Can Marine Le Pen win? – HOPE not hate
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Can Marine Le Pen win?

Jean-Yves Camus examines the prospects

Just days before the first round of the French presidential election, opinions polls show Front National (FN) candidate, Marine Le Pen, will most probably stand in the second ballot and may be come ahead of the other 10 contenders on the first one.

She could get around 22-23% of the vote and is in a neck-and-neck race with Social-Liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron, dubbed the French Tony Blair.

Le Pen, however, is most likely to be soundly defeated on 7 May, polling around 39% against Macron (61%), 45% against Conservative candidate François Fillon (55%) and 43% against Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the radical left candidate who is now the rising star of the election with a prediction of a stunning 18% in the first round.

So, can Le Pen win against all odds? Or is the National Front doomed to remain in permanent opposition despite being a potent and sinister force in French politics?
© European Union 2016 – European Parliament

This is probably the most uncertain, and certainly most fascinating French Presidential election since the inception of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

Two months ago, the stage was set with outgoing President, François Hollander, deciding not to seek a new term. The Socialists (PS) were certain to head back to the opposition benches and lose the position of Head of State.

The Conservative Right candidate François Fillon, who had won the primary of the Right by a near landslide, was near the stage of picking his Cabinet, as he was the outstanding favourite.

Marine Le Pen, leading the polls with 28%, was set to be defeated in the second round, albeit with a much higher share of the vote than the 19% her father captured in 2002.

The scandal that erupted when Fillon was accused of employing his British-born wife on his staff, paying her with public money for a job she most probably did not do, has turned the Conservative candidate into an underdog in the campaign, now polling just 19 to 20%.

The winner of the Socialist Party primary, Benoit Hamon, is trailing badly at 9% and his Jeremy Corbyn-like political platform has divided the party more than it has ever been since the early 80s.

With the Socialist Party fighting for its life, Emmanuel Macron, who is now the frontrunner, has emerged. Marine Le Pen is making a lacklustre campaign and has sank to 22-23% over the last two weeks.

It is very difficult to predict the outcome of the race on the first ballot, as there are now four candidates (Macron, Le Pen, Fillon and Mélenchon) who are flirting with the 20% threshold and are so close with each other that the differences on polling intentions are within the mathematical margin of error.

The first question is: what does Le Pen actually stand for?
Her new election Manifesto is made of 144 “commitments” that she says contain the basic tenets of her ideology.

On 11 April, Donald Trump-style she selected 10 of them that she promises to enacted just after inauguration on 15 May. Those include having a referendum on imposing a new Constitution, leading to making préférence national – that is superior civil rights for French nationals – legal; opting out of Schengen; the compulsory repatriation of all foreigners who have a file with the Anti-Terrorist Department; having a retirement age of 60 and lowering the income tax thresholds for the working and middle-classes.

Next, she declared, she will open negotiations with the European Union (EU) to get Brussels’ approval for leaving, followed by a referendum on “Frexit” if the Commission does not give her a green light.

What she does not say, however, is that those measures need to be voted through Parliament and, as the legislative elections will be held on 11 and 18 June, they cannot be approved before the opening session is convened in July and unless the FN has a parliamentary majority. Without proportional representation, that is highly unlikely.

Those 10 measures are only the most visible part of what the FN wants to do when it comes to power. The Presidential Manifesto, which, in the typical fashion of an authoritarian party, was never discussed by a party Convention or AGM, contains a set of measures that, if adopted and enforced would dramatically change the very nature of the French Republic, leading to what would be, at best, a most illiberal democracy.

The core issues, for FN voters, are unemployment (18% of the voters chose the party because of that), law and order (17%) and immigration (15%).

It is therefore to be expected that Le Pen focuses her policies on those issues. If elected, she advocates a return of the State in the economy to regulate the financial markets, fight the closure of factories which are relocated out of the country, set a protectionist 35% tax on imported goods and and impose a similar tax on companies hiring “foreigners” instead of French nationals.

Alongside restoring protectionism goes leaving the EU, although the electorate is split on this issue, with only 58% of her voters agreeing with Frexit and even fewer wanting to drop the Euro.

This platform is strongly opposed by Fillon who is an old-style free-marketeer and, for opposite reasons, by Mélenchon whose growing appeal among the working-class (18%) and the white-collar (20%) could drain away votes from Le Pen.

In line with her “France first” and “France for the French” policies, Le Pen, sees a direct correlation not only between unemployment and immigration but also between immigration and law and order in a context of great anxiety that another Islamist attack might take place.

Despite the fact that Fillon, and the independent Conservative candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (credited with 3%) have made very harsh statements on Islam and immigration (Fillon has used the word Islamofascism and Dupont-Aignan said he believed “some kind of population substitution” was now taking place, the two of them want to restrict legal immigration, Marine Le Pen has a clear edge on those issues, first raised by Jean-Marie Le Pen more than 35 years ago.

She is the only one, for example, who wants to shut down “fundamentalist” mosques, the term “fundamentalist” being so vague that it easily satisfies those voters who are prejudiced against all Muslims, not just the radicals.

The Front National is also the only party that claims that it will deport all undocumented immigrants and close the doors to legal immigration (except for 10,000 legal entries per year).

The high level of distrust in the political élites – 77% of the French think that their MPs are corrupt, a little fewer have the same opinion of the Executive Branch) – gives Marine Le Pen the hope that she will be attract the voters who are so exasperated they are ready to cast their vote for whoever says (she) will “drain the swamp”.

One repeated argument is that Le Pen may lose votes because she is under scrutiny of both the European Parliament and the French judiciary, because of alleged financial misdemeanours and misuse of public funding.

This is unlikely, however, because such allegations have been made before, even against Jean-Marie Le Pen, without hurting him. The “anti-system” dimension of the FN vote remains its biggest asset, as in 2015 74% of FN voters did so in order to sanction the Cabinet, and 29% said they voted against all the “establishment” parties.

Who are these prospective FN voters? At this point, what can be said for sure is that Le Pen retains the core of her working-class and middle-class voters, that she is popular among the youth (18-24 year olds) with a low educational level but has to face the reluctance of the more educated young people, especially on the issue of Frexit.

The map of the FN vote is changing fast too. The party has made strong inroads in regions that were hostile just 10 years ago, such as in Brittany where the party now grabs around 20%, as well as in the rural South-West, and that is part of a broader effort to reach out to farmers among whom she polled 20% in 2012 and is now credited with more than 30%.

One of the big issues for Le Pen is how to take voters away from the mainstream Conservative party, Les Républicains?

On the first ballot, she can hope to attract them by playing the Gaullist card and lying that her party is the true heir to the late Résistance hero. Ironically, this can work as, de Gaulle having stepped down in 1969, the memories of who he was and what he stood for have now faded away.

On national sovereignty, opting out of NATO, restoring national pride, Le Pen explains that her opponents have betrayed de Gaulle’s legacy.

As incredible as it may be, when on 10 April, Le Pen said that France was not responsible of the 1942 round-up of the Jews in Paris, leading to their deportation and subsequent death in the Nazi extermination camps, she explained her statement by saying that the Vichy regime was “a collaborationist and illegal government” whereas “the true France was in London with de Gaulle”

The problem for her is that people with her mentality, ideology and politics stood steadfastly behind Pétain and his Vichy collaborators!

A final point is that, as the race gets closer, as of 14 April 14, a third of the voters are still undecided and it seems that the opinion polls underestimate the Fillon vote. Marine Le Pen remains a strong contender for the second ballot, but there is a (slim) possibility that she might not even qualify.