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Opinion Macron's politically divisive presidency may have engineered Le Pen's comeback

Despite Macron’s pledge to limit the appeal of extremist parties, Le Pen is within touching distance of the Élysée, writes Dr Maura Stewart.

FOLLOWING A RATHER underwhelming election campaign for the French presidency overshadowed first by the Covid-19 pandemic and then by the war in Ukraine – the centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron (La République en Marche) is once again facing off against the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen (Le Rassemblement National) in the second round of the French presidential election tomorrow.

This rematch is down to roughly similar first-round results. Macron and Le Pen obtained respectively nearly 27.8% and 23.2% of the vote, slightly higher than the 24% and 21.3% in 2017.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of La France Insoumise, was once again the only left-wing
candidate with a chance of making it to the second round, with 22% of the vote, up
from 19.6% in 2017.

Five years ago those first round results disrupted the traditional right-left party
duopoly that had reigned since Charles de Gaulle’s establishment of the Fifth
Republic in 1958.

This year the results have accelerated that trend.

Valérie Pécresse of the centre-right party Les Républicains, only obtained 4.8%.
Anne Hidalgo of the centre-left Parti socialiste, which held the presidency and
dominated the National Assembly five years ago, finished amongst the fringe
candidates on 1.7%, the lowest score in its party’s history.

In his victory speech five years ago, Emmanuel Macron promised to do everything in
his presidency to reduce the appeal of extremist parties, so that those who voted for
candidates such as Marine Le Pen would no longer have any reason to do.

Now he stands accused of putting her within touching distance of the presidency.

arras-france-21st-apr-2022-far-right-party-rassemblement-national-rn-presidential-candidate-marine-le-pen-delivers-a-speech-during-an-election-campaign-meeting-in-arras-northern-france-on-apri Marine Le Pen delivers a speech during an election campaign meeting in Arras, northern France on Thursday. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

It is worth remembering that support for the far right has existed long before Macron’s presidency. His predecessor François Mitterrand facilitated the breakthrough of the far right into the political scene during his 1981-1988 presidency in order to weaken the traditional right-wing parties.

The 1988 presidential election gave Mitterrand a second term, but it also gave Jean-
Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father, an unexpected high score of more than 14%
in the first round.

That said, it could be argued that Macron has engineered the duel with Le Pen -
throughout his mandate he has pursued a strategy of framing the political divide as a
binary contest between those who are outward-looking or “progressives” and those
who are inward-looking or “populists”/”nationalists”.

This approach was particularly apparent in the 2019 European election campaign
with Laurent Wauqiuez, then leader of Les Républicains, stating that Macron’s
proposals discuss “pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans, progressives and
nationalists, saviours and destroyers, with nothing in-between”.

However, Macron also appeared to muddy the waters between himself and Le Pen in veering more towards the right in the latter half of his presidency. He described post-colonial or anti-colonial discourse as a “form of self-hatred” that is used to fuel Islamist separatism.

His Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, accused Marine Le Pen of being “almost a little soft” in a televised debate. His party’s security bill restricted the publication of police images on social media and extended the use of surveillance drones, amid other measures.

Macron has managed to steer France through the pandemic, and improve the unemployment rate (currently 7.4%) in a country where a sluggish jobs market has plagued politicians on the left and right for decades. However, he has struggled with crises such as the Gilets Jaunes (‘yellow vests’) protests and pension reform strikes.

His tax policies, his vertical or “Jupiterian” approach, not helped by his short and rather aloof first round campaign, along with his occasional sarcastic remarks, have fostered an impression of a haughty, out-of-touch “president for the rich” and have made him the object of intense loathing among significant segments of the population.

french-president-and-centrist-la-republique-en-marche-lrem-party-candidate-for-re-election-emmanuel-macron-holds-a-rally-on-the-last-day-of-campaigning-in-figeac-southern-france-on-april-22-2022 Emmanuel Macron holds a rally on the last day of campaigning in Figeac, southern France. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The combative televised debate between the presidential finalists on Wednesday night did not dispel this negative impression. While a snap poll of voters suggested that 59% of viewers thought Macron had come out the winner, 50% also said that he had come across as arrogant.

Le Pen was narrowly considered to be more in tune with normal people’s concerns.

Since she took over the party from Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2011, her strategy has been to broaden its appeal to lower income voters. While she has retained the party’s core anti-immigrant positions, she has adopted a softer, smiling persona and focused more on the rising cost of living, economic hardship and declining public services in rural areas.

In a tweet on Thursday, she presented Macron’s domination of their debate as a sign of contempt, not just towards her but also towards the French people.

If Macron wins tomorrow, he will be the first president since Jacques Chirac to embark on a second term of office. (Nicolas Sarkozy was unsuccessful in 2012 and François Hollande opted to not seek re-election in 2017).

In 2002, the centre-right Chirac comfortably won re-election following a massive wave of protests against the first ever qualification of a far-right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to the run-off.

The latest opinion polls show approximately 56:44 in favour of Macron.

However, this all depends on the floating voters, particularly those on the left who supported Mélanchon in the first round, and the potential level of abstention.

If he wins tomorrow, the parliamentary elections in June will be a major test, as he needs to renew his majority in order to pursue his reformist agenda, including a controversial overhaul of the pensions system.

Macron’s party still lacks a strong network of local elected officials across France after poor performances in the municipal, regional and departmental elections. Macron may have wiped out the main institutional parties in the first round of the election, but his own party could face a similar fate in the not too distant future.

Dr Maura Stewart is Lecturer in French at NUI Galway.

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