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

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

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

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.




Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”