Elections in France open when Marine Le Pen rises

French President Emmanuel Macron at a rally on Saturday, April 2, 2022, on the outskirts of Paris. (Dmitry Kostyukov / The New York Times)

PARIS – Emmanuel Macron is finally out. Last weekend, the French president stepped into a wide arena, plunged into darkness and lit only by spotlights and light sticks, in front of a crowd of 30,000 fans at a stadium with a dome in the suburbs of Paris.

It was a very choreographic performance – his first campaign in less than a week – with something like a rock concert. But Macron came to sound the alarm.

Don’t think that “everything is decided, that everything will go well,” he told the crowd, belatedly acknowledging that the presidential election, which seemed almost certain to bring him back to power, had suddenly opened.

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The diplomatic attempt to end the war in Ukraine took a long time for Macron, so he had little time for the French election to arouse the growing danger that France might turn to anti-immigrant rights. his Moscow-friendly policy and NATO skepticism.

Marine Le Pen, a leader of the hard right who is making her third attempt to gain power, has stepped up in the last couple of weeks as her patient focus on the cost of living resonates with millions of Frenchmen struggling to make ends meet after rising gas prices than 35% last year.

A recent poll by the respected group Ifop-Fiducial found that Le Pen received 21.5% of the vote in Sunday’s first round, almost double the share of fading far-right upstart Eric Zemmour with 11% and closed. a gap of Macron of 28%. The two leading candidates advance to the second round on April 24.

More worrying for Macron was that the poll showed that in the second round he was ahead of Le Pen by only 53.5% -46.5%. In the last presidential election in 2017, Macron outscored Le Pen by 66.1% to 33.9% in the second round.

“It’s an illusion that this election was won for Mr. Macron,” said Nicolas Tenzer, an author who teaches political science at the University of Sciences Po. “With a high level of restraint, which is possible, and with a level of hatred for the president, some people may be genuinely surprised. The idea that Le Pen wins is not impossible. “

Edouard Philippe, a former prime minister in Macron’s government, warned last week that “of course, Ms. Le Pen can win”.

A month ago, such a thought would have seemed ridiculous. Le Pen looked like he once did after the trials and setbacks of 2012 and 2017. Zemmour, a hilarious anti-immigrant television expert who has turned into a politician in whom Donald Trump has more than felt, has put her on the right position of the political spectrum. arguing that Islam and France are incompatible.

But now Zemmur’s campaign seems to be in a frenzy, as Le Pen, who said last year that “Ukraine belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence,” is reaping the benefits of its Milquetoast transformation.

Zemmur may have eventually rendered Le Pen a favor. Bypassing her on the right, becoming the main candidate against open xenophobia, he helped the candidate from the National Rally (formerly the National Front) in her search for “trivialization” – an attempt to gain legitimacy and look more “presidential”. ”, Becoming part of the French political mainstream.

Macron has fallen two to three percentage points in polls over the past week, and is increasingly criticized for his refusal to discuss other candidates and the general view of more important issues such as war and peace in Europe than the painstaking machinations of French democracy.

A recent cartoon on the front page of the daily newspaper Le Monde showed Macron clutching a mobile phone and turning away from the crowd at a rally. “Vladimir, I’m just finishing this case and calling back,” he says.

With the colorless prime minister in Jeanne Castes – Macron tended to be wary of anyone who might impress his aura – there were several other persuasive politicians who could campaign for the president in his absence. His centrist political party, La République en Marche, gained no importance in municipal and regional politics. Widely seen as just a vessel for Macron’s agenda.

Extensive use by its government of consulting firms, including McKinsey & Co., with costs of more than $ 1.1 billion, some of it on the best ways to counter COVID-19, has also led to a wave of criticism of Macron in recent days. Former banker Macron has often been attacked as the “president of the rich” in a country with deeply ambivalent feelings about wealth and capitalism.

However, Macron proved that he skillfully occupies the whole central spectrum of French politics, insisting that the liberation of the economy is compatible with maintaining and even increasing the role of the French state in social protection. Well-known figures of the center-left and center-right were present at his rally on Saturday.

For the past five years, he has shown both facets of his policy, first simplifying the labor code maze and boosting the business culture of startups, and then adopting a “whatever it costs” policy to save people’s livelihoods during the coronavirus pandemic. His settlement of this crisis after a slow start is considered successful.

“He has fully coped with this task,” Tenser said.

However, most of the left feels betrayed by his policies, regardless of the environment, the economy or the place of Islam in French society, and Macron tried on Saturday to counter the notion that his heart lay on the right. Citing investment in education, promising to raise minimum pensions and provide tax-free bonuses to employees this summer, Macron said he was concerned about those whose wages are disappearing on “petrol, bills, rent.”

After Macron assumed that his image as a statesman-peacemaker would be enough to secure him a second term, it was like a time of catching up. Vincent Martini, a professor of political science at the University of Nice, said of Macron that “his choice to remain head of state until the end did not allow him to become a real candidate.”

An alarming scenario for Macron is that Zemmour will vote for Le Pen in the second round, and that she will be backed by a broad majority of leftists who feel betrayed or simply hostile to the president, as well as some centers. right-wing voters for whom immigration is a major issue.

During the province’s first presidential raid, a visit to Dijon last week where he spent time in the work area accompanied by a Socialist mayor, Macron offered the following explanation for his sometimes cunning policies: “If you go, you need two legs. One on the left and one on the right. And you have to settle down one after the other to move forward. ”

It was such a clever phrase that outraged Macron’s opponents, leaving them unsure from which side to attack him.

Le Pen has relentlessly focused on economic issues, promising to cut gas and electricity prices, tax hire foreign workers for the benefit of citizens, keep the 35-hour week and maintain the retirement age at 62, while Macron wants to raise it to 65.

Macron warned that the French would have to “work harder”, a phrase dear to former center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy – a means of attracting Sarkozy’s loyal followers to Macron’s camp.

If Le Pen wanted to appear to be a lenient politician, she did not turn from an anti-immigrant zealot as she liked to think. Its program includes a plan to hold a referendum that would change the Constitution, banning policies that would lead to the “establishment of a number of foreigners on national territory so great that it would change the composition and identity of the French people.”

“France, the country of immigration, is over,” she said in February. She also said the French should not allow their country to be “buried under the veil of multiculturalism”. In September 2021, she declared: “French criminals in prison, foreigners on a plane!”

Working-class voting is essentially divided between Le Pen and tough left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon, who is also gaining ground in recent polls as the electorate begins to focus on which vote will be most effective for nominating a candidate. second round. But about 15% of Melenchon seems to be significantly behind Le Pen in the race for the second round.

For the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, the French left has been chronically split to almost political absurdity. The Socialist Party, whose candidate Francois Hollande won the 2012 election and ruled until 2017, collapsed, garnering just 1.5% of the vote in the Ifop-Fiducial poll.

Although Le Pen tried to distance herself a little from Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom she met in Moscow in 2017, and whose policies she supported before the war in Ukraine, she still feels allergic to harsh measures against Russia. Its victory would threaten European unity, worry French allies from Washington to Warsaw, Poland, and confront the European Union with the biggest crisis since Brexit.

“Do we want to die?” she asked in a recent televised debate when asked if France should stop importing oil and gas from Russia. “Economically we would have perished!”

She added: “We have to think about our people.”

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