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5 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:01pm

How Emmanuel Macron is making Marine Le Pen his only viable opponent

By Pauline Bock

The first time I realised there was something deeply wrong with the way French people perceived Emmanuel Macron’s rule was in the summer of 2018. It was a few months before the first gilets jaunes protests and social opposition to Macron’s firmly liberal policies had been relatively mild. But discontent was slowly rising. I was sharing a ride with strangers, via the French carshare app BlaBlaCar, and conversation had turned to the newly-introduced policy to lower the speed limit to 80 km/h. This sparked a debate about the Macron government, which had then just celebrated its first anniversary. And the driver, a young man working in engineering, declared: “I didn’t vote for her, but I wonder if things would be worse if Marine Le Pen had won.”

Spoiler alert: yes, they would definitely be worse, especially for immigrants, French Muslims, and anyone who wants to keep France within the Schengen Area. That only one year into the Macron presidency, a young voter who wasn’t a Le Pen supporter was asking such a question, was disquieting. 

In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, reached the final round of the presidential election, 82 per cent of voters backed his conservative rival Jacques Chirac to deny Le Pen victory (a pattern repeated in 2017). A year later, in 2003, Chirac was certainly not everyone’s favourite, but no one was wondering whether France would have been better off under Le Pen. It was patent that it wouldn’t have been. That in 2018, under Macron, this was no longer obvious, sent an alarming signal. 

The 2017 face-off between the liberal Macron and the populist Le Pen seemed to herald a new political order. Two years later, as parties draw conclusions from last month’s European elections, it is clear that there has indeed been a sea change: Macron eviscerated first the centre-left Socialists (whose candidate Benoît Hamon won just six per cent of the vote in the presidential election) and then the centre-right Republicans. 

At the European elections, the French left’s moribund state was confirmed. Though the Greens (who did not stand a candidate in 2017) won an impressive 13.5 per cent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise won just 6.3 per cent, the Socialists just 6.1 per cent and Hamon’s new movement Génération.s just 3.3 per cent. In total, the French left achieved almost 29 per cent of the vote — more than Le Pen’s National Rally (23.3 per cent) and Macron’s La République En Marche (22.4 per cent) — but such is its fragmentation that a united front remains impossible. 

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Having destroyed his former political home of the centre left, Macron went on to adapt his discourse and policies to court the Republicans. This began early on, with the nomination of Republican Édouard Philippe as his prime minister, but has since become more widespread: from his pro-employer labour reforms, to his abolition of the wealth tax, Macron’s right-wing tendencies have grown as he has gradually diverged from his more centre-left election platform.

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The president’s support of the police during the gilets jaunes crisis and the emphasis placed on security, as well as Macron’s hardline stance on illegal immigration, have seduced many on the right. This resulted in a dismal night for the Republicans on 26 May: the party finished fourth, behind the Greens, with only 8.5 per cent of the vote. Republican leader, Laurent Wauquiez, had no choice but to resign a week later, declaring: “The right must rebuild itself.”

In truth, the right has already rebuilt itself: Macron’s party siphoned off a large portion of voters who trusted the Republican candidate, François Fillon, in 2017. The shift in voters was two-fold: 25 per cent of right-wing 2017 Fillon backers chose Macron’s party in 2019, while 26 per cent of left-wingers, who trusted Macron in 2017, defected to vote for the Greens, the Socialists or Hamon’s movement.

This effectively makes LREM a party mostly supported by the right — and Macron intends to maintain his advance into Republican territory. The president is eyeing the 2020 local elections as a chance to capture councils held by the Republicans and LREM officials have already claimed that “to be an efficient shield against Le Pen’s National Rally”, right-wing politicians would be wise to “leave the Republicans” (and join LREM). Macron himself told his MPs in April: “We must go and get centre-right voters who want to vote for [the lead candidate for the Republicans]!”

Posing as a new face, and then as the best bulwark against the far right, Macron came, saw and conquered the French left, then the right, and very successfully so. What he hasn’t managed to do, however, is to halt the rise of his sworn enemy: Le Pen’s far-right movement. The National Rally finished first in the European elections, leading Macron’s party by one point. This was, admittedly, no tsunami and the far right invariably performs well at the European elections.

Yet Macron’s defining promise was to unite Europe against the continent’s resurgent nationalists. In France, however, he has atomised the political alternatives, ensuring an ad nauseam repeat of the liberal/nationalist face-off of 2017 — one Macron is likely to win. This, however, isn’t stopping Le Pen — it’s enabling her party to become the only credible opposition.