Why Marine Le Pen was always likely to fail in her quest to match Donald Trump

Ben McPartland
Ben McPartland - [email protected]
Why Marine Le Pen was always likely to fail in her quest to match Donald Trump
Photo: AFP

Marine Le Pen was never likely to get elected president of France in 2017.


After Donald Trump’s stunning victory in last year’s US presidential election, Marine Le Pen became convinced she could ride the same wave of populism to the Elysée Palace. But in reality she was far from pulling off another shock.

After Brexit and Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen was meant to be next big shock.

Riding on the same anti-immigration populist tidal wave, promising to make France great again, the far-right Le Pen was presented almost as a shoo-in for the Elysée Palace.

Even when the polls gave Macron a seemingly unassailable lead, people warned that the polls had been wrong about Trump and had failed to grasp the level of anti-EU feeling in Britain.

Even political analysts were reluctant to rule Le Pen out, despite Macron’s 20 point poll lead.

But in the end Le Pen was always a very unlikely winner.

For a start the electoral system was against her: the two rounds and the fact the winner needs a majority of the electorate, in other words over 50 percent of the vote.

In France a candidate cannot win the presidential election with a minority of the popular vote, like Donald Trump did last year.

The two rounds mean her opponents were always likely to gang up against her, as they have done in the second round of regional and parliamentary elections to great success in recent years.

France’s so-called “Republican Front”, the left and right against the far right that comes together in the second round of votes, just about held together again.

But it wasn’t just a united political front Le Pen was up against.

Police unions asked members not to vote for her, so did doctors, religious groups and certain trade unions. Celebrities including French World Cup winner Zinedine Zidane also called on voters to block her as did Jewish, Muslim and Protestant religious leaders. Although the Catholic Church preferred to stay out of it.

The closer Le Pen got to the Elysée the bigger the obstacles in her path became.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle she came up against was her rival, another ‘anti-system candidate’ in the form of Emmanuel Macron.

Although he had been a government minister and graduated through the elite school that forms many of France’s politicians, Macron’s claim to be neither left nor right and his new vibrant En Marche! movement appealed to a different kind of voter who was also fed up with the status quo and demanded change.

“Whereas Brexit and Trump were ‘yes or no' questions, France offered voters a variety of ways to express their frustrations. Le Pen was not the only option,” Paul Smith a professor of Francophone studies told The Local.

Bruno Cautres, a French political analyst from the Cevipof research institute in Paris, said: “Macron offered voters a good compromise between stability and renewal.”

Le Pen on the hand would simply have been too much of a leap into the unknown for too many fed up but worried French voters, especially when it came to one of her flagship election promises.

Her policy to scrap the euro and bring back the franc is believed to have dissuaded many voters who, even though they didn’t like the EU necessarily, still valued their savings and living standards.

Speaking before Sunday’s result Dominique Reynié, head of the Foundation for Political Innovation think-tank in Paris told AFP: "If it wasn't for the euro I think she'd stand a chance."

A poll on the eve of the election showed only 22 percent of French people favoured bringing back the franc. France leaving the euro was a bigger risk for the French to take than for the British to leave to the EU.

But even before it came to policy, the appeal of the National Front, a party long tainted by anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, racism and xenophobia is still limited in France.

Nonna Mayer, a specialist in the French far right from the Sciences-Po institute told The Local: “I always said it was unlikely she would win. On the eve of the elections a poll showed her party was still considered as ‘a danger for democracy’ by 58% of the French people.”

That figure was a rise of 12 percent in just five years.

As far right specialist Jean-Yves Camus pointed out, unlike Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen was not the candidate of a mainstream political party.

So despite Marine Le Pen’s efforts to detoxify her party in recent years she failed to make it palatable to enough of the French public, many of whom still associate it with her father Jean-Marie, who has been convicted numerous times of hate speech and holocaust denial.

The conditions that gave rise to Trump in the United States were also not quite in place in France where although inequality is growing it's less marked than across the Atlantic or even across the English Channel.

While there has been much talk of Le Pen’s voters being the “losers” of globalisation, in France those who lost out can still count on a certain level of protection provided by the French state.

Le Pen’s attempts to present herself as the champion of downtrodden working classes leading the fight against globalisation and the free market in order to widen her appeal also in the end had its limits.

Even within her own party, there were many, not least her own niece Marion Marechal Le Pen, who wanted her to stick to the National Front’s core themes or identity, immigration and the threat of Islam to French culture.

Her first round score of 21 percent was seen as a failure of Marine Le Pen's strategy to widen her appeal. She had polled at 28 percent at one point.

But either way Le Pen’s voter base was always going to be limited.

Many will talk about the mistakes of her campaign, most notably her disastrous debate performance. But that night in which she appeared to lose her nerve on live TV seemed to just confirm to a large majority of French voters what they already knew. 

She was not a future president of France.

But just because a victory in 2017 always seemed beyond her, it doesn’t mean it will be the same story in 2022.

Let's not forget Marine Le Pen was projected to get around 10 million votes. That's double what her father achieved in 2002.

If Macron fails to bring down unemployment and kick start the economy the number of “losers” will only grow, as will their anger.

If he fails to rejuvenate the political system and reconcile the country, then Marine Le Pen or perhaps another far right figure may actually be a shoo-in 2022.




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