Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader, is now closer than she has ever been to power. A YouGov and Datapraxis poll, seen by the New Statesman, shows that in a run-off round between the far-right leader and the incumbent Emmanuel Macron, she would receive 49 per cent of the vote, while the president would be re-elected by just 51 per cent – a statistical dead heat.
There is clear movement in Le Pen’s favour, according to the poll, which was conducted between 4 and 7 April. She is up three points in the second round while Macron is down three from the previous poll on 28-31 March, putting the outcome well within the margin of error.
The YouGov and Datapraxis poll shows that Macron leads the first round of voting, with 26 per cent planning to back him in Sunday’s first round (10 April). In second is Le Pen, with 23 per cent. Candidates who would not qualify for the second round include the left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon on 16 per cent, the far-right firebrand Éric Zemmour on 13 per cent, and the centre-right candidate Valérie Pécresse on just 6 per cent.
“All our data suggests the second round is now too close to call,” said Paul Hilder, the founder of Datapraxis. “Le Pen’s reserves – people on the fence for the second round, but who think Macron would be worse – are more positive about her and could mobilise more easily, while Macron’s supposed reserves – many left voters amongst them – mostly hate him too. He is close to his ceiling, but she has room to grow. Whatever happens, this will be the best result ever for the French far right.”
Far from the hopes of Macron’s team that the war in Ukraine would result in his certain re-election, after an initial rally-around-the-flag effect his support in the crucial second round is now on a downwards trajectory, the poll shows. In contrast, Le Pen’s long-term political project of detoxifying her brand has now never seemed closer to succeeding in its aim of gaining power.
Le Pen’s success in the polls is down to three factors. The first is the Zemmour effect. The upstart entered the race amid feverish speculation that he would dethrone Le Pen as the leader of the far right. His positions on most social issues, in particular immigration and Islam, are far more radical than Le Pen’s. Thus, he immediately makes her appear more moderate when she rejects his proposals, such as setting up a ministry for deportations.
“When Zemmour refuses to distinguish between Islam and Islamism, who is still worried about ‘national preference’, as proposed by Le Pen?” asked a recent report by the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a left-leaning think tank. So-called national preference, a long-standing staple of the far right’s agenda, would offer French people priority over foreigners in housing and employment.
“Le Pen always refused to endorse some of Zemmour’s core ideas, even while he was snapping at her heels in the polls last autumn. To her credit, she never endorsed the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy, while even Pécresse flirted with using the term,” Raphaël Llorca, one of the authors of the report, told me. As a result, she now appears almost a mainstream, moderate candidate. “Zemmour is absolutely key to the perception of moderation.”
Even on Russia, Zemmour has taken most of the flak while allowing Le Pen to escape the political fallout of the war in Ukraine relatively unscathed. Though her party was in the past financed by Russia and she has expressed admiration for President Vladimir Putin, whom she has met, Zemmour’s refusal to tone down his Russophilia meant that he received the lion’s share of the criticism for being a Kremlin fellow traveller. A few deft political choices – such as quickly coming down in favour of welcoming Ukrainian refugees to France, in contrast with Zemmour – allowed Le Pen to further distance herself from past associations with Putin.
Second, it has long been Le Pen's intention to campaign as a unity candidate rather than attempting to capitalise on the anger of the electorate. Positioning herself as a soothing alternative after five years of Macron, who was frequently accused of accentuating rather than healing social fractures within France, has helped her improve her image. An Elabe poll last month found her to be the country’s second-favourite politician, an unprecedented result for a far-right leader.
A traumatised French society, still processing a wave of deadly terrorist attacks quickly compounded by the 2018 gilets jaunes protests, the Covid-19 pandemic and finally the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is looking to be reassured rather than further divided. “She calculated that if France was going to go for change, it would be looking for reassurance rather than radicalism and anger,” Llorca said.
As such, Le Pen has eschewed the divisiveness of the old far right for a reassuring image as a unifying healer, another contrast with Zemmour, whose rhetoric draws on anger and resentment. Le Pen poses for photo shoots with her cats (she has six and passed a cat breeding diploma last year). Her campaigning has favoured visits to the towns and villages of la France profonde – largely ignored by the national media, but received favourably by local outlets – rather than large, American-style rallies.
The key to this strategy, however, has been as much about defanging the norm in French politics to oppose the far-right in the second round of voting – the so-called republican front – as about broadening her appeal. “Le Pen is seeking to generate apathy among voters who oppose her and neutralise as much as possible the ‘republican front’,” Llorca said. “If she gets over the line, 52 rather than 46, it will be because enough left-wing voters abstain from voting against her in the second round because she no longer scares them.”
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Indeed, the poll shows that while almost half of Mélenchon voters would abstain in a Macron-Le Pen run-off round, those who will vote would split for Macron by just 54 per cent. The president, however, could expect those same voters to split 61 per cent for him against Pécresse and 83 per cent against Zemmour, who still does scare them. A similar trend is visible among backers of smaller far-left candidates too, though the sample sizes are small.
Finally, Le Pen long ago chose the cost of living as her central campaign issue, months before it became as central to the political debate. She is now one of the most trusted voices in the country on the issue, at the precise time that rising fuel prices and inflation have put it at the top of the agenda. A debate focused on economic issues also helps draw attention away from issues on which the far right is more divisive, such as Islam and foreign policy.
Le Pen’s combination of astute political choices and good fortune are contributing to her late campaign surge. She has the wind in her sails. In a recent interview with Le Figaro, she mused that the French people took two tries to choose the socialism of François Mitterrand in 1981, who had lost to the liberal Valéry Giscard d’Estaing seven years prior. “It is not surprising that they will take two tries to choose between the nation and globalisation.”