It’s premature to start worrying about a President Le Pen

It’s premature to start worrying about a President Le Pen
Опубликовано: Thursday, 06 April 2023 05:12

The far-right politician’s past ties with Putin’s Russia — including favorable loans to her perennially cash-strapped party — remain a potential liability.

Mujtaba Rahman is the head of Eurasia Group’s Europe practice and a columnist for POLITICO Europe. He tweets at @Mij_Europe.

The violent standoff over pension reform between President Emmanuel Macron and the people of France has raised fears that the country may come to vote for a President Marine Le Pen — the leader of the far-right National Rally — at the fourth time of asking in 2027.

The speculation is premature.

Both internationally and in France, commentators have suggested that Macron’s plunging popularity and the chaos on the streets offer a wide boulevard for Le Pen to win the office in four years’ time.

But the fundamentals that thwarted her in the past — the two-round system, her incoherent economic program and her past ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin — remain largely unchanged. That Macron is constitutionally barred from running again will also make her task harder, opening the 2027 field up to unexpected contenders — much like Macron was in 2017 — and to popular centrist politicians, such as former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.

The growing speculation about a prospective President Le Pen is understandable, however, and several factors do favor a more successful run by the far right in the upcoming election.

For starters, France methodically ejects incumbent presidents, with Macron’s reelection last year a rare exception. Over the last three decades, the country has tried — and repudiated — leaders of the center right, center left and center.

Only the populist, xenophobic and anti-European Union right — which is represented by Le Pen — and the radical, anti-capitalist, anti-EU and anti-NATO left, which is represented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, remain untried. And worryingly, much of the French working class is open to the anti-elite, anti-EU arguments that both largely embrace.

Le Pen’s first-round scores in the last three presidential elections have also risen steadily — going from 18 percent to 21.3 percent to 23 percent — while her second-round score jumped from 34 percent in 2017 to 41.5 percent in 2022. Interestingly, recent opinion polls also make her the second most popular politician in the country, with 32 percent approval.

Le Pen’s large group of 88 deputies in the National Assembly has given her party new visibility and respectability as well. She has instructed her inexperienced followers to appear serious and avoid xenophobic outbursts in order to give the impression of a party that is ready for government — though to some, but not complete, success.

The fact that Le Pen stepped down as party president last year and engineered the election of her young protégé Jordan Bardella may also help her here. Le Pen’s aim is to attract younger voters who are several generations removed from her party’s origins in the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime of 1940 to 1944. And like Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, she hopes to finally distance her party from memories of World War II.

So, there is every reason to believe that Le Pen will be a strong contender in 2027 and that she is highly likely to reach the two-candidate second round for the third time in a row.

A banner hangs from the Arc de Triumph in Paris, as protests continue | Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

But the obstacles to a Le Pen victory remain formidable.

First, the political battlefield — divided three ways between a radical left, a reformist pro-EU center and a populist-nationalist right — has scarcely shifted in the last year.

In addition, Le Pen’s 32 percent popularity is actually a little lower than it was from the peaks she had reached in 2021 and 2022. According to a recent IFOP poll, her potential vote in a parliamentary election is 26 percent — up 9 points over last June but including many votes that went to her ultranationalist rival Eric Zemmour last year.

Thus, Le Pen’s fundamental problem remains the same: Where does she get the votes to lift her first-round presidential score above the 50 percent needed to win?

A centrist candidate could hope to win by expanding his or her first-round base, capturing moderate left- and right-wing votes. Le Pen, however, belonging to the far right, would have to take a section of the conservative right and at least part of the anti-EU, anti-system left. But without Macron in the race, more left-wingers are likely to revert to voting for a centrist or center-right candidate to “block” the far right and Le Pen.

Meanwhile, her past ties with Putin’s Russia, including favorable loans to her perennially cash-strapped party, remain a potential liability.

And perhaps Le Pen’s greatest handicap of all is of her own making: her muddled economic program.

Despite Macron tearing her to pieces on economic issues in the televised debates in 2017 and 2022, Le Pen still has not changed her program, which promises higher spending and lower taxes, with an unconvincing pledge to balance the books by reducing spending on “immigrants.”

While she has dumped her father’s pledge to leave the EU, much of her program, including “national preference” — which breaks the rules of the EU Single Market by giving preference to French businesses and firms over foreign, including EU, competitors — would infringe upon, or directly contradict, EU law.

Le Pen’s hopes of winning in 2027 would therefore rest on an unlikely combination of factors — a deep economic crisis, a self-defeating civil war between would-be successors to Macron in the center and a second-round contest between herself and Mélenchon or some other candidate from the radical left.

That combination is not impossible — but it remains implausible.

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