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Why Marine Le Pen's bid for the French presidency could be over in a matter of days

The hard-right candidate's difficult week has revealed her true face - and left her hopes of reaching the second round in jeopardy

Since 2013, when François Hollande’s presidency first started to run into trouble, there have been two near-certainties in French politics. The first was that the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen would win the first round of the presidential contest in  2017. The second was that she would lose, by a heavy margin, to a candidate from the mainstream right.

(Under the rules of the French electoral system, if no candidate secures more than half the vote, the top two candidates go through to a run-off round a week later.)

Now both those certainties have been upended. Although François Fillon, the candidate of the conservative mainstream, is still just about in contention for  second round berth – despite being enveloped in the “Penelopegate” scandal he still secures close to 20 per cent in most polls – he is at third or fourth in most polls, behind Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate, and in some polls, behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the radical left. He overshot his poll performance in the primaries, but would require a similar shock to make it into the second round  now.

That means that the French Republicans, for so long expected to sweep all before them, are now likely to miss out on the second round though they are still the favourites for the parliamentary elections in the summer.

Now Le Pen herself may miss out on the second round as well. A series of scandals, involving party funding and the large number of out-and-out Nazis still holding senior roles in the party, as well as Le Pen’s own declaration that France had no responsibility for the rounding up of French Jews during World War II are all resulting in a slight drop off in her poll share, bringing her level with Emmanuel Macron, though both candidates still retain a decent lead over Mélenchon and Fillon, currently battling it out for third place.

It’s just about possible to see a perfect storm where Le Pen falls behind a little in the polls, and some of her supporters bolt to a more acceptable home elsewhere on the right, that is, François Fillon. That could see her fall into third place, either to the advantage of Mélenchon or Fillon himself. (For what it’s worth, senior Socialist party politicians believe that they are now polling at or close to their absolute core vote, and that there is not much left for Mélenchon to squeeze. There are however, two candidates to Mélenchon’s left who he could further squeeze in order to make the second round.)

It’s possible, but not in my view all that likely. Le Pen’s electoral mission has always been to cover up the stench around the National Front long enough to seize power, not remove its source. It’s fumigation, not detoxification, that is her aim. It’s about reducing the social stigma around voting for the far-right (and also around abstaining should your preferred candidate not make it to the second round).

It’s the work of years, aided by French laws guaranteeing a degree of airtime and media exposure to all political political parties. And the evidence is that it has worked well enough to guarantee about a quarter of the vote.

My strong feeling is that quarter will be enough to guarantee Le Pen’s place in the second round, even though the identity of her opponent is less certain. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear