Le Pen’s moment is now, not in 2022 — but she’s already blown it

Marine Le Pen campaigns on the south coast of France. (Facebook)

Every piece of election-related data we have suggests Emmanuel Macron will win this weekend’s presidential runoff in France and, by the standards of most political contests, it will be a landslide — perhaps a victory of more than 20%.

But it comes with a sense of disquiet, even among Macron’s supporters.

Part of it is lingering anxiety from last June’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential election last November. That’s understandable. But the polls are far more slanted in Macron’s favor than they ever were for ‘Remain’ or for Hillary Clinton.

Polls haven’t been enough to stop niggling doubts that Marine Le Pen might somehow win just enough center-right voters, while just enough leftist voters are too disillusioned to vote for the aggressively centrist Macron, to score an upset victory. But pluralities of the supporters of third-placed conservative former prime minister François Fillon and fourth-placed hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon alike say they will support Macron in the July 7 runoff.

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RELATED: Why France’s election result is still more of the same

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Macron’s campaign for the last week, too, has been somewhat tone-deaf. Of course, a candidate who comes from the political and financial elite might have rethought holding an election-night party at a posh Paris bistro. Le Pen crashed his campaign stop last week at a Whirlpool factory, forcing a sheepish Macron to spend an hour talking to working-class voters. Macron, ultimately, spent far more time trying to engage the workers than Le Pen, who posed for some selfies. But the stunt worked — and made Macron look defensive.

There, too, is a sense that Le Pen’s endorsement from right-wing presidential contender Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and a handful of stragglers on the French right (along with Mélenchon’s refusal to endorse Macron) lacks the urgency of the broad ‘republican front’ that met the shock 2002 French runoff between Jacques Chirac and Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

So what gives?

2022. 

While Macron is likely to win the presidency by double digits, Le Pen could win 40% or more — and she’s almost assured of doubling her father’s 18% showing in 2002. That’s a worrisome trend for a lot of French voters. One-fifth of the electorate still feels like an extremist minority. Two-fifths feels much more like a nascent governing coalition.

So if Macron, at just 39 years old with barely two years of experience as a government minister,  fails to meet already lofty expectations, there’s a legitimate worry that Le Pen could find her way to a majority in five years’ time. Le Pen is just 48 years old, and she is only running for the presidency for the second time.

Both Chirac and François Mitterrand won the Élysée on their three attempts.

Moreover, the June parliamentary elections are likely to be a messy multi-party affair. Macron’s En marche movement, barely a year old, could easily fall short of a majority — it has no electoral track record, hasn’t yet selected its candidates and there are maddeningly few polls. A loss could force Macron into a hostile cohabitation with the center-right Les Républicains. Whatever ‘change’ Macron’s supporters believe he will bring, it probably isn’t Nicolas Sarkozy and François Baroin directing French policy for the next five years. Even in a best-case scenario, an En marche-led coalition might recycle many leading figures from the right wing of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) or possibly a mix of Republicans, Socialists and centrists like François Bayrou.

Whatever happens in June, the future looks like a government that will pull figures from both the center-right and the center-left. That will leave Le Pen as the loudest and clearest opposition in 2022 as the center-right and center-left increasingly share the same liberal worldview (It’s one reason Mélenchon’s reluctance to endorse Macron might be very wise politics).

If Macron, with a ‘grand coalition’-style government, carries out a liberal, pro-EU and pro-reform platform that amounts to a second term for François Hollande, he risks invalidating both the center-left and the center-right, pushing ever more disgruntled voters into Le Pen’s arms.

That’s a huge risk, it’s true! A Macron victory in 2017 will not spell the end of populism in France or anywhere else.

But it’s a risk that bakes in incredibly pessimistic assumptions about France’s short-term future — that France’s GDP growth will continue to stagnate (at a time when European economies are finally improving and when Brexit could mean an exodus of financial and other talent to Paris), that unemployment will not decline or that ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks will continue or even increase.

Le Pen barely made it into the runoff in 2017, and her first-round performance jumped from 17.90% in 2012 to just 21.30% this year. There’s no guarantee that she can make the runoff in 2022, and it’s not incredibly impressive that Le Pen polled only a few hundreds of thousands of votes more than a scandal-plagued conservative and a eurosceptic communist, especially after polls put Le Pen in first place for years, sometimes with 30% of the first-round vote. There was always a path for Le Pen to defeat Macron in 2017, but Le Pen lost that path in January, February and March — it’s too late now. Imagine an alternative Le Pen campaign that won a resounding first-round victory with 36% of the vote, for example, instead of her tepid second-place finish.

Le Pen has worked to detoxify the brand of the Front national and, to some degree, it has worked. By and large, it is today not the same anti-Semitic and Vichy-apologist party that her father created. That’s why Le Pen will probably win 30% or 40% of the vote in the 2017 runoff, not 18%. But for Le Pen to win the presidency, she will almost certainly have to find a way to unite the French right under her leadership.

And she’s failed miserably at that.

It should not be hard for Le Pen, drawing heavily on Gaullist symbolism, to fully repudiate the noxious roots of the Front national. Her efforts have already estranged her from her father — why not make an even deeper push?

Meanwhile, Le Pen’s best chance for uniting the French right under her leadership has slipped away. The center-right essentially splintered in the aftermath of Sarkozy’s loss (recall the long, drawn-out fight in 2013 and 2014 over the UMP leadership between Fillon and Jean-François Copé). It took until May 2015 for the old UMP to transform into the rechristened Republicans. Fillon, as it turns out, was a far weaker and compromised candidate than anyone imagined. If ever an opportunity for Le Pen, it was between 2012 and 2017. That has passed her by. Even now, in the runoff against Macron, she’s winning no more than one-third of Fillon’s voters. Sarkozy and Baroin are already planning to co-opt some of Le Pen’s economic nationalist appeal to workers for the Republican parliamentary campaign in June — just as Sarkozy co-opted much of her tone on security and crime in the mid-2000s.

It’s also difficult to imagine that the Front national will win a significant number of seats in the July elections. The party routinely wins less support in parliamentary than in presidential elections — it won just 13.6% of the first-round vote in the 2012 legislative election for a final total of two National Assembly seats (out of 577). It won just 4.3% in 2007 and, in 2002, the last time that a Le Pen family member made the presidential runoff, the party won just 11.3%. Meanwhile, Le Pen herself is nevertheless starting to become a creature of the establishment against which she rails. She is already implicated in a ‘fake jobs’ scandal similar to Fillon’s, relating to her role as a member of the European Parliament. The Front national may have fraudulently paid five million euros to functionaries — far more than Fillon allegedly paid to his wife and family.

Le Pen’s rise is a phenomenon worth taking very seriously, and nationalism is once again a powerful force in politics in the developed world.

But there’s no pre-destined prophecy that Le Pen will reach the presidency in 2022 as she wins over more and more voters. Her best shot was in 2017, riding the Trump-Brexit momentum from 2016, with the Socialists and Republicans at historically low levels of support.

Sunday could easily be the high-water mark for the Front national, not just one more landmark on the path to power.

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