French National Front Leader Marine Le Pen is likely to emerge as one of two finalists after Sunday’s first round of voting in the French presidential elections. Le Pen, a far-right candidate who promises to make France “more French” through measures like a “moratorium” on immigration, sits second in the polls with 21.5% support, just behind liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron at 24%. If none of the candidates wins over 50% of the vote on Sunday—a highly likely scenario, given that the top four candidates are all polling at about 20%—the top two finishers will head into a runoff on May 7.
Le Pen’s transition from fringe extremist politician to mainstream presidential candidate has unnerved observers about France’s trajectory in Europe and the rise of the far right on the continent. She inherited the National Front from its founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is known for his anti-Semitic views.
The younger Le Pen took pains to distance herself from her father and become a credible candidate: “She has undertaken a delicate balancing act: to position the party, long associated with fascist tendencies, as within the mainstream of French republican and democratic values, while also maintaining the National Front’s longstanding far-right constituency…But cosmetics can only get you so far.” Ethan Katz writes in The Atlantic.
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While Le Pen enjoys considerable backing from millennials—40% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 support her—the xenophobic policies of her party show how much the National Front is still deeply tied to its past. “[A]t its core, the National Front remains a faction rooted in xenophobia and ultranationalist bigotry,” the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor writes, explaining that “Le Pen’s candidacy has soared alongside growing anti-Muslim sentiment, stoked in part by the deadly spike in terrorist attacks in France that has seen hundreds perish in recent years.” She has promised to close French borders permanently, to lead France out of the European Union and off the Euro, to rescind all free-trade agreements, and to ban Islamic veils in public.
Le Pen’s recent remarks denying French collaboration in the Holocaust revived comparisons between father and daughter, and she has proposed banning both Muslim and Jewish head coverings.
For many, she is the candidate of pessimism, the choice of “unhappy France.” New research on French voter attitudes reported in the Financial Times reveals that Le Pen is bolstered by an expanding electorate that reports “a sense of deteriorating wellbeing” after a decade of financial crisis. Macron voters, by contrast, were optimistic about the future.
An ISIS-sponsored terrorist attack in Paris that killed one police officer on Thursday may also bolster Le Pen on Sunday.
Despite a strong base heading into the first round of voting, Le Pen is not expected to perform well in the May 7 runoff. Polls project that a contest between Macron and Le Pen would result in a Macron win with 60% of the vote, with similar defeats for Le Pen against François Fillon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who are both just behind Le Pen in the polls, with 19% support each.
But after a year of electoral upsets, some take little comfort in polling projections, particularly given the close and crowded field of candidates. Le Pen does have a path to the presidency, and if she wins, it will change the course of France in Europe.
As Politico’s Nicholas Vinocur writes, Le Pen’s platform “promises radical, jarring change that starts with rewriting the constitution; enforcing the principle of ‘national preference’ for French citizens in hiring as well as the dispensing of housing and benefits; reinstating the franc as the national currency;…pulling out of NATO’s integrated command structure; and slashing immigration to one-tenth of its current annual level.”
Yet while Le Pen has many ideas for the future of France, she has few plans for how to implement them, according to Vinocur. If she does win the final vote, France should prepare for an administration defined by “constant crisis,” paralysis, and brutal economic blowback.