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Could Marine Le Pen really win the French presidency?

The far-right leader’s longstanding strategy of pushing left on economic issues appears a wise choice amid a cost-of-living crisis.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Could she really do it? That’s the question causing jitters in Paris as a new poll this week showed Marine Le Pen, the veteran far-right leader, within touching distance of the French presidency. According to the poll Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent, would win by just 52.5 per cent to Le Pen’s 47.5 per cent in the runoff round of voting in the presidential election, due to be held on 24 April. The result would represent a drastic turnaround from the second round in 2017, when Macron was elected with 66 per cent of the vote to Le Pen’s 34 per cent.

What is driving Le Pen’s impressive numbers? One of the most important factors is her ability to appeal to the supporters of the left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon. According to the same Elabe poll, while 44 per cent of people who would vote for Mélenchon’s France Unbowed party in the first round would have no preference in a Macron-Le Pen second round, 77 per cent of those who do would choose Le Pen over Macron. The figure is higher than other polls (and higher than the same poll puts support for Le Pen among those who voted for Mélenchon in 2017) but is one indication of how crucial these voters will be to the election result.

In 2017 Mélenchon refused to back Macron over Le Pen in the second round, dealing a blow to the anti-Le Pen “republican front”, according to which supporters of mainstream parties should unite against the far right in the second round of voting.

By contrast, supporters of the smaller left-wing Green and Socialist parties split for Macron by over 80 per cent. Likewise, 60 per cent of voters for the centre-right Republicans would choose Macron. 

Le Pen performs much better than any other potential second-round opponent of Macron. The incumbent would beat Mélenchon, the Republicans candidate Valérie Pécresse and the far-right firebrand Éric Zemmour with about 60 per cent of the vote, a considerably more comfortable margin than against Le Pen.

Whether Le Pen can keep up her momentum will depend on her ability to avoid the kinds of gaffes that torpedoed her second-round hopes in 2017. A disastrous inter-round TV debate between her and Macron is particularly remembered as having exposed her as out of her depth to many voters. If she qualifies for the run-off, any hopes of winning it will depend on a good performance in the two-week campaign between rounds.

Moreover, with such good numbers, Le Pen will be treated by her voters and the media as a credible potential winner rather than a no-hope curiosity. That will mean she will need to be able to credibly defend her policies and personality over the gruelling final weeks of the campaign.

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Over a month into Russia’s war in Ukraine, debate within France is turning away from the invasion to its consequences, in particular a cost-of-living crisis driven by high inflation and rising energy prices. While Macron benefited from being seen as an experienced statesman when the invasion of Ukraine was top of the agenda, he is more vulnerable now that the debate has moved on to the cost of living.

As such, Le Pen’s longstanding strategy of pushing left on economic issues appears a wise choice. A debate focused on economic hardship also helps Le Pen’s attempts to “de-demonise” herself by limiting the time spent discussing issues such as immigration and Islam, which remind voters that the far right remains the far right.

Macron has refused to directly debate his first-round challengers. Though his allies argue that Russia’s war in Ukraine means he is busy with the responsibilities of his office and has little time for politicking, there is a growing sense that he is ducking scrutiny with a minimal campaign. If his challengers can exploit perceptions of haughtiness and the cost-of-living crisis to further damage him, a contest which had appeared all but settled mere days ago now seems significantly more competitive.

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