Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Marine Le Pen’s election bid

Things could still go wrong for frontrunner Emmanuel Macron in the crucial second round of the French presidential elections, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

Last Saturday I called an influential friend, someone who is “not far away” from French presidential elections candidate Emmanuel Macron’s inner circle. His mood was gloomy. “According to the polls, we should win without too much difficulty, but things could go wrong, and there is something wrong in the atmosphere,” he said.

“We still have two out of three chances of winning, but this means [Front National leader] Marine Le Pen has one chance in three. The times are changing. 15 years ago, her father did not have one chance in a hundred.”

When then Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen emerged as a clear second in the 2002 presidential race in France, he was the first one to be surprised. His calculations had been wrong. He did not want to rule: he simply wanted to prevent a victory for mainstream right candidate Jacques Chirac. Le Pen wanted to be a powerful third and to give instructions against the outgoing president. Instead, by reaching the second round of the elections, he granted him an overwhelming victory.

This time round, Marine Le Pen wants to rule. She started a long journey to “normalise” her party 15 years ago, wanting it no longer to be seen as a pariah and deemed to be the enemy of French republican and humanist values. She started by attacking the system in France in the name of those values. According to her, the French ruling parties were the ones who had betrayed “equality”, leaving the country’s poor to their fate in the name of efficiency and competitiveness.

It was the country’s ruling parties that had betrayed secularism and laïcité by cozying up to the Islamists, who had betrayed the motherland by attracting immigrants to France, with these then undermining the labour market by accepting lower wages. She carefully stopped the anti-Semitic rhetoric of her father and his friends, and she acted decisively against those caught saying dreadful things against the Jews.

Of course, when Le Pen attacks “international finance” some of the members of her party understand her to mean “Jews”. She did not fire all those who held anti-Semitic views. But she nevertheless seemed to be more urbane, more secular, more articulate and more willing to break with her party’s past.

However, her discourse nevertheless remains much the same, being that of a leader who is the son (in this case the daughter) of the people and who rises to denounce the treason of the elite, seen as the cause of all the country’s ills. This leader speaks directly to the public (now through the modern media) and says, in effect, that “an authentic will is enough to solve all the country’s problems The problem is the bad faith of the elites.”

Marine Le Pen also combines two different themes in her discourse: the protest of the poor and impoverished middle classes against the misdeeds of the elite and of all those who want to be protected by the state and fear for their jobs and for their future security; and a defence of identity, overtly or covertly a racist discourse that says that immigrants belong to an alien culture and cannot be integrated into France. This second emphasis pretends that Christianity and secularism in France are under threat from “Muslim invaders”.

She has capitalised on many legitimate concerns. It has been easily overlooked how globalisation has been putting pressure on the Western middle classes. Both French presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac and former prime minister Lionel Jospin sold globalisation and the European Union to French voters by claiming that Europeans would be able to earn more while working less. It turned out to be quite the opposite: they had to work more for stagnant or declining wages, and the less qualified were no longer able to find jobs.

The transition from an industrial economy to a post-industrial one in France has been a blessing for 40 to 50 per cent of society and a disaster for the other 50 to 60 per cent. Many have felt uneasy about the growing presence of Islam in France, notably because of the pressure exerted by some Islamists against the country’s secular system, and they have felt uneasy, too, with the new ideology of the elites — multiculturalism, or a specific culture for each minority.

During the first round of this year’s presidential elections in France, nearly 7.7 million voters voted for Le Pen, a record. However, this stunning achievement does not tell the whole story. What is astonishing is the number of voters who abstained, apparently not seeing the difference between a “banker” and a “racist” or between an “ultra-liberal” and a “fascist”, meaning Macron and Le Pen.

This says a great deal about the terrible effects of globalisation in France and the violence it has inflicted on the bottom half of European societies. A lot of people no longer consider extreme-right violence and exclusionary practices as something that should be fiercely opposed. They consider economic liberalism to be just as exclusionary and just as violent. This is appalling. Moreover, for the first time since the National Front came into existence in the 1970s, it has achieved an alliance with another political party, in this case with the formation led by politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignant, who scored 4.7 per cent of the vote in the first round of the elections.

Dupont-Aignant would be prime minister should Le Pen be elected president, and he has extracted some significant concessions from the Front National. But the symbolic impact of his decision has been huge. For the first time, a “normal” party has broken the taboo on any alliance with the Front National. It is too early to tell if this is an exception or if it is the dawn of a new era. But there are good reasons to be worried.

Le Pen had a difficult first round of the elections. Three months ago, the polls credited her with 25 to 28 per cent of the vote, but she expected more. Instead, she lost points in the elections themselves, scoring less than 22 per cent of the vote. A lot of reasons can be given to explain this, among them the strong campaign by extreme-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. I now think that she did not know who she should pick as her main enemy in the elections: should it be mainstream right candidate François Fillon, or should it be Mélenchon, who was trying to poach some of her voters? Should it be Macron, who represented everything she despised?

Now things are clearer, Le Pen can compete more confidently. Macron is a perfect enemy, as she can turn the election into a referendum on globalisation, economic liberalisation and the European Union. She has toned down her xenophobia. She has seized the initiative, has kept on surprising Macron and has forced him to rush to adapt to her agenda. Her aim is to exhaust him and then to win the television debate before the second round of the elections.

Of course, some difficulties remain: if she wants to attract older voters, those who are afraid for their savings, she will have to cling onto the Euro. But this is anathema for many of her voters. She will find it difficult to attract both Fillon’s and Mélenchon’s voters at the same time.

But Macron has problems too. Trying to prove that Le Pen’s economic programme is nonsensical does not ring a bell with those who feel that the smart economists have already adopted policies that have endangered or destroyed their jobs. Trying to play on the values ground means evoking the past for people who are worrying about the future.

Telling people “don’t believe her when she claims to be defending French republican values” is tantamount to inviting her to say “just try me.”

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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