Emmanuel Macron is worried. This wasn’t how he had envisaged the election. A month ago the president of France held a staggering 18 point lead in the polls and, as he looked over his shoulder in the home straight, he could barely make out Marine Le Pen in the distance.
Now the gap is four points and she is breathing down his neck as the finish line approaches.
Le Pen is one of Europe’s more interesting politicians. The daughter of Jean-Marie, the founder of her National Front party – which she rebranded National Rally in 2018 – and the aunt of Marion Maréchal, she has always been considered something of a political second-rater.
She made it through to the second round of the 2017 election, mainly because the centre-right and centre-left candidates were so hopeless, but was destroyed by Macron in the live televised debate three days before the final vote. It is reputed that she sank into a depression that summer. Few expected her to return to politics. But she is nothing if not resilient. ‘Perseverance’ she said last week in an interview when asked for her best quality.
There’s more to it than that. For a start her 2017 campaign was bedevilled by party in-fighting. In the one camp was her vice-president, the gay, protectionist Florian Philippot and in the other her star MP, Marion Maréchal, a social conservative (opposed to same-sex marriage) and an economic liberal. The pair both pulled at Le Pen in an attempt to influence her policy manifesto.
This time Marine is in charge and her true colours have emerged, at least economically. Statistical analysis has revealed that 66 per cent of Le Pen’s manifesto is left-leaning, focusing on healthcare, public services and redistribution. Conservative economics such as free market reforms and small government comprise only 21 per cent; in 2017 it was 35 per cent and under her father in the 1980s it was 80.
Despite this Le Pen is still depicted, in the words of this week’s New York Times, as ‘hard-right’ and ‘anti-immigrant’. She is neither. She has made a clear distinction between Islam and Islamists, stressing she has no enmity against the religion, which earned her the ridicule of Macron’s interior minister, who accused her of being ‘soft’ on Islam. As for immigrants, as Le Pen stressed in a recent TV debate, she welcomes genuine refugees, such as Ukrainians, but not young men from Africa in search of better economic opportunities.
The New York Times might not believe her, but evidently a large chunk of the French electorate does, which may be why she is polling so well. A recent survey asked people if they found Le Pen ‘sympathique’ (nice); one in two said they did.
She’s also had a personality makeover. Gone is the snarly, defensive Le Pen, replaced by a more assured woman. She has worked hard to cultivate a presidential air and it was on display this week in a wide-ranging interview with Le Figaro newspaper under the headline ‘I am ready to govern’. It’s noticeable that the media are less hostile to her this election. Zemmour has helped in this regard, his rhetoric making her more palatable, but so has Macron’s aloofness. His media appearances have been rare (one reason why he’s lost momentum in the last month) so spurned broadcasters and newspapers have turned to his nearest rival.
Le Pen describes this election as a choice not between left and right but nationalists against post-nationalists. Macron is the latter, a man who in her opinion, ‘considers that the nation is an old concept that we have to get rid of’. Le Pen believes in ‘France First’, but do the people? Soon we shall find out.