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

Pariscope: The Useful Le Pen Threat


After Barack Obama came Donald Trump. So will Emmanuel Macron be followed by Marine Le Pen? No, but evoking that threat could prove useful for the incumbent.

Artwork © Claude Cadi

What do German Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Münchau, French sociologist Didier Eribon, and Brexiteer-in-chief Nigel Farage have in common? They all think France is ripe for a takeover by the far-right Marine Le Pen.

The argument: Emmanuel Macron has failed on all counts. The French president has gotten nowhere with his plans for EU reform. His domestic policy agenda has divided the country. In a run-off with Le Pen, left-wingers will stay at home. We’ve seen it in the United States and Italy: centrist reformers pave the way for populists. the 2022 French presidential vote could be the shock election continental Europe has not yet had.

Whether this scenario plays out or not, how you think about tomorrow influences how you act today. Parisians joke about how a Le Pen win could provoke a welcome correction to the capital’s overheated housing market. Politicians in Berlin say they are hesitant on eurozone integration because faith in protest-ridden France is low. What happens to the EU if the notoriously “pas content” French vote Le Pen into the Élysée?

Election Time

France is entering its next election cycle. Municipal elections are coming up in March. Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) is certain to perform badly. The upstart party isn’t even fielding candidates in many of France’s 34,839 municipalities. Moreover, in Paris, LREM is facing the difficult task of trying to replace the popular outgoing mayor Anne Hidalgo, a socialist rumored to be eyeing a bid the Élysée. To make things worse, the LREM mayoral contender Benjamin Griveaux stepped down just weeks before the elections because of a sex video scandal; his replacement, Minister of Health Agnès Buzyn, faces an uphill struggle, to say the least. In the spring of 2021, regional elections will follow. Here, LREM will try to coopt or defeat the remaining heavyweights from the center-right Les Républicains who could challenge Macron in 2022.

In the dynastic Rassemblement National (RN), the rebranded Front National, Le Pen has already announced she will run for the presidency for a third time. With her niece waiting in the wings, this might be her last shot. Le Pen has been crisscrossing la douce France, trying to soften her image. No more talk of exiting the euro. No mention of her confidante Axel Loustau, who practices the Nazi salute. Instead, Le Pen now wants to change the EU from within and has commemorated the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp 75 years ago.

In this election context, the Élysée is shifting from policy to politics. Macron has delivered the key policies of his 2017 campaign program: reforms of the labor market, unemployment insurance, taxation, and now pensions. In France, change rarely comes without a street fight. But after three years of social conflict, the country that celebrates the revolutionary myth like no other is desperate for some peace.

And Macron himself needs things to calm down so that his reforms can unfold to their full potential. Over the next two years, Macron will try to sit tight at home, conduct foreign policy, and focus on his campaign.

Unholy Alliance

Macron is starting from a passable, though not great, position to try and become the first reelected president since the late Jacques Chirac. His approval ratings (34 percent) are much higher than François Hollande’s (17 percent), but a bit lower than Nicolas Sarkozy’s (37 percent) at similar points in their presidential terms.

Just like Sarkozy, Macron is passionately hated by many. For fervent left-wingers and the far-right, the former Rothschild banker who told an unemployed man that he could easily find a job by “crossing the street” is a neo-liberal capitalist. Both groups also agree that Macron is Angela Merkel’s lackey.

At the end of the TV debate ahead of the second round of the 2017 elections, Le Pen said: “France will be governed by a woman from Sunday: it is either me or Ms Merkel—that’s the reality.” In a speech in parliament after the 2017 elections, left-wing nationalist Jean-Luc Mélenchon exclaimed: “We haven’t voted for Merkel!”

“In politics, shared hatreds are almost always the basis of friendships,” Alexis de Tocqueville said. Indeed, Mélenchon finds increasingly kind words for Le Pen. The France Insoumise (FI) leader labels Merkel as “anti-humanist,” but congratulates Le Pen for “progressing toward humanism” and joining the pension reform protests.

In the first round of the 2017 presidential elections Le Pen got 21.3 percent of the vote, Mélenchon 19.6 percent, and Gaullist euroskeptic Nicolas Dupont-Aignan 4.7 percent. So are Münchau, Éribon and Farage right? Is that the basis on which the self-declared “common-sense politician” Le Pen will accede to the Élysée this time?

Macron‘s Track Record

This narrative has a major problem. In 2017, all the conditions were in place for a Le Pen win. The economy was growing at a snail’s pace, the 2015 terror attacks had traumatized the country, and the refugee crisis—coupled with Michel Houllebecq’s novel Soumission—had fueled an absurd narrative of a “Muslim takeover” across the country. But despite this, Le Pen got only 33.9 percent of the vote in the second round.

Absent a major crisis, Macron will be the first president since Chirac to stand for reelection with a positive economic track record. France’s investment-to-GDP ratio has surpassed Germany’s. Hiring a minimum-wage worker in France is now cheaper than in Germany. Unemployment has dropped from 9.3 percent to 7.9 percent since Macron took over and is continuing in this direction. Tax cuts are boosting spending power, and ultra-low interest rates allow the Élysée to continue running fiscal deficits. Macron learned from Obama and former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi that sticking to fiscal responsibility in the face of populists is self-defeating.

While having a decent economy is not enough to counter the far-right—if it were, right-wing populists in Switzerland wouldn’t get 26 percent of the vote—it certainly helps. Meanwhile, on the issue of migration, Macron is difficult to attack as he follows a hardline policy himself.

Moreover, the RN has struggled to build momentum, despite the Yellow Vests protest movement. Last year’s European election was a disappointment. The party lost 1.5 percentage points compared to 2015 and more than halved its share among French voters under 35, despite having installed the charismatic 23-year-old Jordan Bardella as its lead candidate.

A Beneficial Narrative

Lastly, France’s political landscape is evolving. A standoff between Macron and Le Pen is not a foregone conclusion. At the European elections, the Greens (13.5 percent) clearly outperformed the far-left FI (6.3 percent). Mélenchon has been drifting toward irrelevance, in large part because of his flirtation with the far-right.

It is the Greens that have caught the tailwind of the Greta-wave and are in the running to win some important cities for the first time, such as northern Rouen and southern Montpellier. In 2022, the dominant force on the left is likely to be Green and pro-European. Not the nationalist Mélenchon. This is a problem for Macron who has delivered little on his “Make the Planet Great Again” pledge.

Talking up the likelihood of a Le Pen victory in 2022 is a beneficial narrative for many. For the radical left, it supports the argument that the EU needs to become more than a “neoliberal project.” For Germans, it provides a good excuse to hold back on EU integration. For Brexiteers, it vindicates their decision to leave. And for Macron, this discourse allows him to portray himself as the only alternative to Le Pen and to sideline the Greens.

But like the gloomy picture of a collapse of the EU—which Münchau and Farage are also equally apt to evoke—the specter of Le Pen in the Élysée is unlikely to materialize anytime soon.