The Transformation of Marine Le Pen Has Macron’s Allies Worried
(Bloomberg) -- French President Emmanuel Macron’s allies have been talking up the supposed incompetence of far-right leader Marine Le Pen for months, but they’re starting to get worried.
With France’s traditional parties in disarray, Macron’s government has framed Le Pen as his main rival, including for next year’s presidential election. He’s betting that sooner or later a trademark gaffe will reveal the sort of controversial views she’s aired in the past. By tacking to the right to peel off more moderate votes, the calculation was that Macron would beat her easily.
Indeed, Le Pen hit potential trouble this month when a group of retired generals warned Macron is risking a military intervention unless he clamps down harder on crime. That’s the sort of line which plays well with her base but risks alarming the more mainstream voters she needs to win. In the past it might have provoked a clear-cut endorsement.
But Le Pen has studied the lessons of her defeat in the last presidential election, when Macron exposed her ignorance of policy detail and ideas of leaving the euro that were out of step with most voters. After working to soften her image, she’s gained support among women, young people and even, according to political scientist Ugo Palheta, homosexuals and Jews. Recent polls show Macron’s advantage is narrowing.
The risk of a Le Pen victory is real, says Clement Beaune, the president’s junior minister for European Union affairs. He said the fight between Le Pen and his boss reflects “the great ideological debate of our time.”
A recent poll, conducted after the murder last week of a police officer, showed Le Pen’s popularity jumping 8 points to 34%, with the president’s hovering around 35%. Only Macron’s former premier Edouard Philippe ranked above her in the survey that asked respondents which political figure they wish to see playing an important role in the country in the future.
If Le Pen were to beat Macron, the self-styled defender of the European project, it would be a shock for the EU on a par with Donald Trump’s U.S. election victory and the Brexit vote in 2016. Armed with a veto on most EU initiatives, she could bring the bloc to an abrupt halt. And while she hasn’t set out detailed plans for her domestic policy, she’d be answerable to the angry voters with lower education levels who’ve railed against the president’s efforts at pro-market reforms.
Christophe Bouillaud, a political scientist in Grenoble, says in a “darkest scenario” her win could be followed by unrest in the diverse and economically-deprived housing projects and a gradual drift toward authoritarianism, with immigrants, and Muslims, among the first victims.
“Le Pen’s ‘normalization’ does not mean she is unlikely to wreak havoc if elected,” Antonio Barroso, a political analyst at Teneo in London, said in a research note.
When Le Pen took over her party’s leadership in 2011 from her father — a former soldier accused of Anti-Semitism and torturing Algerians during the war of independence — she set out on an ambitious project to bring it into the mainstream, intensifying those efforts after her 2017 loss to Macron.
Party members are banned from making racist comments on social media and those who pay no heed are cut loose. Twice a week a group of advisers known as “the Horatii” brief her on current affairs to ensure there’s no repeat of her disastrous debate performance in the last campaign.
During a polished performance on prime time television in March, Le Pen spoke for two and half hours about climate policy and feminism, she said she no longer wants to leave the EU, only fix it, discussed post-Keynesian monetary theory and cited statistics on public debt and unemployment.
She once criticized a previous government for acknowledging the role that France’s wartime Vichy administration played in the Holocaust and compared Muslims praying in the streets to Nazi occupation. But when asked about her party’s track record of xenophobic and racist comments, she replied without hesitating, “I have no negative feelings toward foreigners, no hatred, no fear.”
After the generals published their open letter to Macron, essentially calling for sedition, she struck a line calculated to keep her core support onside without startling more moderate voters. She said she agreed with their analysis of France’s problems but that the solution to rising crime and insecurity lies “within a political project approved by the French.”
Some members of Macron’s government said she should be disqualified from the race anyway. Prime Minister Jean Castex said the letter “would be insignificant if there wasn’t an attempt to use it politically,’’ then referring to Le Pen, added “what’s bred in the bone comes out in the flesh.”
The campaign will train more scrutiny on Le Pen’s potential weaknesses, while Macron may get a boost from an accelerating vaccine program. With France now administering almost 400,000 shots a day, the president is ready to begin charting the course out of lockdown this week.
Le Pen has yet to prove she can manage the EU’s second-biggest economy, and France’s next head of state will inherit a country where businesses and families have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic and public debt is approaching 120% of GDP. The International Monetary Fund projects that output won’t return to its pre-pandemic level until 2022 and is already calling for a plan to reduce borrowing. The recurring question of reforming the French pension system, which Macron was wrestling with before Covid, will be back on the agenda.
Even Le Pen’s advisers acknowledge she has work to do to convince voters she has a plan to tackle those challenges. And her party is struggling for the resources she needs to draw up detailed policy.
French banks are reluctant to lend her indebted party money and she lacks experts to work on her program. National Rally officials say anyone who joins their economic advisory teams is exposing themselves to threats, with at least one person forced out of a job at a big French company for having done so.
When asked earlier this month if Le Pen could defeat Macron, one minister grimaced and rolled her eyes, saying the nationalist has no chance of winning and insisted that France is a country that’s egalitarian and progressive at its core. But the minister still reached out to touch a wooden table and crossed her fingers for luck.
Le Pen’s party believes she’ll win. Jean-Paul Garraud, a European Parliament member and magistrate who advises Le Pen on legal issues, says he became convinced watching her on TV in March.
“It’s our job to show that we are not a party of fanatics or extremists,” he said. “This evolution will lead us to victory.”
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