President Le Pen? It’s now or never

By Jack Parker

France’s political landscape currently sits in utter disarray. The Socialist François Hollande faces unprecedented low approval ratings for his response to the so-called ‘Wave of Terror,’ while François Fillon, the candidate for France’s other major political party, les Républicains, has been plagued with controversies that have almost completely derailed his campaign. The polls currently have the young centrist Emmanuel Macron and the leader of the far-right Front National, Marine Le Pen, jostling for pole position.

Marine Le Pen inherited the leadership of the Front National in 2011 from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Marine has spent the past few years trying to soften the party’s image, leading a movement to ‘de-demonise’ it and make it more attractive to voters. She went as far as expelling her own father from the party in 2015 after he claimed that Nazi gas chambers were ‘a detail in the history of World War II’.

The main problem for the Front National is that despite a relaxation of some of its political stances, it remains incredibly divisive. It’s the Marmite party; you either agree with every word they stand for, or hate them with every bone in your body.

As a result, far-right parties are rarely a voter’s second, third, or even fourth choice. The majority of people who will ever vote for Marine Le Pen will do so at the first opportunity, in the first round of voting. Should she make it to the second round of voting, she won’t gain much of the extra support she needs to reach the winning threshold of 50%.

But what does this mean for her chances of becoming President? It means that in reality, her chances are very slim.

The Front National has actually advanced to the second round of voting once before, when Jean-Marine Le Pen rocked the political world in the infamous election of 2002. Le Pen’s success stopped there however, since the other candidate, the conservative Jacques Chirac, ended up polling 82% of the vote – the biggest landslide in French presidential history. Le Pen increased his vote share by just 1%.

For many voters in 2002, Chirac was the lesser of two evils. The vast majority of the electorate voted for Chirac, whether they actually wanted him as President or not, just to block Le Pen’s path to the Presidency. The French people were resolute – they wanted anyone but Le Pen.

Admittedly, Marine Le Pen is significantly more moderate in her political views than her father. Under Marine, the Front National accepts unconditional abortion rights, advocates for civil unions for same-sex couples and has withdrawn its support for the death penalty. Despite these relaxations of party policy, her strong anti-immigration policies and firm nationalist stance still alienate many voters.

The Front National of 2017 is very different from the party that was carried to the second round in 2002; but Marine Le Pen still carries the controversial ‘Le Pen’ name, and in the minds of much of the electorate, the party is still the ultranationalist machine it was decades ago.

If there was any time for a far-right candidate like Marine Le Pen to muster up enough votes to snatch the Presidency, now would be it. Traditional French politics is in tatters, a wave of populism is sweeping across the continent, and Euroscepticism is growing. She will almost certainly progress to the second round of voting, but she simply isn’t popular enough to win the election.

It’s difficult to see how a candidate as divisive as Marine Le Pen can become the President of France.

Photograph: Blandine Le Cain via flickr.

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