When the attacks commence it’s clear that Marine Le Pen’s enemies are unnerved. For months – actually make that five years – few have viewed the leader of the National Rally as a serious contender for the 2022 presidential election. I include myself among that number, having declared on Coffee House in September 2017 that Le Pen ‘has no future’. More fool me. Along with many others, I underestimated her tenacity, her resilience and her sheer bloody-mindedness in refusing to throw in the towel.
Will her stubbornness be rewarded with a win against all expectation? There is gathering optimism in Le Pen’s camp that a political earthquake will be felt in France next month.
Recent polls have detected a momentum shift. Support for Macron is down from 33.5 to 27 per cent and for Le Pen it’s up from 16 to 21 per cent. That’s still some ground to make up but Le Pen and her supporters are campaigning furiously to win over the millions who can’t decide if they can be bothered to go to the polling booth on 10 April.
Le Pen was in Guadeloupe at the weekend and on leaving a television studio she and her entourage were set upon by a mob of left-wing protestors. It was an ugly incident, one condemned by Macron, but it may ultimately benefit Le Pen, winning over the undecided who will regard a vote for her as a vote against the bully-boy tactics of some of those on the left.
Macron meanwhile is suffering from his indifference to the election campaign. His energy in the last month has been focused solely on events in Ukraine, and while his shuttle diplomacy initially won plaudits, his standing is now on the wane as people realise that for all his grandstanding his influence was negligible.
Macron’s team are worried that his remoteness might backfire, serving to reinforce the perception of a president who is insufferably arrogant. Might his disdain for the drudgery of the campaign trail prompt the 25 per cent of the electorate who abstained five years ago to this time vote against him?
The candidature of Le Pen is no longer considered a joke by Macron’s ministers, which is why three of them, Sébastien Lecornu, Julien Denormandie and Bruno Le Maire (responsible respectively for Overseas, Agriculture and the Economy) went on the attack over the weekend. Don’t be fooled, they warned at a rally, about the ‘stupefying metamorphose’ of Le Pen. ‘She is the inheritor of the most radical party and her discourse is still one of hate,’ proclaimed Le Maire, who then mocked the softer image that Le Pen has been selling to the public of late, in particular her passion for pussy cats.
Lecornu cautioned against complacency, telling the audience that ‘nothing is set in stone’ and urging them to keep campaigning in the days ahead.
Macron will be seen on Saturday, at what is being billed as his grand rally at a rugby stadium in the west of Paris. It is his only significant public appearance of this campaign, in marked contrast to 2017 when he criss-crossed France preaching that he was neither left nor right but rather the father of a new start-up nation. He looked so impossibly young back then, and it was his freshness that attracted people to his nascent En Marche! Party. Five years on and Macron and his country are weary. Everything is rising, from inflation to violence to the age of retirement.
Macron’s people are worried that this disenchantment might be reflected in the turnout for Saturday’s rally at the 30,000 capacity Arena Stadium. With that in mind they have been busy mailing party activists exhorting them to ‘bring a friend’ to the rally in exchange for the chance to win a prize, such as a meet and greet with a government minister.
Last week one of Macron’s most loyal followers, Christophe Castaner, his former interior minister, conceded that a Le Pen victory ‘is not impossible’. Once upon a time centrists were convinced that what they considered an ‘extremist’ of any hue could never become president because of the ‘Republican Front’, when the country rallies behind the moderate in the second round. It was most vividly seen in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen caused a sensation by making it through to a head to head with Jacques Chirac.
But now they are not so sure. The fractures in this ‘front’ were evident in 2017 when Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the left-wing France Insoumise, refused to endorse Macron in the second round against Le Pen. A report last year in the left-wing Liberation newspaper concluded that Macron is so detested among voters of that persuasion that they would not back him in a run-off against Le Pen.
There will be even more fractures this time around should it be a repeat of that duel. Mélenchon will stick to his position of neutrality while Zemmour is sure to offer Le Pen his support. Some politicians within the centre-right Republicans may also break ranks, such as Eric Ciotti, narrowly beaten by Valérie Pécresse for the nomination, who is on record as saying he would vote for Zemmour were it him and Macron in the second round.
For the moment it’s all quiet on the Republican Front but that will change on 10 April if, as expected, Macron and Le Pen progress to the second round. The clamour among the commentariat should be loud enough to rouse the most indifferent of the electorate from their slumber. But will they summon the energy to vote in the second round on 24 April? Le Pen believes that if they do get off their derrières then she will become president.