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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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.