Le Pen and Macron, via Wikimedia Commons

French Elections: Marine Le Pen and Ascendence of the Far Right in France

Emmanuel Macron and the far right wing politician Marine Le Pen will face off in the second round of the French presidential elections on April 24.

Macron and Le Pen last faced each in 2017, and back then Macron absolutely trounced her, defeating Le Pen by more than 30 points. But this time around the vote promises to be much closer, with many polls putting Le Pen within striking distance of Macron.

On the line with me to explain what happened in the first round of voting and what to expect ahead of the final vote on April 24 is Art Goldhammer. He is a writer and translator of over 125 books from French to English and a senior affiliate at the Center for European Studies at Harvard.

We kick off discussing the results of the first round before having a longer conversation about the implications of the fact that the far right wing candidate Le Pen is surging in the polls.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

How Has Marine Le Pen Distanced Herself from Her Father’s Image? 

Art Goldhammer [00:02:25] First of all, it has to be said that Marine Le Pen has steadily increased her party’s share of the vote since she took over the party from her father in 2011. In addition, anxiety in France over terrorism, over immigration, over the rising cost of living, all those things have been increasing over the past several years and le Pen has capitalized on those anxieties. She’s also softened the image of the party, changing it from the image created by her father of reactionary, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, racist party. She retains all those qualities, but in a sotto voce manner whereas her father was very in-your-face about all of that. She decided that the way to win a larger share of the vote was to de-demonize the party, as the French like to say. So, she’s put a smiling face on it. She’s often photographed with her cats. She has quite a few of them. She has a much softer manner than her father. She’s surrounded herself with advisers who also project this softer image. She appointed recently as head of the party a young man still in his 20s, Jordan Bardella, who is well-spoken and clean-cut and does not have any of the ex-paratrooper Algerian torture image that Jean-Marie Le Pen liked to project, so she’s made her party more respectable. And with that respectability has come substantial support from the working class. She’s now the largest working-class party in France. She’s appealed to the working class, expanded the appeal of the appeal of her party and cast herself as the primary opposition to what many people in France see as ruthless neo liberal reform carried out by Macron.

Why has Macron lost support over the last couple of years?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:29] To what extent does Macron have himself to blame for this apparent surge in support for Marine Le Pen?

Art Goldhammer [00:04:39] Well, there’s no doubt that Macron is a neoliberal. He’s enacted a number of reforms, including abolishing the wealth tax, structural reforms of the labor market, tax incentives favorable to business since he’s come into office. He promised to do all those things when he ran in 2017, and he’s done them. That was essentially the program of the center Right party, the descendants of the Gaullists, which now calls itself Republican, and he essentially occupied their space. Although in 2017 he ran as what I would call an unidentified political object, he claimed to be neither the Right nor the Left, and his favorite slogan was that he would make at the same time, reforms of both the right and the left. He’s carried through with the right-wing part of that program but fell short on the left-wing part. Although in fairness to Macron, it has to be said that the overall effect of his tax reforms was some increased redistribution to the center of the income distribution. The top 20% pays slightly more in taxes, and the middle 60% pay slightly less in taxes than before Macron but the top 1% did receive the largest boost in income from the tax reforms, and that earned him the epithet “president of the rich.” So that has more or less shaped his image, and in that sense, he is responsible for the difficulty in which he finds himself right now.

Why did Macron win so easily in the last presidential election?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:35] So is it fair to say that five years ago, to a large degree, Macron was able to surge to victory because he was kind of an unknown political entity and people sort of projected themselves and their ideas of what he might be onto him, even though he didn’t have much of a record to run on and the fact that he was, as you said, like an unknown political object was part of the reason that he was able to win so handily last time around?

Art Goldhammer [00:07:04] Yes. That’s part of it. It was also the abject failure of Francois Hollande’s presidency. Hollande finished with a popularity and approval rating of about 5%. So, it was in such bad shape by the voters that he couldn’t even run to succeed himself. Macron had risen under Hollande, but he had also previously served President Sarkozy so the fact that he had worked for both sides, both mainstream parties, before running for office himself gave him credibility as someone who was either in both camps or neither camp, depending on which way you want to look at it. So yes, he was a novelty on the political scene. It also has to be said that he brought a tremendous amount of energy to his campaign in 2017. He was young and good looking and a new kid on the block. He didn’t carry any particular political baggage with him, although he had been responsible for some unpopular reforms under Hollande. Those were forgiven because he had turned his back on Hollande, so he looked like an opponent of Hollande, rather than a proponent of some of his most unpopular reforms. So, all that works in his favor. That energy has disappeared from his campaign this year because he’s been distracted by the war in Ukraine. To his credit, he sought to head off that war, traveled to Russia to meet with Putin. The effort was ultimately a failure, but he has been deeply involved in trying to bring that war to an end or in the meantime, to coordinate European support for Ukraine, and hence hasn’t to this point campaigned very hard. Whereas Le Pen and another far Right opponent, Eric Zemmour, had been the real sources of energy in this campaign to date. That will probably change from this point out. Macron will be quite active over the next two weeks in campaigning for his reelection.

How is racism and xenophobia being used by Marine Le Pen and other French politicians to campaign for the French presidential election?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:30] So Marine Le Pen internationally at least, is known for her racism and xenophobia. To what extent did racism and xenophobia serve as an animating force in this election? I take it, as you’ve said, and as I’ve read from other analyses of the election, she sought to sort of soften that image, but was there still that xenophobic undercurrent to both her message and messages of other candidates in this election?

Art Goldhammer [00:10:07] Yes, there was. She’s in the fortunate position now of having the xenophobia and racist as sort of the underlying brand of her party. So, she no longer has to advertise those aspects. People know that she stands for those things and occasionally she reminds them of it. She has proposed a national preference amendment to the Constitution so that natural born French citizens will have certain advantages constitutionally guaranteed if she’s elected. So that was a reminder of her racist beginnings. But she was also helped in this campaign by the presence of Eric Zemmour, who has taken it upon himself to represent the real hard core of French racism and xenophobia. In fact, he’s such a racist that he’s been convicted in court three times for incitement of racial hatred. When Zemmour first appeared on the scene, it looked like he was going to break Le Pen’s momentum. Polls had rated her as high as 30 to 35 % against Macron’s 25 or so before the campaign began. But then Zemmour got into the race and immediately took half of Marine Le Pen’s base from her. He hit a high-water mark of about 17 % of the polls, and for a week or so was even leading Le Pen. By contrast to his hardcore racist positions Le Pen came to look almost moderate, so it helped her eventually. Now his initially good showing was undermined when the war in Ukraine broke out because he had been an outspoken supporter of Putin and of Russia, and he remained so even after the war and despite the atrocities. Le Pen has changed her tune on Putin. She has been a supporter of Putin in the past. She went to Russia and was photographed with him. That photograph appeared in some of her campaign leaflets, but once the war broke out, she welcomed Ukrainian refugees to France unlike other refugees whom she rejects. Zemmour did not do that, and she condemned Russian atrocities, which Zemmour also declined to do so that shifted her relative positioning and undermined Zemmour who finished with only seven % yesterday, compared with the 17 or 18 % that he had been polling earlier on.

How did Russia’s war on Ukraine affect French voters?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:08] So that sort of gets to my next question. To what extent did the war in Ukraine rank highly on how and why, perhaps in exit polls, on how that may have influenced French voters one way or another?

Art Goldhammer [00:13:26] I haven’t seen any exit polling on the matter, but across the political spectrum in France, there’s great concern about the war in Ukraine and its implications for Europe. The aspect of the Ukraine war that Le Pen emphasized was the way it’s affected the cost of living in Europe. Purchasing power has been one of her main campaign themes throughout this campaign. Fuel prices have gone up dramatically in Europe, even more than in the United States. There’s been some effort to subsidize fuel costs for French consumers, but not enough to offset the increase in fuel costs. So, Le Pen was able to stress the increase in our cost of living and to say that it was unfair—though she condemned the Russian invasion—it was unfair for French consumers to have to bear the cost of fighting the war.

If Marine Le Pen were elected as French president, how would France’s foreign relations change?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:37] We are facing a not insignificant prospect that Marine Le Pen is the next president of France. I know we’ll talk to this in a bit, but I know polling right now certainly favors Macron. But there is, of course, a not insignificant chance that Marine Le Pen could become the next president. What do we know about her foreign policy preferences? Has she spoken on the campaign trail about how she might change France’s relationship with the world, which has remained fairly consistent over the last several decades?

Art Goldhammer [00:15:14] Yes, she has spoken quite a bit about her foreign policy preferences. It’s well known that she’s hostile to the EU. In her 2017 campaign, she had even proposed a French exit from the EU ‘Frexit,’ but she later backed off that proposal. She has called for France to withdraw from NATO and maintains that call despite the importance of NATO in confronting Russia now. She has said that her policy preference is for France to maintain a foreign policy equidistant from the United States and Russia. And she places that position in a direct line from Charles de Gaulle, who of course, saw himself as advocating an independent French foreign policy during the Cold War. So, she remains consistent on those themes, has really not varied since she took over the party in 2011.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:19] I don’t know the powers of the French presidency, but if she were to be president, could she say withdraw or remove France from NATO or take moves towards a soft Frexit position unilaterally as president?

Art Goldhammer [00:16:38] Well, there are some things she can do unilaterally, other things where she needs ratification from the National Assembly and others where there will be contestation from the EU level about what precisely she has the right to do. Now it’s interesting that after Poland said that it did not recognize the supremacy of EU law or the right of the European Court of Justice to make decisions regarding internal Polish affairs, a number of French politicians said they agreed with that position, and they held that the French constitution took primacy over EU treaties. Not only Marine Le Pen, but also the candidate of the Center-Right Party, Valerie Pecresse, and her opponents in the Center-Right primary all took that position, including Michel Barnier, who was the EU negotiator in Brexit, which was a rather astonishing thing. So, there’s a fair amount of support in France for the idea that French law takes precedence over European law, no matter what the European Union thinks. So, there would be a fight over some of these issues. Now, Marine Le Pen has said that if she comes to power, she will immediately place new border controls around France’s borders at all the border crossing points not only to keep illegal immigrants out, but also to tighten checks on goods flowing into France. That is a clear violation of European treaties and would be a threat to the European single market. So, there would certainly be strong pushback on that from many of France’s European partners, but also some support from dissidents within the EU, such as Hungary’s Orban, who was also reelected last weekend.

If Marine Le Pen was elected president of France, how would key countries in the EU like Italy and Germany be affected?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:42] What impact do you foresee would the election of Marine Le Pen have outside of France in the domestic politics of places like Germany or Italy or other key countries within the European Union?

Art Goldhammer [00:18:59] It would cause consternation in Germany and Italy certainly. There would be, I predict, a massive crash in the European stock market, the bond spread on French bonds compared to the German bund would widen. There would be panic in many other European capitals. There is a strong potential for violence in France itself if Marine Le Pen is elected and for triggering instability and Right-wing protests throughout Europe. So, there would be great concern and I think potentially dramatic consequences if Le Pen is elected, not to mention the effect in the United States. Her election would be a cause for rejoicing on the part of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. Steve Bannon met with Le Pen in 2017 and extolled her as a potential European leader of the kind that he would like to see come to power in Europe. Orban is a close friend of hers, and he would undoubtedly support her election. So, we’d see consequences ripple across Europe. Beyond the confines of Europe, it’s hard to say. I don’t know how conscious the rest of the world is of what’s going on, although I’ve done interviews recently with a TV in Australia and I’ll be on South Korean TV tonight to talk about the French election, so they are paying attention.

Who will left-wing French voters vote for in the runoff now that their candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, is out of the running?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:40] We don’t know what will happen on April 24th, but obviously, right now I should say the polls favor slightly or more than slightly, Emmanuel Macron. It seems to me, and I’m curious to get your take on this, that what the voters for the third candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon who they decide to back may swing this election. He was the more left-wing candidate who came in third. What do you see happening among the sort of majority of voters for Melenchon?

Art Goldhammer [00:21:21] Well, that is the most important question to ask about this election. Melenchon did better than expected. He was close to tying Le Pen. For a moment last night, he had come within 0.8 % age points of Le Pen’s score. In 2017, he had been allied with the Communist Party and if you add his vote to—this year, the Communist ran their own candidate who got two and a half % of the vote—if you add that two and a half % to Melenchon’s score, he could have beaten Le Pen all other things being equal, and that would have changed the complexion of the race entirely. In 2017, Melenchon refused to endorse Macron and said nothing about not voting for Le Pen, although it was obvious to anyone who knew Melenchon’s political past that he was no friend of Le Pen. And at that time, 11 % of his voters, if I recall correctly, did vote for Le Pen, while some 50 % abstained and the rest went for Macron. This year because he was so heavily criticized for not taking a stand on what to do in the second round, he made it very clear yesterday in his very eloquent concession speech that he did not want his supporters to vote for Le Pen. He said there’s no doubt about the person for whom you’re not going to vote. And you must not vote for Le Pen. Despite that, there was an instant poll conducted last night which found that 30 % of his voters are intending to vote for Le Pen. 34 % for Macron and the remainder either undecided or already decided to abstain. So how that breaks down will probably determine the outcome of the election. Le Pen will get the bulk of Zemmour’s vote, of his seven %. The same poll found that about 85 % of Zemmour’s voters are already committed to voting for Le Pen. So, Macron needs to do better than even on the break in the Le Pen vote in order to win. At the moment, polls have him winning by anywhere from 54 to 46 to 51 to 49. 54 to 46 is a comfortable margin, but 51 to 49, not so much. And we know from the predictions of the Brexit vote and the Trump Hillary vote that the polls can be wrong, and there is a significant statistical chance that Le Pen could come out on top.

What might happen in the presidential debate between Macron and Le Pen?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:25] So in the next two weeks ahead of the April 24th vote, is there anything in particular that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you how this election might proceed? Are there any key inflection points or key moments or key data points that you’ll be looking towards to suggest to you what might happen in the second round?

Art Goldhammer [00:24:51] Well, the most important thing that I will be watching is the debate. There is traditionally a debate between the two rounds of the election. In 2017 in the debate between Macron and Le Pen, Macron demolished Le Pen it’s fair to say. She became confused about her own proposal to create a substitute for the euro. At first, she had proposed dumping the euro entirely, but that position proved unpopular. So, she had a fallback proposal to introduce an alternative currency called the […], which had existed for a time before the euro came into effect and there was going to be a complicated dual currency in Europe. This position had been foisted upon her by one of her advisers, and she didn’t understand it herself, so she got into a terrible muddle in the debate and Macron made mincemeat of her. He’s a very intelligent debater who masters all of the issues in minute detail. His great weakness, however, is his inability to control his arrogance. He comes off as somebody who has always been the smartest kid in the class and knows it, and he doesn’t restrain himself from showing that he knows how smart he is. That doesn’t play well with the voters, and arrogance is the adjective you hear most frequently when you ask voters what they think about Macron. So, it’s possible that on optics, and optics always matter more in presidential debates than mastery of the issues. On optics Le Pen could win this time. She’s learned how to control herself on the TV platform, and she’ll probably try to continue her attempt to moderate her image and come off as someone who’s moderate and not someone one has to be afraid of. So, the debate will be tremendously important. The other thing I’ll be looking for is the way Macron campaigns over the next two weeks. Thomas Piketty wrote an article in Le Monde this Saturday saying that Macron needed to make a strong social gesture to hand some token to the Left of what he would do to make good on the promises he made in 2017 that he failed to carry through on during his five years in office. What social program, what mollification of the consequences of his neoliberal reforms will he offer to voters on the Left? It’s possible that he will do that. It’s also possible that he will stick to his guns because he wants a mandate to carry through a number of reforms, including the always controversial attempt to raise the retirement age in France, which is one of the things he’s promising to do in his next term if he’s reelected. So those are the main things I’ll be looking for.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:13] Well, Art, thank you so much for your time. This was very helpful.

Art Goldhammer [00:28:17] My pleasure.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:21] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Art Goldhammer for his insights. I always appreciate learning all things French politics from him. And as always, you can reach out to me if you have suggestions of people, you’d like me interview or topics you’d like me to cover. You can hit me up on Twitter @MarkLGoldberg or use the contact button on GlobalDispatchesPodcast.com. Thanks. We’ll see you next time. Bye!