With less than a year to go before the election, France’s right-wing party is again gaining ground.
In the 2017 French presidential election, the results were determined through a runoff between Emmanuel Macron of En Marche (EM) and Marine Le Pen of Le Front National (FN). It was Macron who prevailed, but Le Pen’s achievement was far from insignificant. She rode the wave of right-wing populism that had led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to second place in the first round with 21.30% of the vote. Although she was comprehensively defeated by Macron in the second round, her presence in the second round was an important achievement.
Marine Le Pen had taken the party of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, from relative electoral irrelevancy and transformed them into a political force. Now, the rebranded Rassemblement National (RN) is poised to be a major player again in the 2022 election cycle.
Since her arrival onto the political scene, Le Pen has been, and remains, a divisive figure. It was only in May 2021 that she was cleared of hate speech laws violation for posting content related to atrocities committed by the Islamic State (IS) on social media. Controversy has followed her throughout her political career. In 2010, her incendiary comments comparing Muslim prayers in the street to the occupation of France by Nazi Germany.
Despite all this, little seems to stick to Le Pen. She appears to have a certain ‘teflon aura’ to her. This quality has been shown in early forecasts for the 2022 election with most predicting that she will beat the incumbent, Macron, in the first round of voting. Although she would then be beaten by Macron in the second round, Le Pen has nevertheless already placed herself in a strong position to be the main challenger to Macron in this election cycle.
The strength of her nascent campaign is being evidenced in early polling. As of April 2021, a Politico tracker measuring voter intention gave 26% of the vote to Le Pen and 25% to Macron. The pair are comfortably in the lead, with the likes of Xavier Bertrand and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the next closest challengers, languishing on 15% and 10% respectively. Although the lead held by Le Pen at this stage is slim, her advantage should not be overlooked. It would be overly premature to declare Le Pen the presumptive favourite with so long to go in the campaign, but nor should her potential for victory be discounted.
Macron en malaise?
Ostensibly, 2022 is an election cycle like any other. However, it will still be held under the lingering gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of this, the election can also be considered a referendum on Macron and his handling of the pandemic and the subsequent vaccine rollout. France has had over 5,780,000 cases (the most in Europe) and has registered over 100,000 deaths. Furthermore, Macron has been forced to reimpose harsh restrictions following the first lockdown due to Covid-19 cases again rising across France.
The president has also stirred up controversy around the vaccines, most notably the AstraZeneca candidate. Macron described the AstraZeneca vaccine as “quasi-ineffective” for people over 65. The comments sparked backlash, especially from health officials in the UK who disputed his claim. The evidence was not there to support it and, only a month later, he backtracked on his criticism of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
It is hard to gauge the impact that this event has had on Macron’s reputation. His approval rating has been relatively stable in 2021, between 35% and 31%. Indeed, these figures are reflective of a president who, following his election victory, promised so much but is yet to fill those lofty expectations. Even before the pandemic, Macron was being viewed unfavourably, with Adam Nossiter of The New York Times offering a frank summation of his time in office:
‘Mr. Macron has upset the French, and he is deeply unpopular for it. So it has become the defining paradox of his rule that he remains much despised, even as his changes begin to bear fruit.’
All of this amounts to an incumbent in a weak position with his electorate as he enters the election cycle. The division sparked by Macron has therefore allowed Le Pen to catch up to her opponent.
Maintenant c’est le moment
It would appear that, if Le Pen is ever to ascend to the highest office in the land, now is the time. With Macron still struggling to get the pandemic under control, economic struggles and drama over the Brexit deal, the cards are falling in favour of Le Pen. There was even a recent open letter to the president warning that the country was on the verge of collapse. Yet, there remains the question of whether she can actually seize the moment.
There are some indications that Le Pen is driving her party on a viable path to election victory, evidenced most clearly in her toned-down and more mainstream rhetoric. No longer does Le Pen have a singularly myopic focus on far-right policies. Instead, she is opining about unity and reform rather than abandoning the European Union (EU) and the euro currency. It almost appears that Le Pen is moving left to some degree in an attempt to attract the support of a broader swathe of the electorate.
Despite this, doubts linger in Le Pen’s own party as to whether she is even the right candidate for this election. Even though Le Pen is polling well, her chances of winning in the second round of voting remain slim. The doubters fear that Le Pen has been unable to shake off her firebrand reputation and quell fears that she is a threat to democracy. To that end, support within the party is diverging between Le Pen, her niece Marion Maréchal and Eric Zemmour.
Whilst Le Pen appears to be tentatively inching towards the left, Macron is shifting right. Not only has he brokered deals with conservatives, but he has also adopted policies with a more right-wing lean. The recency of these moves means the true effect is unknown. However, they may have the effect of weakening conservatives whilst also helping Macron to improve his standing among more conservative voters.
In the current global and political climate, there is little certainty and this appears very much true of the 2022 election cycle. Le Pen is again showing her strength but the voting system favours Macron in the long run. To that end, all that can be said with any certainty is that there is no clear favourite right now. The coming months will help determine the direction in which France will be led for the years to come.
Written by James Hingley
James Hingley is a columnist at DecipherGrey.
Photographie: Global Panorama|Flickr.org