A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

A Race to the Finish

Ahead in the polls, hard-right leader Marine Le Pen faces a Catch-22.

It’s been a wild and rocky ride in France’s presidential election campaign. Candidates are dodging scandals and dark horses as they jockey for the top position ahead of the vote in April and May.

© REUTERS/Robert Pratta

“We have the right to be proud to be French and should say so out loud!” It was a sentence that drew a roar from thousands of Marine Le Pen’s fans as she launched her election platform over the weekend. They showered her with standing ovations and chanted “Marine Présidente” and “On est chez nous” (“This is our country”).

At a party rally in Lyon, the leader of Front National had painted herself the savior of the nation in the face of terrorism and globalization. And she struck just the right chord with traditional FN voters who had traveled from wide and far to hear her speak.

Le Pen is banking on their support. She is aiming to pull off yet another surprise in what has already been one of France’s most extraordinary presidential election campaigns. But the road to victory seems to be rocky, to say the least.

So far, the presidential campaign has seen a series of twists and turns. Neither the Republican nor the Socialist presidential candidate – François Fillon and Benoît Hamon – had been expected to win their party’s primary elections. And neither of them might now stand a chance to become president. Instead, Le Pen is leading in the polls – at least when it comes to the first round of voting. She may well have to take on independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, whose ratings have unexpectedly been skyrocketing.

Polls are predicting Le Pen won’t win the second round of voting (the decisive run-off vote) whoever she faces. But she’s hoping to prove those figures wrong, and she’s doing so with a 144-point manifesto that reflects traditional FN policy lines – sovereignty, a strong state, an anti-immigration stance, and economic protectionism. It plays to right-wing populist and nationalist sentiment on the rise in France.

Yet at the same time, the manifesto appears to be softer than FN’s previous platform in the 2012 elections. Controversial measures have been toned down or dropped entirely. The return of the death penalty, for example, is no longer to be found. An exit from the eurozone is mentioned, but it no longer takes up a whole chapter. And anti-immigration measures like tougher penalties for foreign criminals are still part of the program but not as omnipresent as they used to be.

That’s a well-known FN strategy – the so-called “dédiabolisation.” By un-demonizing its image, the party has been able to gain significant ground in regional and local elections over the past few years. Emmanuelle Reungoat, political researcher at Montpellier University, believes it’s an easy ploy to pick apart.

“On closer inspection, this manifesto is along classic FN lines and even rather radical in certain points,” she observes. “The party is pledging for a very authoritarian society and party model that is everything but soft.”

Stiff Competition

Le Pen will also be facing stiff competition in Macron, the former economics minister. A central part of Le Pen’s appeal is that she depicts herself as an outsider to the system. After all, her party has never governed the country.

But Macron is also playing the outsider card. He says he identifies with none of the established parties and is running on an independent, market-orientated ticket. To many, his slogans sound more positive and inclusive than Le Pen’s doomsday messages against globalization.

The latest polls predict Macron will be second and no longer third in the first round of voting. If so, he would get through to round two – and beat Marine Le Pen, according to predictions.

Macron has of course been benefiting from yet another surprise of this election season. François Fillon, the Republican candidate who had been campaigned as “Mr. Clean,” has found himself embroiled in a financial scandal over alleged payments to his wife and children for work they didn’t do. Despite increasing pressure to drop out of the race, Fillon, apologizing to voters on Monday, is standing fast. Still, some disappointed Fillon supporters are seen as willing to vote for Macron.

And there is yet another candidate Le Pen should be watching – Benoît Hamon, the surprise winner of the primaries of the Socialist Party (PS). The PS is of course suffering from President François Hollande’s historically low approval ratings and has long been predicted to come fifth in the first round of voting. They are even expected to be outdistanced by the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

But the former education minister seems to have rebooted the socialists’ image, promising a “desirable future,” or the right to dream again. His message is not lost on French voters: Hamon is speaking out against austerity politics in a country where growth has been sluggish and unemployment high. He is proposing to further reduce working hours from 35 to 32 hours per week and introducing a universal monthly income of €750.

Hamon has now overtaken Mélenchon in the polls and is rising steadily, increasing his share of the vote from 8 to 17 percent. An alliance with the far-left candidate could boost him further. Victory no longer seems completely out of reach, says Bruno Cautrès from the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris. “Don’t write him off too early – no-one knows what will happen next in this election campaign,” he warns.

That element of uncertainty could of course also benefit Le Pen. But Jean-Yves Camus, political analyst at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, believes the party won’t be able to win. The reason: the FN is facing a Catch-22.

“The party would need to become a lot more mainstream to win the necessary more than 50 percent of the vote in the run-off. But at the same time, it needs to maintain its outsider image so as not to lose its core supporter base,” he says. “I think the FN is just designed to forever stay an opposition party.”

NB. German readers may want to visit the German Council on Foreign Relations’ “Frankreich Blog” (“Liberté, Égalité, Élysée”) for detailed comment and analysis of the French presidential elections.