Polls have been tightening in France ahead of next year’s Presidential elections. The expected second round showdown is between France’s current leader Emmanuel Macron, and the perennial far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. The rematch between France’s two best known politicians has created something of a buzz in Western media outside of Paris – in part because it is seen as just the latest battle in the ongoing culture war that has engulfed Europe and the Americas.
There is also something of a morbid fascination behind the media’s coverage of the elections – the Le Pen family have for many years been the archetypal bogeyman of the rise of the populist right in Europe. Now into the second generation, it is hard to argue that the family hasn’t made some, albeit limited, inroads in French politics. In the last elections Madam Le Pen managed to secure a record 33% of the popular vote – the previous best for the far-right in France was only 17%.
This rise in support is what fascinates the worlds media, and deeply concerns the French mainstream. However, it is possible that even with opinion polls now showing Madam Le Pen within only a few points of the Elysée Palace, she still won’t win the elections. President Macron still enjoys the most support of any politician in France, despite his first term of office being plagued with protests and political unrest.
In a recent poll the President has still managed to secure a favourability rating of 45% against 52% unfavourable. Whilst on the surface this may look bad, his 45% favourable rating still puts him above all other leading politicians in the country. Le Pen by contrast maintains a 32% favourable rating against as 64% unfavourable view – making her the most polarising candidate in France (followed only by the far-left activist Mélenchon). These figures matter when it comes to predicting the results of next year’s elections.
The strong favourability rating in comparison to Le Pen could help push him over the line in terms of securing re-elections in the second round, but only by default. Many on the centre and the moderate left will look at the choice and begrudgingly cast their vote for Macron – not because they have any great love for him, but because it keeps out someone with unappealing views on issues such as race, immigration, and cultural identity.
The issue for Macron however is that he has burnt many of these centre-left bridges since his elections. In 2017 he was carried to power on the back of a broad coalition that ranged from Greens, to trade unionists, to disenfranchised centre-right voters, and yet he has governed from a broadly liberal conservative position. Many of his positions are now seen as untenable by those on the left.
To compensate for this, Macron has begun to beat a more populist drum. In recent months he has increasingly switched his talking points towards cultural issues, and in the aftermath of the murder of Parisian teacher Samuel Paty by a radicalised student – President Macron has also turned on Islam. All of this seems to be in a bid to court a more solidly right-wing base, taking over positions previously held by The Republican Party of Nicholas Sarkozy.
This combination of Madam Le Pen’s unpopularity, President Macrons new-found popularity on the right, and the apathetic support for him from the centre, may yet save him in the election. However, whilst this may seem like a victory for the moderate liberal politics – the reality is that France will end up being more divided than ever.
Le Pen’s main fault in the elections won’t be her ideas, which are increasingly blurring the lines between the extreme right and the mainstream, but her name. The Le Pen name has been around in politics since the 1970’s and is associated with anti-Semitism, racism, and authoritarianism. Marine Le Pen’s father, whom she expelled from the National Front in 2015, created a divisive brand for the Party. His daughter’s time as leadership has coincided with attempts to clean up the image of the Party, and major success in European elections. Her principal problem remains, that for all she has done for her party’s image, she cannot do the same for herself.
And yet, the far-right in France could find itself in a very strong position in coming years, as could the far-left. The political pendulum has swung from centre-right to centre-left to centre with many in France today failing to see the positive results they were promised – as such people are increasingly turning to the fringes. This could play well into the hands of Le Pen’s party, now rebranded as National Rally.
This creates a major risk for the next elections after this. The scenario is clear – Macron retains power and rules over a divided country for five years, allowing the extremes to stoke up tensions and build support. Marine Le Pen decides to step aside and allow the next generation a chance, the leadership of the Party stays in the family, passing to her niece, Marion Maréchal who is not bound by the baggage of the Le Pen name. The attractive and quick witted Maréchal charms over the Right and blurs the lines further between the mainstream and the extreme. She goes through to the second round and wins, giving France its first far-right President since the end of the Second World War.
But even if it’s not Maréchal, the risk still remains that someone else from the far-right could easily exploit current divisions within the country to carry themselves to office after 2022. Already we have seen such radical swings take place in Italy and the United States with the rise of Salvini and Trump respectively.
Ultimately, it is not whether Macron is re-elected next year that should worry people, it is who comes after him.