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EU election ANALYSIS: Cut the hysteria, Le Pen is not on her way to French presidency

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EU election ANALYSIS: Cut the hysteria, Le Pen is not on her way to French presidency
A beaming Marine Le Pen after hearing the poll results. Photo: AFP
22:27 CEST+02:00
Marine Le Pen's party may have topped the European elections in France, but it doesn't mean the far-right leader is on her way to the Elysée palace, writes John Lichfield in his analysis of Sunday's vote.

Can we please first deal with the hysteria which will, no doubt, surround Marine Le Pen’s exploit in topping the European Elections poll in France?

This does not mean that the far right is on course to win the French presidency in three years’ time. Marine Le Pen’s 23 to 24 per cent of the vote was slightly less than she got in the last euro elections in 2014.

Given Emmanuel Macron’s unpopularity, the high turnout and the Gilets Jaunes rebellion, she might have expected to do better. Instead, the last minute surge of voting benefitted the unfancied Greens, who came from nowhere to an extraordinary score of 12 per cent.

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

There is now clearly a constituency of mainly young, French people who dislike Macron, detest Le Pen and have no time for the old governing parties of centre-left and centre-right. This was a constituency which Macron had hoped to have made his own by now. In that, he has failed.

The result is a severe blow to Macron. It is not a stunning reverse.

He can live with a 1 to 2 per cent margin for Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. His electoral base – the 24 per cent he scored in the first round of the presidential election in 2017 – has frayed but has more or less stayed together.

The problem for Macron is that he raised the stakes in this election – three times – and then lost.

He declared the poll to be a Good v Evil confrontation between his ideas for a European Union “renaissance” and resurgent nationalism. He declared the election to be a referendum on his presidency after the Yellow Vest rebellion. He defied French political convention and entered the campaign himself.

The second place for his Renaissance list is therefore a personal failure. It will damage his hopes of emerging as the de facto leader of the European Union when Angela Merkel retires. It will complicate, but not destroy, his hopes of pushing through his pension, tax and other reforms in his remaining three years.

His “defeat” may re-ignite the stuttering Yellow Vest rebellion by renewing the unjustified allegations that he is somehow an illegitimate President.

But there are also encouraging signs for Macron in this poll. The old centre-right and centre-left parties, humiliated in 2017, remain scattered and deeply unpopular.

The projected 8 per cent score for the centre right Les Républicains is a calamity for the party of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. It will touch off another round of blood-letting within their ranks.

The centre-right leader Laurent Wauquiez gambled by choosing a young socially conservative list leader in François-Xavier Bellamy. The plan was to build on the party’s bourgeois Catholic base. It failed. Mr Wauquiez will pay the price.

The left also remains divided and weak. The projected 7 per cent for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard left party is a humiliation.

The fact that the poll became a referendum on Macron, or his two-horse race with Le Pen, evidently squeezed both centre-right and Left. The fact remains that neither of France’s once dominant “families” of government shows any sign of recovering from their 2017 meltdown.

In these circumstances, the 2022 presidential election shapes up to be another Macron-Le Pen dual – and one that Macron seems certain to win.

The French economy is recovering strongly. Unemployment is at 8.4 per cent, the lowest for ten years. Foreign investment is booming.

Le Pen’s economic programme is muddled and self-contradictory.

More than 60 per cent of French people say she is dangerous and that her party is institutionally racist. Her projected 23 to 24 per cent in the Euro poll is respectable but suggests she has failed to extend her own base despite Macron’s travails.

The real warning to Macron in the European elections results is that extraordinary result for the Greens, or EELV, despite a low key campaign by their list leader, Yannick Jadot.

The Green surge suggests that the hunger for radical, respectable change that brought  Macron to power in 2017 remains intact. But a large section of French voters, mostly young ones, no longer believes that Emmanuel Macron is the man who can deliver the new kind of politics they crave.

Could the Greens provide the challenger to Macron – or Le Pen – in the second round of the 2022 presidential election? Hardly likely. But French politics – like politics in Britain and elsewhere – are mutating in ways that are impossible to predict.

Here is one prediction all the same. Marine Le Pen will never be President of France.

The danger will come, post-Marine, if a more plausible French populist leader emerges – a French Matteo Salvini not a French Donald Trump.

 
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