I watched the first-round results of the French presidential election come in on Sunday night (10 April) in an Algerian-owned bar in southern Paris. The prelude had been the thrilling Premier League match between Manchester City and Liverpool. Then, as the results were announced, the bar became subdued. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) had scored 23.1 per cent of the vote, dangerously close to the incumbent president, Emmanuel Macron, who took 27.8 per cent. The quiet mood of the bar never lifted, and drinkers soon began to drift gloomily away from the televised scenes of jubilant Le Pen supporters.
This result had seemed impossible when I met Le Pen on the bright, sunny afternoon of 11 January 2022 at the Hotel Majestic, an elegant spot near the Arc de Triomphe. There, Le Pen gave a private briefing to a handful of foreign journalists amid an intimate atmosphere that made the occasion feel more like a friendly university seminar than a press conference. She was not at all how I had expected her to be; she seemed softer than the sometimes brutish figure who appears so regularly on French television. She was cracking jokes and chatting to familiar faces, the picture of a charm offensive.
At the time, rumours had been circulating for weeks that Le Pen’s 2022 campaign was floundering before it had even begun. A wave of senior figures had defected from the RN to the burgeoning party of Éric Zemmour, the journalist-turned-politician who has been convicted twice of inciting racial hatred and had branded Le Pen “un loser”. Members of her inner circle, however, assured me that Le Pen’s dismal polling would improve as election day drew nearer. She believed that Zemmour’s venomous views on immigration would soak up the more extreme elements on the far right, making her look moderate in comparison. When I asked her a series of unsympathetic questions at the meeting at the Hotel Majestic – on France’s role in the EU, on Anglo-French relations, on the anxieties of ordinary French people – they were all waved away with the refrain, “everything will be better when Macron goes”. This mindset has now become a commonplace in France across the political spectrum, which partially explains why it is no longer taboo to say you have voted for the RN.
On the surface, Le Pen is a more palatable candidate in 2022 than she was in 2017: she no longer advocates for France leaving the EU or the euro, for example, and has left the more risible views to Zemmour. But scratch the surface of her campaign polish and the same philosophy is there. Many of her pledges, after all, would undermine the EU from within.
According to the author Michel Eltchaninoff, the leading authority in France on her political beliefs, the more moderate Le Pen that we’ve seen during this campaign cycle is a fake. Eltchaninoff’s 2017 book, Inside the Mind of Marine Le Pen, analyses her political philosophy, tracing her life in the Front National, the far-right nationalist party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The younger Le Pen got involved in the 1980s, rose through the party ranks, became leader in 2011 and then a presidential candidate for the first time in 2012. After that first defeat, she set about transforming the image of the party: expelling those, such as her father, who espoused Holocaust denial; and renaming the party Rassemblement National in 2018.
Yet when he spoke to me a few weeks ago, Eltchaninoff said that nothing had changed about Le Pen as a candidate, beyond more detailed briefings from her director of communications. He criticised her electoral tactic of dédiabolisation (“detoxifying”) the RN in an attempt to shed its hard-line neo-Nazi trappings. “I do not think that she has detoxified the party,” he told me. “It is just a matter of presentation.”
He notes the way in which she uses le peuple, “the people” – a phrase she has resorted to repeatedly during this campaign. Eltchaninoff said her use of the phrase recalls the language of nationalists such as Charles Péguy and Maurice Barrès, writers who straddled the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were known for their vision of France as a nation defined by Catholicism, the purity of the French language, its very geography, even the cuisine – everything, in effect, that makes France “a great civilisation”. Eltchaninoff has written that Le Pen sees all of these qualities as “ancestral skills”; as Le Pen herself puts it: “Algerian wine or corks from Transylvania” will never match the artistry of French ethnic genius. Eltchaninoff also pointed out that Le Pen has given this ethno-nationalism a contemporary twist by quoting (or rather distorting) George Orwell’s notion of the “common decency” of ordinary people in order to contrast them with the global elites.
When Le Pen officially launched her campaign on 5 February at a rally in the city of Reims, the location was chosen for its symbolism. It was where the first French kings had been crowned and where, as Le Pen said at the rally, France “had been born”. She began her speech by quoting the 19th-century poet Paul Verlaine, who wrote that “l’amour de la Patrie est le premier amour” (“the love of the homeland is the first love”). This was the warm-up to attacks on globalisation, the EU and, above all, Macron’s policies on immigration. “Only the French,” Le Pen said, “have the right to decide who lives here.”
Then, unexpectedly and out of character, she stepped down from the podium, the lights dimmed and she spoke directly to the audience about her private life. She explained that she had suffered from growing up in a family that was “quite particular”, and been persecuted as a child for the political views of the Le Pen clan. Above all, she said, she had sometimes lost her way, fallen, but always got up again. In a direct riposte to Zemmour’s description of her as a loser, Le Pen said that she had “never lost” ; she had always “either won or learned something” from her experiences. This was how, and why, she understood the “suffering” of ordinary French people. Her supporters loved it.
It also struck a chord with a wider audience, mainly working-class voters in rural areas, who feel that they too have suffered under Macron, the so-called president of the rich. Le Pen’s campaign may well be doomed by photos of her in the close company of Vladimir Putin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but at the same time Macron’s popularity within France has been damaged by what has been perceived as his attempts at international grandstanding – including talks with Putin – while ignoring basic domestic issues such as the cost of living and the grim realities of pensioner poverty.
January, when Le Pen’s campaign was just starting, now seems like a very long time ago. It’s unclear what will happen next: whether the left and what remains of the centre-right will rally around Macron, or if the remnants of Zemmour’s support will be enough to bring Le Pen victory. The stakes are enormous, not just for France but for Europe and beyond.