How Marine Le Pen Might Win
We had a highly successful recce in France last week, where we spent much of our time in the northern Pas de Calais area. We chose this area because it has been a focus of a national attention as the National Front makes huge in roads into France’s formidable left-wing voting block. The left has had far more political influence in France than in either the US or UK and it has successfully united with the centre-right to block Le Pen’s party from getting to power several times over the past 15 years. But conditions look very different this year. And as you’ll see there are many echoes with Trumps electoral success in the States last year.
Why things are different for Le Pen this time round
There’s a pyramid of assumptions that presume if Marine Le Pen reaches the second round the left and right will unite to defeat her.
That assumption is largely based on current polling that puts Le Pen and Emanuel Macron in the lead with roughly 25% each. If no candidate wins over 50% on April the 23, the election will go to a second round with the first two candidates competing.
The belief is that as in 2002 when Gaullist candidate, Jacques Chirac, took on Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Mari Le Pen, Macron would scoop up the remaining 50% of voters. The left might go to the polls with a foul taste in their mouths but anyone would be better than Le Pen. In 2015, voters did a similar thing at regional elections. The Socialist party withdrew their candidates in areas where the National Front was strong for a second round of local elections and voted for the centre-right. The National Front failed to win a single regional government.
This years things could be different.
At a national level the Socialist Party is in disarray and divided. Francois Hollande has had one of the lowest approval ratings of any president in recent years and the left-wing vote is fractured.
Macron is viewed as a centre-left, pro-business candidate. To his left lie both Benoit Hamon, the Socialist Party’s candidate, and Jean-Luc Melenchon (Rebellious France) who together have about 25% of the vote between them. If they stick with Macron, Le Pen would need all of the centre-right Francois Fillon’s supporters to back her to have a chance of winning.
But like Trumps route to victory through the rust-belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which overturned assumption about blue-collar support for the Democrats, the National Front appear to have mined the long vein of discontent in the industrial north. It’s a theme that has resonated across France, where the economy has been stagnant.
The Euro-sceptic, anti-immigrant party has made huge inroads in working class areas, first starting in the small mining town of Henin-Beaumont where they won the local council in 2014, and now dominating the region in Nord – Pas de Calais – Picardie.
In Calais, formerly a hub for the garment industry and pharmaceuticals we met a leader of the staunchly left-wing CGT (General Confederation of Labour) who said he could no longer count on his members voting for the left. Macron, a former Socialist finance minister, had attacked France’s 35 hour working week and introduced pro-business reforms. He didn’t expect his union to call on members to vote for Macron as they had with Chirac the last time the National Front was close to seizing the presidency. Some would abstain, others could vote for Le Pen.
On the other side of the political spectrum and a bit further south we met with the regional co-ordinator of Les Republicains, the centre-right party in La Marne and Champagne. This is a far less industrial and more rural area home to winegrowers and big farms. It’s natural conservative territory, but also a region that has profited from the EU. The Euro, subsidies and a large tariff free market have all be good for business.
As previously mentioned, the Republicans and their predecessors (the party has changed names several times) have benefited previously in 2002 and 2015 from the left-right alliance to block the Front from office.
But this year things are very different. Francois Fillon, the winner of the party’s December caucus has been beset by a financial scandal, accused of creating a false job for his wife at the state’s expense. Instead of the going into the campaign with their candidate as the favorite to face Le Pen, the party’s supporters are in disarray, as he faces a knock out in the first round. When we asked what their supporters were likely to do in the second round, would they support the pro-EU, pro-business Macron? The answer surprisingly was no. In La Marne, this party official estimated that just 25% would vote for Macron, 25% would abstain and the rest would vote for Le Pen. He also said he didn’t think the party would advise it’s supporters to back a particular candidate if Fillon didn’t get through to the second round.
Perhaps just as critically he emphasized that the support for the National Front was not just among older, more conservative voters, but among young people who have struggled to find jobs in a slow moving economy.
All of this is of course anecdotal, but combined with huge concerns about immigration and the impact of the terrorist attacks of 2015-2016, there are very substantial reasons wonder whether France will adopt the same voting tactics as in previous years to keep the National Front from winning at the polls. Marine Le Pen has her best chance yet.