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France’s choice

France’s choice

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Marine Le Pen is running Emmanuel Macron closer than before in the French presidential race. What’s behind her popularity?

“Voting in the first round of the French presidential elections has ended with Emmanuel Macron and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen as the two candidates who go through into the runoff.” 

BBC News

In the first round earlier this month, Marine Le Pen emerged as the candidate who will go up against President Emmanuel Macron in Sunday’s runoff.

She lost to him five years ago by a margin of 30 points, but this time, polls suggest the gap has narrowed. 

Emmanuel Macron is around 10 points ahead. 

He’s likely to win but Marine Le Pen has had a strong showing in this election campaign.  

She has softened her image and made the cost of living crisis a central part of her campaign. 

She was combative against Macron at the big national presidential debate earlier this week – a landmark moment in the French election calendar: 

[Marine Le Pen, debate 20 April 2022]

The numbers show that this time, she’s managed to win over people who previously would never vote for the far-right.  

So how has she done it? 

***

Thirty years ago, the party that Marine Le Pen now runs was on the fringes of politics in France. 

It’s now called the National Rally party, it used to be the “National Front”. 

It has always been a nationalist party – and it’s been strongly associated with antisemitism and Islamophobia. 

The party was founded by Marine Le Pen’s dad – Jean Marie Le Pen – back in 1972. He ran it for nearly 40 years. 

[Jean Marie Le Pen speaking in 2002] 

INA France

Jean-Marie was a charismatic speaker but his hardline nationalist politics made him a divisive figure. 

From when it was founded, the National Front party fielded candidates in every presidential election, but they have never won. The party was too unsavoury for most voters.

The furthest Jean Marie Le Pen ever made it in a presidential race was in 2002, when he came second in the first round and lost in the run off vote to Jacques Chirac.  

He stepped down as party leader in 2011.  

In 2016 he was expelled after a court fined him for saying the gas chambers used to kill Jews in the Holocaust were only a “detail” of history.  Holocaust denial is a crime in France. 

Marine Le Pen took over as leader and since then, she’s invested a lot in changing her image and the image of the party: 

“She has relaxed her stance on several issues, abandoning her opposition to marriage equality and abortion. By publicly discussing her single mother status and her love of breeding cats she  has further transformed public perception as more accessible and soft.”

France24

Marine Le Pen wanted to distance the party from the racist and antisemitic reputation it had under her father. 

And she wanted to appeal to ordinary people – a different kind of candidate to wealthy ex-banker Emmanuel Macron. 

***

In the five years since the last presidential election, Marine Le Pen has successfully softened her image… and sharpened up her strategy. 

It was her lackluster performance at the big TV debate that really did for her in 2017 

She fumbled her notes and insulted Emmanuel Macron instead of talking about her policies. 

The public was left unconvinced.

“An historic opportunity missed for Marine Le Pen. The verdict of the French media who named Emmanuel Macron as the winner. Attack after attack by the National Front candidate rebuffed with cool composure by the man who’s now the clear favourite to win Sunday’s runoff.”

Al Jazeera

But Marine Le Pen is slicker now. 

She was calmer and more collected during this debate and spent time talking about issues that are really worrying voters right now, like inflation.  

[Marine Le Pen, debate 20 April 2022]

She’s said she wants to put money back in the pockets of ordinary people. 

And said she would be the “the president of the cost of living.” 

On the campaign trail, she promised to cut sales taxes on everyday goods and to slash VAT on fuel and energy – a policy that will win approval with the Gilets Jaunes – the protestors who staged demonstrations against a fuel tax rise in 2018. 

***

It was clear from the debate that Marine Le Pen has not moved far from her hard-right roots: she called for a ban on wearing the hijab in public, reiterated her anti-immigration stance, and maintained her eurosceptic position. 

But her new image and her “France first” vision have really cut through with voters.

“Supporters chanting: “Marine, president! Marine, president!” 

BBC

Marine Le Pen is still behind Emmanuel Macron in the polls, it’s his election to lose. But she has climbed a long way in public opinion. 

She speaks to voters who feel left behind by globalisation and alienated by political elites. 

And that’s a powerful platform for a politician to hold. 

Today’s story was written by Ella Hill and mixed by Imy Harper.