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The next French President? My money's on Marine Le Pen

It already looked possible. Then the leader of the far-right Front National softened her stance on Frexit. 

Were you reassured by the latest poll on the French Presidential election that showed independent young radical Emmanuel Macron is gaining momentum? Do you believe he will offer a challenge to the conservative frontrunner François Fillon and the far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen?

Well, tough luck. Here is why the leader of France’s Front National, Le Pen, is probably going to win the election this spring.

Firstly, as we saw countless times in 2016, the polls can get it outrageous wrong. Two weeks before the US election, the odds of a Donald Trump victory were between 3 and 10 percent, and look how that turned out. We know anti-establishment populism is on the rise in Europe and that it is hard to measure until it is too late. Le Pen represents a chance to stick it to the EU elites and give a voice to those feeling disregarded and disgruntled by the march of globalisation and multiculturalism. 

But the French election is about more than faulty polling techniques. Given the other contenders, Le Pen has the chance to redefine herself and her party, not as anti-EU fascists, but as the only option that is well and truly French.

Consider her main rival, François Fillon. A self-defined French Thatcherite, Fillon wants a “radical shock” for France. Corporate tax breaks, €100bn of government spending cuts, 500,000 public service jobs slashed and an end to France’s hallowed 35-hour working week - does this sound like the France we know? Whether Fillon’s reforms are necessary is an open question, but deep down in the French psyche, they amount to nothing short of sacrilege. 

Usually a candidate from the left would provide an antidote, but this year the Socialists will be nothing more than a footnote. It is almost certain that the final round presidential run-off will feature Fillon against Le Pen, with no left-wingers in sight. So what choice is there for the traditional French left and the powerful trade unions? Can Le Pen promise them something that Fillon can’t?

Yes: the French status quo. Fillon diagnoses an unemployment rate of 10 percent, youth unemployment at 24.7 percent, a stagnating economy and out-of-control debt, and prescribes a free-market revolution. Le Pen sees the same problems, but argues they can be cured by nationalism, protectionism, and a curb on immigration.

If you were a traditionally left-wing French voter, would you really choose the bitter medicine of Fillon’s Thatcherite reforms over Le Pen’s siren song that things can stay exactly as they are, if only the immigrants are expelled? 

Le Pen knows Fillon’s candidacy has given her real shot, and she is doing all she can to extricate herself from the toxic legacy of her father and disassociate herself from accusations of xenophobia and fascism. She is even softening her uncompromising EU-hatred. Most French voters, especially those who have investments and pensions, don’t want France to face the instability of leaving the Euro. So in her first interview of the new year, Le Pen backed away from outright withdrawal, and promised compromise. She also reframed a question about whether she supported France leaving the EU into a call for a renegotiation and referendum - a sharp about-turn for the leader of a party that has opposed the EU since its creation. Her target is no longer just the EU, but the multicultural elites whose tolerance, liberalism and relaxed immigration policies have put the fundamentals of French society at risk.

This is the rhetoric of Trump, with one key difference: Le Pen actually believes what she says. Trump promised a wall to keep out immigrants and a ban Muslims from entering the country because he thought it sounded good at rallies. Le Pen vows to deport immigrants and de-Islamify France because that is the ideology she has been raised to believe since childhood (albeit it with Muslims switched in to replace Jews). Trump is already back-peddling. If elected, Le Pen will not.

So while Fillon struggles to inspire support for his harsh reforms, Le Pen will combine the law-and-order rhetoric of the right with the union-backed protectionism of the left. She will have ample ammunition to rage against the political establishment, branding Fillon as an out-of-touch elite and herself as the saviour of jobs, welfare and ultimately Frenchness. The only thing that could stand in her way is the candidacy of Emmanuel Macron. This young and vibrant newcomer, who is currently enjoying the highest approval ratings of any candidate, may just be enough to remind voters that Le Pen is a political veteran who has spent 20 years peddling the same divisive policies as her father. That’s a lot of pressure on the shoulders of the former economy minister. My money is still on President Le Pen.

Rachel Cunliffe is the deputy editor of Reaction. Follow her @RMCunliffe.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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