups in Italy (Lega), Sweden (the Democrats) and the PVV in the Netherlands.

Her views on gender politics would ensure a certain distance from Viktor Orban in Hungary and Poland’s Law and Justice government, but they would all be prepared to sink their differences to form a powerful force at the heart of the European Union.

It is on immigration where she hasn’t shifted. Instead mainstream politics has moved towards her. Language that would have been unacceptable a few years ago is now greeted either with a cheer or a shrug. 

Thus, the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, who has complained about halal and kosher foods on supermarket aisles, bandies around the term ensauvagement, descent into savagery. This has become a buzzword of the right, to disparage youths of immigrant origin in housing projects in the banlieue, who are undermining both traditional values and the secularism, laïcité, that goes to the heart of the French state.

By instructing his ministers to move onto her ground on immigration, Macron is hoping to deny Le Pen her unique selling point.

The Le Pens have a habit of falling at the final hurdle. In 2002, Jean Marie shocked the establishment by making it to the final round, only for pretty much the entire electorate to rally around Jacques Chirac, giving him 82% of the vote.

In her first attempt in 2012, Marine Le Pen came third and was eliminated in the first round, leaving the field to the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy who lost to the socialist Francois Hollande. In 2017 she increased her vote, setting up a showdown with the surprise candidate, the breath of fresh air, Macron.

Her campaign was seen as incoherent and culminated in a disastrous performance in the head-to-head televised debate. Even so, she secured a third of the vote. 

In recent months, as Macron stumbled in his response to Covid, as he is widely mocked for his arrogance, as the mood has become ever sourer, polls have suggested Le Pen would run him close in 2022. 

She may yet, but in order to create a winning coalition, she has to both reassure voters that she is not extreme and provide nods and winks to her true supporters that she hasn’t changed. That is still doable, but it is a tricky balancing act. 

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing letters@theneweuropean.co.uk