The most consequential election of 2017

Even if defeated, Marine Le Pen has changed French politics

France is more divided than ever
 
AS FAMILY outings go, it was unorthodox. No fewer than 20 members of all ages travelled from Normandy to a soulless exhibition hall 20km (12 miles) north of Paris, to watch the nationalist Marine Le Pen take the stage for her last big campaign rally. The youngest in the troop was seven; there were several teenaged girls with pony-tails. But the family seemed thrilled. “For 30 years, politicians have ruined this country,” said Bernard, an uncle in the clan, who works in funeral insurance: “They tell us that we’re racist, but that’s nonsense. She’s the one who’s got concrete ideas to get us out of this chaos.”

Ahead of the run-off vote for the French presidential election on May 7th, Ms Le Pen trails her liberal opponent, Emmanuel Macron, by a hefty 20 points. But she has not given up the fight. On May 3rd she lashed out at Mr Macron in a televised debate against the 39-year-old one-time banker, casting the election as a referendum on globalisation and finance. She accused the former economy minister of being the candidate of “the system”, “Uberisation of society”, and “savage globalisation”.

In an echo of a campaign line used by François Hollande, the Socialist president, in 2012, Ms Le Pen told flag-waving supporters in Villepinte: “Today, the enemy of the French people is still the world of finance, but this time he has a name, he has a face, he has a party, he is presenting his candidacy and everyone dreams of him being elected: he is called Emmanuel Macron.”

It is a message that chimes with a big chunk of the electorate in a fractured country. Big cities and college-educated voters favour Mr Macron and his pro-European, business-friendly politics, while struggling smaller towns and rural parts lean to the protectionist, anti-immigration Eurosceptism of Ms Le Pen. Even some of those who recoil at her xenophobia turn out to loathe the world of finance even more. “Neither banker, nor racist” read a banner at a protest rally in Paris. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a Communist-backed candidate who came a close fourth, refused to call for a vote for Mr Macron against Ms Le Pen. Fully 65% of his supporters said that they would abstain or spoil their ballot papers.
Ms Le Pen has made some gains. She secured the first national alliance in the 45-year history of her party, the National Front (FN), hooking up with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a right-wing Eurosceptic who scored nearly 5% of the vote in the first round. Ms Le Pen, who won 21%, has also tried to broaden her base by reaching out to the mainstream right (with its older voters) and the far left (with its younger ones). She lifted a stirring passage on regional identity from a speech by François Fillon, the defeated centre-right candidate, which her aides insisted was a “wink” at his electorate. Her team made an appeal on social media to Mr Mélenchon’s “unsubmissive” voters too, pointing to their shared positions such as distrust of NATO and desire for retirement at the age of 60.

Perhaps most striking, Ms Le Pen softened her position on the euro. Her vow to quit the single currency has long divided the FN: those around Florian Philippot, her lieutenant, consider it a centrepiece; those close to Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, her niece and an FN deputy, see it as a distraction. But it has turned into a liability for her run-off campaign. Older voters in particular worry that a currency devaluation could slash their pensions and savings. So Ms Le Pen has fudged the issue, with a muddled plan for parallel currencies instead. At a FN souvenir stand in Villepinte, offering such delights as pendants and earrings featuring Ms Le Pen’s blue-rose emblem, Anne-Claire, an off-duty police official, agrees: “The euro isn’t what matters; Marine is about defending the values of France.”

Nonetheless, it will be extremely difficult for Ms Le Pen to make up the gap between her and Mr Macron in the remaining days. No poll has put her remotely close to winning a majority.

She gets over 50% in only one region, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the FN’s southern stronghold. In Brittany and greater Paris, her score drops to 31%. It would take a historic upset at this point for her to keep Mr Macron from the presidency. A loss for Ms Le Pen would be a symbolic defeat of the forces of nationalism and populism that have gained ground in parts of Europe. It could also put internal pressure on her leadership. “If she gets much less than 40%, the party will consider it a disappointment,” says Cas Mudde, a scholar of extremism.

Yet it would be a mistake all the same to understate Ms Le Pen’s achievement. With a first-round score of 7.7m votes, she has already set a historic record for the FN (see chart). In 2002, when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, also made it into the presidential run-off, there were demonstrations across the country and his opponent, Jacques Chirac, swept up 82% of the vote. This time, the streets have been mostly quiet, and she looks set to double his score. Mr Macron may well be safely elected on May 7th. But he will inherit a deeply divided country.

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