On the evening of 21 April 2002, the face of Jean-Marie Le Pen, then leader of the hard-right party National Front and father of Marine, appeared on screen alongside Jacques Chirac’s. For the first time, the Front National had reached the second round of the French presidential election, securing 16.86 per cent of the vote.
Le Pen senior ultimately lost to Chirac (17.79 to 82.21 per cent), but Marine, who has been leading the FN since 2010, has a real chance to win the French presidency this year.
She has already run for president once, in 2012, where she surprised the pollsters by grabbing 18.5 per cent of the vote, a stunning increase from the FN’s 2007 score (10 per cent). Although she didn’t make it to the run-off like her father did in 2002, the publicity gave her a huge boost.
Five years later, polls now put her support at 25 per cent. Her voter base is strong and growing, and the party has 21 MEPs, 14 mayors and “only” 2 MPs – although that could change too after June’s parliamentary election.
So does she have a chance of becoming France’s next president on 7 May? In a word: yes. Here are a few possible scenarios:
1. If scandal or a gaffe hits the other candidates
Emmanuel Macron, a 49-year-old centrist, is a former minister of in the government of Francois Hollande. He is running as an independent, and is the favourite to face Le Pen in the run-off. Support for both oscillates around 25/26 per cent. But Macron’s voters appear less sure of their choice, and he was generally reckoned to be unconvincing during the presidential debates, although he managed to land a few blows on Le Pen. He is also younger and politically less experienced.
Given the softness of his support, a stray comment could cost him heavily – he enraged both left- and right-wingers by mentioning Algeria a few weeks ago, for example. Taking such a foolish risk closer to election day may result in big losses. Macron’s voters won’t swing to Le Pen, but they may choose to stay at home or give their vote to a “smaller” candidate, indirectly helping the FN leader.
A similar scenario could see Conservative candidate François Fillon, who is third in the polls with about 19 per cent but losing ground, struggle if there is more scandal around his use of public funds. He is currently being investigated by the French police over “fake” jobs held by his family – any big development in that case could see disillusioned Fillon voters flow to Le Pen, as her conservative views on society are only slightly more extreme than his.
2. If there is a terror attack
Le Pen’s anti-migrant, anti-Islam rhetoric thrives after a terrorist attack. The killings at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and the lorry attack in Nice saw her popularity soar. In the scenario of a terrorist threat happening days before the vote, possibly even during the 14 days separating the two rounds, the fear provoked by an attack would help her nationalist narrative. She has pledged to close borders, increase police forces, allow fewer migrants into France and withdraw the country from the Schengen free-movement area. All these policies see their popularity rise in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
She is also very often invited on talk shows to comment on such attacks, which would give her the visibility to convince last-minute voters.
3. If Russia intervenes
The US Senator Richard Burr has warned the Russian government is ‘actively interfering‘ with the French election. (Online vote has been suspended for expats in June’s parliamentary election in fear of hacking and cyberattack.) When Vladimir Putin met Marine Le Pen in Moscow in March, the Russian leader assured her he did not want to “influence the election in any way”. But put it this way: if Russia did want to influence the election, its candidate would not be Emmanuel Macron.
4. If the polls are wrong
Polls are notoriously hard to interpret, and pollsters worry about their tendency to converge around accepted wisdom (which, in the French race, has often been that Le Pen would make the second round and then fall away). If Le Pen’s voters are currently being underestimated by pollsters – because they are less keen to take part in a survey, because they deny voting for her or because some will change their mind at the last minute – the FN score may end up even higher than 25 per cent on 23 April.
Whatever happens on 7 May, it seems likely that Le Pen will improve on her previous performance, as she has consistently gained popularity in the past decade. Her party may not reach power this time. But a victory for Emmanuel Macron’s globalist views would allow her to would paint herself as the nationalist opposition in the next five years. If her time has not come in 2017, she will start working on 2022.