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Yes, Be Worried: Marine Le Pen Could Finally Come to Power in France

Emmanuel Macron leads the presidential race—by about as much as “Remain” led in the U.K. and Hillary Clinton led in the United States in 2016.

Chesnot/Getty Images
Marine Le Pen has a real shot at the presidency.

Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term as president is drawing to a close. Most observers believe that Macron will be the first French president to win reelection since Jacques Chirac in 2002. That election is remembered, however, not for Chirac’s victory but for the shocking surprise that made it inevitable: Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right xenophobic demagogue and antisemite, outpolled the Socialist Lionel Jospin by a hair’s breadth in the first round, thus winning the right to square off against Chirac in round two. The prospect of a Le Pen presidency so stunned the French that even leftist voters “held their noses” and voted for their old nemesis Chirac, who handily won reelection with more than 82 percent of the vote.

Times have changed, and so have the French. Odds are that there will once again be a Le Pen in the second round to face a sitting president. But in 20 years, the once solid wall that stood between the far right and the Elysée has crumbled. Polls still give Macron an edge: IFOP, for example, has him defeating Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter and successor, with about 53.5 percent of the vote. But 53.5 percent is a far cry from 82 percent. As Macron himself noted in his only major public rally of this campaign, his predicted margin of victory is now similar to the margins predicted for Britain to remain in the European Union and for Hillary Clinton to beat Donald Trump. Turnout is predicted to be unusually low, and anti-Macron voters are far more passionate about unseating him than Macron supporters are about keeping him in office.

So an upset is possible. If it were to happen, it would be far more shocking than the elder Le Pen’s breakthrough in 2002. In the midst of the Ukraine War, a Le Pen victory would install in the Elysée a candidate who has made a point of her sympathy for Vladimir Putin and who has borrowed from Russian banks to keep her campaign afloat. It would bring the far right into power in the heart of the EU. How did we get to this point?

Emmanuel Macron has never been a popular president. In 2017, he led all first-round candidates with 24 percent of the vote, and his base of support has barely wavered since then. This year, polls show him doing slightly better, with about 28 percent approval, after receiving a rally-round-the-flag boost at the outset of the Ukraine War.

Even during the darkest period of his presidency, when the so-called Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests, were protesting every weekend across the country, Macron’s base remained constant, neither expanding nor contracting. He is fond of comparing French society to a team of mountain climbers, in which those “at the head of the rope” lift those who follow—a French version of the “trickle-down theory,” if you will. And those at the head of the rope return the compliment: France’s well-educated, prosperous managerial and administrative class constitutes the bulk of Macron’s support. His abolition of the wealth tax, labor market reforms, and promise in his next term to raise the retirement age to 65 have endeared him to business leaders. Eric Woerth, who served as budget minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, recently abandoned his center-right Republican Party and announced his support for Macron. He is just one of many former Républicains to do so. Republican voters have followed their leaders in transferring their support to Macron, more than compensating for his loss of left-wing support compared with 2017.

Macron has thus become the dominant figure of the center right. This accounts for the failure of Valérie Pécresse, the official candidate of the Republicans, to gain any traction. Pécresse’s background is similar to Macron’s: Both are products of France’s elite training system who held important administrative and ministerial posts before rising to executive positions (Pécresse is currently president of the Île-de-France region). Both staked out positions independent of their nominal parties: Pécresse quit the Republicans to protest what she saw as their turn to the hard right, just as Macron turned on his patron François Hollande. But unlike Macron, Pécresse returned to the fold to win her party primary and has since espoused some of the more extreme positions that had earlier prompted her withdrawal. This opportunistic flip-flopping backfired: First-round polls currently place her fifth with a dismal 9.5 percent, behind the two far-right candidates (Le Pen has 21.5 percent and Eric Zemmour 11 percent) as well as the candidate of the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (15 percent).

This extreme dispersion of the opposition has served Macron well. Indeed, before Zemmour announced his candidacy, Le Pen seemed likely to dominate the first round, with polls putting her as high as 33 percent compared to Macron’s 25. But Zemmour, who made his name as a TV personality with a gift for polemic and a vociferous hostility to immigrants that earned him three convictions for “incitement of racial hatred,” claimed half of Le Pen’s base in the days immediately after his announcement. His campaign, like Macron’s in 2017, had the benefit of novelty, which assured him a disproportionate amount of media coverage and, for a short time, a small lead over Le Pen.

While Le Pen’s working-class base stuck with her (her Rassemblement National has for some time been France’s leading working-class party), Zemmour attracted many older, better-educated, and more affluent and more traditionalist Catholic R.N. supporters, who responded to his nostalgic evocation of la grande nation of yesteryear. Intoxicated by his own rhetoric, however, he went a bridge too far, embracing the theory of the “great replacement” promoted by writer Renaud Camus (and endorsed by Trump advisor Steve Bannon)—the idea that immigrants of color have moved to France with the intention of overwhelming the white population by producing large numbers of babies. This was a step that Le Pen studiously avoided. Frightened, some of his early supporters reverted to Le Pen, whose toned-down rhetoric made her seem the “safer” choice. Zemmour thus inadvertently ensured the success of Marine Le Pen’s efforts to “de-demonize” her party, purging it of her father’s vitriolic legacy (both Jean-Marie Le Pen, still kicking at age 94, and his granddaughter Marion Maréchal endorsed Zemmour).

Meanwhile, the left ignominiously collapsed. The Socialist Party, which never recovered from the debacle of François Hollande’s presidency, is polling at a historic low of 1.5 percent behind its candidate, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris. The Greens, unlike their counterparts in Germany, have failed to expand their appeal and are stuck at 4.5 percent behind Yannick Jadot, while the Communist Fabien Roussel, an affable fellow who stoutly defends the French bistro staples of beefsteak and wine against vegetarian and abstemious critics, has 3.5 percent. With none of these three candidates likely to pass the 5 percent bar needed to secure reimbursement for campaign expenses, leftist voters hoping to see Macron obliged to debate a left-wing candidate rather than Le Pen in a runoff have been trying to persuade themselves that a vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon will be un vote utile rather than a wasted ballot. As in 2017, the absence of any other viable left alternative has generated a surge for Mélenchon in the final weeks of the campaign, but with 15 percent against Le Pen’s 21.5 percent, this is unlikely to be enough. Mélenchon, who has reinvented himself as an eco-socialist while remaining an egocentrist running a one-man show, has already drained the reservoirs of left-wing support and is unlikely to pick up enough votes in the remaining days to close the six-point gap separating him from Le Pen.

The election will therefore come down to two things. First, there will be a debate between the two survivors of the first round, in all probability Macron and Le Pen. If this debate is a rerun of 2017, Macron will be home free: Everyone agrees that in their previous confrontation he humiliated the candidate of the far right. The president is a skilled debater, a master of the issues, and, as Europe’s leading representative in the current confrontation with Russia, in a position to embarrass his opponent over her past support for Vladimir Putin.

But political debates turn on optics more often than on issues. In 2017, Le Pen got herself into a muddle over a half-baked proposal to dump the euro. Things could go differently this time. Macron’s greatest weakness is his inability to keep his arrogance in check, especially when confronting intellectual “inferiors.” If Le Pen can lure him into a display of contempt, she might just come out on top.

The other thing Macron has to fear is Mélenchon, or more precisely his voters. Although the leader of France Unbowed has little chance of making it to the second round himself, some think that there is a possibility that a majority of his supporters would prefer “the fascist” to “the neoliberal”—to put the choice in the crude categories in which it is often framed. This was not the case in 2017, when, despite Mélenchon’s refusal to endorse Macron, 53 percent of his supporters voted for the future president in round two (36 percent abstained). With the polls this time putting Le Pen within striking distance and Mélenchon again unlikely to endorse Macron, his voters could make the difference. Others argue that this fear is exaggerated.

The other great unknown this year is what will happen in June’s legislative elections. Five years ago, Macron benefited from a surge of support for his fledgling La République en Marche Party, or LREM. But he failed to capitalize on that victory by building his party’s infrastructure. LREM therefore has only a limited presence at the local level, where the traditional parties, while weakened at the national level, retain power. Although the French presidency structurally dominates the legislature under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, a well-organized opposition can stymie ambitious top-down reform proposals, such as Macron’s announced plans to revamp France’s pension system and restructure schools and universities. Lacking a broad base of support in the population, the reelected president could be obliged to compromise with the National Assembly. The disintegration of the Socialists and Republicans—the traditionally dominant parties at the national level—may thus be alleviated somewhat by their resurrection in the next legislature.

This time, however, there will be no pretense that the president belongs “neither to the right nor the left.” He is now unambiguously the leader of the right, and the various factions of the center right, arrayed around a handful of hopefuls already eyeing the presidential elections of 2027, will be vying more with one another than with Macron, who for now is clearly primus inter pares—no longer the “Jupiter” of 2017, but still a long way from a hapless lame duck.

A Le Pen victory would be devastating for both France and Europe. While she has worked hard to soften her image, at bottom she remains a candidate committed to rounding up immigrants and sending them back where they came from. Although she no longer calls for withdrawal from the EU, she remains hostile to its spirit and would make common cause with her friend Viktor Orbán, whose reelection last weekend was followed by a European Commission disciplinary procedure to sanction Hungary for violations of the rule of law. Her closeness to Putin would break Europe’s united front (Orbán excepted) against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But even if she loses, the fact that she has come so close shows that the dike has been breached: With the left in a shambles and Macron dominating what used to be the center, the far right has become the not-so-loyal opposition. Le Pen, Zemmour, Marion Maréchal, and far-right-leaning Republicans such as Eric Ciotti have become the New Right—not yet united but ripe for consolidation behind a charismatic leader. Macron’s attempt to halt the slide by introducing a new, Silicon Valley–inspired entrepreneurial energy has failed. An ominous darkness hovers over France’s capital, the City of Light.