John Keiger

Might Macron lose to Le Pen?

Might Macron lose to Le Pen?
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The latest French opinion poll puts Marine Le Pen on around 26 per cent, ahead of President Emmanuel Macron on 23 per cent when it comes to voting intention for the 2022 presidential race. This reverses Macron's 2017 first-round score of 24 per cent and Le Pen on 21.3 per cent. Of course, Macron won the second round convincingly with 66.1 per cent because mainstream voters could not bring themselves to vote for Le Pen's Rassemblement National. So does this poll change the outlook for the elections in 16 months?

Ever since Macron’s presidential victory, polls have consistently shown a second-round run-off between Macron and Le Pen. The French left remains ignominiously divided, with no candidate on more than 10 or 11 per cent (Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise) and the traditional right still lacks a consensus candidate, none of whom garner more than 16 points in the polls (Xavier Bertrand). A second-round run-off between the two 2017 rivals looks certain. But can Marine Le Pen win?

From its origins in 1972, the Rassemblement National (ex-Front National) has become institutionalised in French everyday political life as the largest party following victory in the 2019 European elections, gaining 23 MEPs. But here lies the party’s problem. It has only six députés in the French National Assembly, a victim of French two-round majority voting, which requires alliances between the first and second rounds. The Rassemblement National’s pariah status has stunted its parliamentary development, even if in the 2017 presidentials Marine Le Pen garnered almost 11 million votes. Unsurprisingly, it favours proportional representation to align parliamentary representation and voter tally. When socialist President François Mitterrand, intent on dividing the French right, adopted proportional representation for parliamentary elections in 1986 — the first and last time under the Fifth Republic — the Front National’s tally of MPs jumped from nought to 35 on 10 per cent of the vote.

In his 2017 election campaign, a typically rash Macron committed to injecting a dose of proportionality into French parliamentary elections to win the support of centrist parties. A majority of the French and most political parties favour some dose of PR. That this might lead France to the instability of the Fourth Republic or Italian governments is rejected in favour of the argument that the present system unfairly denies representation to swathes of French people, resulting in gilets jaunes style discontent.

But this week Macron raised doubts about PR electoral reform on grounds of complexity, thereby provoking tension with his centrist parliamentary partners, also victims of the majority system. The likelihood of reform being implemented at all is small, and certainly by the parliamentary elections of June 2022.

The only route to victory for the RN is via the presidentials. But here, too, lie problems for Marine Le Pen. Her candidacy is hitting a glass ceiling. First, to win the second round she needs to overcome the moral reluctance of voters outside her core electorate to cast a ballot in favour of the Rassemblement National. Although opinion surveys suggest moral reticence is diminishing, even her niece Marion Maréchal (Le Pen) says she will not win in 2022. Second, Marine Le Pen’s calamitous performance against Macron in the pre-second round television debate — which she acknowledges — raised doubts about her competence in voters’ minds, and within the party too.

There is no doubt that since taking power from her father in 2011, Marine Le Pen has defanged the Rassemblement National. The detoxified brand is more palatable to a wider electorate. But the problem lies with RN personnel. Senior party cadres are for the most part in intellectual terms no different from other parties. But campaigns, political or military, cannot be won by an officer class alone. Competent middle-ranking cadres — the NCOs — are vital and all the more so for government. This tier lacks experience; the RN runs very few town halls, the largest of which since 2020 is the 120,000 town of Perpignan. But more divisive is that many of this tier have an ideological outlook closer to the old toxic brand of Le Pen the father. Others believe that the Le Pen brand itself is toxic and are more attracted to the young, intelligent and traditionalist Catholic Marion Maréchal (who dropped the Le Pen name) as certain to attract more of the mainstream conservative Right’s electorate. For the moment, Marion Maréchal is reluctant to stand against her aunt.

French media speculated in November that Marine Le Pen’s application for a professional licence to breed domestic cats pointed to her preparing for life after defeat in 2022. As early as 2015 she had stated her willingness to abandon political life to raise cats. She knows only too well that however optimistic the polls for 2022 look, the glass ceiling remains in place. Now, were the appeal of cats to become greater than voters before 2022, Marion Maréchal could change the RN’s fortunes for the presidentials.

Written byJohn Keiger

John Keiger is a professor of French history at the University of Cambridge and former research director of its politics department.

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