French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen: “We will defend our interests.”
Foto: Chesnot / Getty Images
Right-wing populist candidate Marine Le Pen has a chance of winning the presidential election in France this Sunday. If she prevails over Emmanuel Macron, France would become another country and Europe a different continent.
https://www.spiegel.de-By Britta Sandberg
You could view it as a provocation, or as an omen: The hall in which Marine Le Pen is speaking to journalists on this Wednesday afternoon is called the Salon Élysée. It even looks like a miniature version of Élysée Palace, the official residence of French presidents. The walls are clad in red marble, and gold-colored stucco hangs below the 10-meter-high ceiling. It used to be a dance hall, but now the rooms here are available to rent for private events.
The podium in front of Le Pen is crammed full of microphones, the number of which is comparable to appearances by Emmanuel Macron. A French flag is draped behind her, but not a European one. The right-wing populist speaks for an hour and a half about her foreign policy plans. And if it wasn’t clear before, her comments confirm that if Le Pen becomes president, France will not only become a different country – Europe will also be a different continent.
Le Pen clearly wants to place national interests above those of a united Europe and withdraw from NATO’s military command structure. She wants to cut France’s contribution to the European Union’s budget by 5 billion euros a year because she believes the money could be better spent elsewhere. And, she says, she wants to break Germany’s perceived dominance. Le Pen promises to do things differently than Emmanuel Macron, who she claims blindly followed Angela Merkel. “We will defend our interests.”
Already that morning, Jordan Bardella, 26, the party leader of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), had announced that she would immediately travel to Brussels if elected – to renegotiate the EU treaties.
President Le Pen? It’s a scary idea for many in France and Europe, but since last Sunday, it has become one of only two possible scenarios.
In the first round of the French presidential election, incumbent Macron came in at 27. 8 percent, with Le Pen trailing at 23.1 percent. Now, the two will face each other in a runoff on Sunday, April 24, just as they did five years ago. Only this time, the gap between the two is much smaller, the result much harder to predict.
In 2017, Macron was predicted to have a 20-percent lead in the second round of voting. He ended up winning with 66 percent of the vote. Depending on the polling institute, there is only a 2- to 8-percent gap between the two candidates this year.
“With such a small margin, a margin of error of 2 percent and the usual dynamics of an election campaign, the game is still open,” says Jerôme Fourquet of the polling institute IFOP, France’s best known demographer. He says that although Le Pen is not the favorite in the race, it would be wrong to rule out her possible victory now, “especially given that we are seeing increasing anti-Macron sentiment.”
Fourquet says that more than half of French men and women now believe Le Pen has the necessary “stature présidentielle,” the gravitas to hold the country’s highest office. Five years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Fear of the right-wing candidate pushed voters to Macron in droves. But that fear now seems to have faded for many.
Even if a Le Pen victory is less likely than a second term for Macron, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, there is a danger that a right-wing radical politician will enter Élysée Palace. The weekly magazine L’Obs recently ran a cover story with the headline “National Alarm.” Macron’s team had long believed it could secure a victory in the election, that he would receive a boost as the incumbent, because of the war bonus and self-righteous campaign commercials. Until the awakening that followed on Sunday evening.
A President Le Pen has said she would let her compatriots vote in a referendum on how many immigrants should be allowed into the country as her first official act. She wants to severely restrict social benefits for foreigners. Under her leadership, there will be a “policy of national priority,” she has announced. The candidate wants to give preferential treatment to French women and men in the allocation of jobs and social housing. It would be a “France First” policy. But it would also violate the principle of equality enshrined in the French constitution.
The European Union that the candidate has in mind should take into account “vital French interests,” she says. Le Pen wants to place national law partly above European law and cancel all Franco-German defense projects “because of irreconcilable strategic differences with Berlin.” This would affect both the FCAS joint air combat system and the planned main battle tanks the countries are developing together.
The European Peace Project Would Be Called into Question
It would be a voluntary step backward into a past that many thought they had surmounted. The European peace project would be called into question, as would the closely coordinated Franco-German security and foreign policy – and this in the midst of the war in Ukraine.
Le Pen’s European plans are absurd, says Christine Verger, vice president of the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris, a European think tank that has compared the planned European policies of the candidates. “No European state can arbitrarily reduce its share of the EU budget – that’s not possible, the budget has been adopted until 2027. Beyond that, what would then happen to the 40 billion euros due to France as part of the (corona pandemic) reconstruction program that has been adopted?”
Verger says Le Pen is tabling the same lazy arguments as the Brexiteers did in Britain years ago and that she is tricking her voters into believing that if they attack Europe politically, France will automatically be much better off. It’s a “take back control” logic. But the Le Pen camp, is nevertheless pursuing an anti-EU course, in contrast to Macron, a staunch supporter of European integration.
It is the evening of April 10, Louis Aliot, a member of RN’s national executive committee and Le Pen’s former partner, is standing in the large hall of the pavilion in Paris’ Parc Floral, where RN has invited people to an election night party after the first round of voting. Outside on the terrace, party supporters have already been drinking champagne for an hour. Le Pen’s closest circle is meeting on the second floor.
Louis Aliot is in irritatingly good spirits this evening, as is everyone here, even though the candidate is a good four percentage points behind the president in the first round. “Still, we have improved on our 2017 result,” Aliot says. “And a majority of French people voted against Macron, they don’t want him anymore. That’s why, this time, there will be a Republican front against Emmanuel Macron.”
Seventy-two percent of the French voted against the president in the first round, Aliot says, referring to all the people who cast ballots for a candidate other than Macron. RN is now seeking to attract voters from that pool. Polls suggest that more than four-fifths of people who voted for the right-wing radical candidate Éric Zemmour should be safe for them. It’s hard to predict how many supporters of the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who established himself as the third force in the election, might defect to Le Pen.
“We’re going to explode this system,” Aliot says. The RN politician hails from Perpignan, and his French has the soft sound of the south, making even the most brutal sentences sound a little less scary.
Aliot was far less optimistic in January. That month, he sat down in a hotel bar in Perpignan for an interview while Le Pen was meeting with local supporters in a conference room next door. Perpignan is Le Pen country, the only city in France with more than 100,000 residents that is governed by an RN mayor, Aliot.
Aliot said he was worried. “We’ve never been this close to a possible win,” he said. “Marine is ready for office, she worked hard to get here. And yet, everything could still go wrong.”
Le Pen was polling at 18.5 percent in January, but Zemmour, the new rival in the far-right camp, continued to climb in the polls from week to week. Speaking at the bar, Aliot explained how he had told Zemmour to back off, reminding him that if the right’s ideas weren’t represented in this election, it would be his fault because he was dividing the electorate in two. Zemmour declined, and then he lost anyway.
In retrospect, he had probably been a stroke of luck for Le Pen. The man, who called immigrants thieves, murderers and rapists, had the effect of moving Le Pen from the right-wing fringe to the center. Zemmour’s presence reinforced the soft focus with which Le Pen had started this campaign.
“Zemmour has contributed to the fact that the caricature that has been drawn of me for years has finally collapsed,” is how Le Pen described it in an interview
with DER SPIEGEL earlier this year. Compared to his political platforms, hers suddenly looked quite reasonable.
This Sunday’s election will not only pit two candidates against each other, but also two different models for society. Macron views closer cooperation among Europeans as an opportunity for France, whereas Le Pen sees it as a threat. Macron wants to better protect the borders of the Schengen area; Marine Le Pen wants to renegotiate the Schengen area of border-free travel. The question is which model the French will opt for.
Do they really want a president who wants to criminalize the wearing of a headscarf in public spaces? Le Pen has proposed that Muslim women be fined 135 euros if they flout the planned ban. In the first interview she gave after the election on Tuesday morning, the radio station France Inter asked whether that would not be a violation of the right to the free exercise of religion.
“The headscarf is an Islamist uniform, not a Muslim uniform,” Le Pen replied. “It is the uniform of an ideology, not of a religion.”
The interviewer then countered by recalling how Macron has said this would also mean that you would have to ban Jews from wearing the kippah according to the constitution. “Then I guess he didn’t read my political platforms correctly, perhaps because he started campaigning too late,” the candidate answered.
The tone in the run-up to the second ballot has been set on both sides. “Madame Le Pen is saying stupid things as usual,” Macron replied.
A Campaign Close To the People
Le Pen’s election campaign has also been successful because she broadened her range of issues. Late last year, she began focusing on the issue of purchasing power and spoke frequently about the concerns of laborers, employees and single mothers. She doesn’t necessarily have a coherent plan, but unlike Macron, she was simply there, talking to young girls and retirees and embracing them at weekly markets without being asked and beaming in all the selfies.
“Her secret is that she feels really close to people,” says the French politician Robert Ménard, who has known Le Pen for years, “and they feel they are being listened to. She doesn’t embody the France of winners like Macron.”
Pollsters say the election campaign is no longer a battle between left and right, but rather a confrontation of the top against the bottom, of the France of the winners against that of the losers.
Once a Trotskyist, Ménard, 68, later joined the Socialists and then founded the organization Reporters without Borders with others. In 2014, with the help of right-wing nationalist parties, he became mayor of Béziers in southern France. To this day, he is not a member of RN, but he does support Le Pen’s candidacy, even if he criticizes it.
He considers her headscarf ban to be unenforceable and the congratulations she gave for Viktor Orbán’s election victory to be gratuitous. But he still defends her. “She has become calmer, no longer so sectarian, less closed in her thinking,” he says. “She has also gotten rid of a lot of bad advisers.”
Ménard is sitting in his office in Béziers’ historic Town Hall as he shares all this. He’s wearing a dark suit, with red trim around the buttonholes. That morning, he had taken Le Pen on a tour of one of his city’s problem neighborhoods. La Devèze is inhabited mainly by immigrants from the Maghreb. Ménard is in the process of having a bilingual school built here, which he wants to make the best in the city. In parallel to the school project, he also allocated inexpensive plots of land for construction in La Devèze to middle-class families, and single-family homes are now being built where 600 social housing units once stood.
Le Pen walked across the site in a soft, camel-colored wool coat, not quite knowing what to say. What she was visiting was quite the opposite of her get-the-immigrants out principle. French people are to move into the neighborhood to prevent further ghettoization. Le Pen had blueprints handed to her and she greeted workers at the construction site. She then finally concluded it was an interesting project.
Ménard says you can talk to her about a lot of things today, and that wasn’t possible a few years ago. “She’s willing to compromise now, and that’s new,” he says. “She has done a lot of reading and a lot of work in the past five years.”
Has she really changed, though?
In an interview in her office earlier this year, she said she is more relaxed than she used to be, partly because she had to suffer through a lot. Her walls are covered with photos of large tanker ships, and an old wooden steering wheel is standing in front of her door. Le Pen said you don’t become a good presidential candidate from one day to the next. “You have to have fought and suffered. You have to have scars.” But now she feels ready for the job.
She’s almost at the place she has always wanted to be. She stood up to her headstrong father, who accused her of charting too soft a course. She left arrogant Zemmour, who had declared her a failure months ago, in the dust. The only hurdle left for her is to beat Macron.
To win on April 24, both the president and Le Pen will have to attract voters from the left. After five years of Macron, France’s party landscape has shrunk to three major blocs. Besides the governing La République en Marche party, there are only two blocs on the right and left fringes: Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and the La France Insoumise of left-wing radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The political alternatives to Macron are now limited to the extremes, which is dangerous for a democracy.
“But if the people go to the polls, the people will win,” RN party Chairman Bardella said on Thursday morning. He went to bed late and got up early, sat in on a talk show until midnight, then joined a radio show starting at 7 a.m. “If the Mélenchon voters go to the polls and don’t abstain, then things look good for us,” Bardella says. “They have been mobilizing against Macron for five years, so they’re not necessarily going to vote for him now.” He says that Le Pen won in 20,000 of France’s 35,000 municipalities in the first round of voting. “This is the France of those who feel forgotten and unheard by Macron,” he says.
Before the first round of voting, Macron announced reforms that are unlikely to please the left: He wants to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65, make social security benefits contingent on working more hours per week and improve teachers’ pay only if they are willing to perform a greater number of tasks. He has since retracted many of those proposals. He announced this week that he also wouldn’t rule out holding a referendum on pension reform. He said that the criticism of the French has reached him and that he is capable of listening. But do voters still believe him?
The president’s record isn’t necessarily bad. Macron did a better job than many other leaders of steering his country through the pandemic. At the beginning of his term, he pushed through several labor market reforms. Today, France is a more attractive location for foreign investors than Germany, and unemployment is at its lowest level in 14 years. Macron faced the brunt of the yellow vests protests by holding town hall meetings lasting several hours, and his approval ratings at the end of his term are better than those of his two predecessors.
In the first round of voting on April 10, more French people cast ballots for him than in 2017. And yet there is still resentment of a president who likes to preach and governs in solitude, who is respected, but not loved.
It’s the beginning of last week, and Green Party politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who holds dual French and German nationality, is sitting on the terrace of a café in Paris, expressing his worry. Cohn-Bendit was among the many unofficial advisers the new president consulted with, especially at the beginning of Macron’s term.
No matter what happens in this second round of voting, Cohn-Bendit says, things will get difficult after that. “If Marine Le Pen wins, she has 70 percent of the population against her,” he says. “If Macron wins, it’s no different. But you can’t reform a country with so little support.” He says France’s electoral system is also partly to blame.
On the previous evening, he made a plea on French television for the introduction of proportional representation, saying that people in France need to finally be given back the feeling that their vote makes a difference.
The mobile phone next to Cohn-Bendit on the table is buzzing with push messages about the new poll results for the second round of voting. “I think Macron can do it again,” he says. Still, he cautiously adds that he also believed Trump would lose and that Brexit wouldn’t happen.