Will Marine Le Pen Succeed Macron as President of France?

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(Bloomberg) -- Timothée Houssin spends his Friday nights dashing between towns and villages in Normandy attending as many local celebrations and events as possible. Smartly dressed in suit and tie, the French politician is seeking to cement his place in the district he won by fewer than 500 votes in 2022.

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The 35-year-old is proud of what he’s achieved so far, helping constituents navigate state bureaucracy and championing their concerns in the National Assembly over a lack of doctors in the Eure region. But Houssin, a representative of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party, believes he is on a mission that goes beyond regional borders.

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National Rally, the reborn version of the National Front, is best known for its history of far-right nativism and far-out economic policies on the margins of French politics. Regions like the Eure — which until 2022 had traditionally backed centrist parties — have become critical battlegrounds in National Rally’s efforts to establish itself in the mainstream of the country’s politics. And lay the ground work for Le Pen, who came second in the last two run-off elections, to go one better in 2027 and win the presidency.

“People are seeing there are hundreds of elected National Rally officials making proposals, voting, behaving correctly and not being at all scary,” Houssin says in his office in the small town of Les Andelys. “That’s what will help us advance.”

Even three years from a vote, the prospect of a Le Pen presidency is coming into sharp focus as polls show National Rally building momentum for a large victory in June’s European elections — seen by some, including Houssin, as a dry-run of the 2027 race. At the same time, President Emmanuel Macron, who cannot stand for a third consecutive term, is struggling to push initiatives through a divided parliament in which Le Pen’s party has, for the first time, a substantial foothold.

“Our objective is to win in 2027,” says Houssin, “so we have to show we are able to keep scoring highly.”

A far-right presidency would be the ultimate failure for Macron, ending a decade in power that began when he swept aside traditional left and right-wing parties in the 2017 election, and reshaped the country’s political landscape into a duel with Le Pen. For France it would be a transformational moment, handing control of Europe’s second largest economy — with an immigrant population of 10.3% of the total — to a once marginal, xenophobic political movement that has advocated loosening ties with the European Union and, before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, building closer relations with Russia.

Macron has reacted to such a prospect with a government reshuffle, attempts to tack right on immigration and promises of reforms to boost middle class incomes. Some supporters argue he needs to be more direct. According to one official, the government must urgently do more to improve the situation for blue-collar workers who have drifted to Le Pen, to keep her from office in 2027.

Critics argue that Macron has helped legitimize the party and normalize its leader. “He said that he was going to be the anti-Le Pen candidate,” says Marta Lorimer, fellow at the European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science who researches the far right. “All he has done is essentially suggest that Le Pen is the only possible alternative to him, which is a terrible message to be sending.”

The Attempt to Rehabilitate Le Pen

The daughter of far-right firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen — who came second in the 2002 presidential race — has toned down the party rhetoric and dropped radical ideas like leaving the euro, although she still has ambitions to gradually turn the EU into a looser alliance of sovereign nations. She denies Macron’s accusation that the plan would sever relations with Germany and amount to a French version of Brexit.

The growing momentum behind a Le Pen presidency could add impetus to a far-right trend gaining traction across the continent: Giorgia Meloni’s anti-immigration platform won Italy’s election in 2022, the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) has cemented itself in domestic politics in the past decade and Geert Wilders is negotiating to head the next government of the Netherlands. In Portugal on Sunday the far-right Chega party quadrupled its seats in parliament with a strong performance in national elections.

The National Rally leader has already made three failed attempts to become French president, but a steady increase in support has brought her closer each time. In 2022, she took 41.5% in the second round and led her party to a record 89 seats in legislative elections. Not only did that reinforce her place in the mainstream of French politics, but it also helped deprive Macron of an absolute majority in the National Assembly.

As important in understanding this turnaround, says Erwan Lestrohan, research director at polling institute Odoxa, is that the share of French people who reject her outright has fallen significantly over the past decade. “Seeing someone from a party with far-right connotations systematically on the podium says a lot about the gentrification of National Rally,” adds Lestrohan.

Securing enough votes to win a second round is still a big ask in a country where a broad centrist bloc of voters has often coalesced to block Le Pen’s path in a presidential runoff. But since the 2022 defeat, the National Rally leader has continued to attract support with new lawmakers like Houssin and the 28-year-old party chief, Jordan Bardella — who she has said would be her prime minister — giving the party a younger, more professional profile.

She’s also been careful to pick popular causes to back, like the broad opposition to Macron’s pension reform in 2023 or the recent farmer protests over EU regulations and low incomes. Keen to exploit anger over the impact of stubbornly high inflation on France’s poorest, she’s also sought to foster economic credibility, recently writing a column for business daily Les Echos in which she cited Pierre Moscovici, the head of the state audit court and a former Socialist finance minister, to warn about rising levels of public debt under Macron.

The French president has attacked her over Ukraine, saying that Le Pen would side with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. She’s responded by casting herself as a defender of peace, slamming Macron’s recent suggestion that Europe could send troops into the Ukraine conflict and highlighting how his stance has isolated France on the international stage, after allies including Germany and the US publicly ruled out such a scenario. Le Pen has also sought to distance herself from the anti-semitic past of her movement, strongly affirming support for Israel after the attacks by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Adélaïde Zulfikarpasic, head of polling company BVA Xsight, says that qualitative surveys of voters show that over a long period Le Pen has almost de-toxified the party’s image and addressed perceived weaknesses on issues like the economy. “There is a feeling that she has progressed to have a command of the issues, and that in any case, she’s the only option that’s not been tried so let’s go, there’s nothing to lose,” Zulfikarpasic says of voter attitudes.

A Feb. 17 poll by Ipsos for La Tribune Dimanche asked voters who should replace Macron. Le Pen came second only to Édouard Philippe, a former prime minister under Macron, with 32% of respondents saying they’d be satisfied if she were elected.

Macron — often dismissed by political opponents as a “president for the rich” — has no obvious successor in a party built in his own image. That has triggered speculation about who is best placed to take on Le Pen in 2027 ranging from Philippe, now mayor of the port city of Le Havre, to Prime Minister Gabriel Attal. Some have even suggested Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, as a possible outside candidate. Asked in a television interview in January if she would return to French government as part of Macron's cabinet reshuffle, Lagarde said she would be honored to serve her country again, but was committed to the ECB, where her term ends in 2027.

Behind closed doors, senior officials acknowledge a Le Pen victory is more likely than ever if Macron cannot turn the tide soon, with one saying that she’d win an election if it was held tomorrow.

Polls have shown National Rally on course to trounce Macron’s Renaissance list of candidates by at least a 10 point margin in the EU elections, with an Ipsos’ survey, published on Monday, showing a 13 point gap. If that comes true, it would be a seismic shift from 2019 when the Macron coalition trailed by less than a percentage point.

Le Pen cast a shadow over a downbeat campaign launch event on Saturday, where Macron’s party sought to depict the European elections as an existential fight against the far-right leader, warning that the outcome could be decisive for Ukraine’s fight against Russia.

“There are times in politics which see major shifts, which announce the end of an era, of a cycle, of a system,” Le Pen told supporters in Marseille at the launch of her party’s EU election campaign on March 3. “My friends, these are the times we live in.”

‘Decisive Political Moment’

In recent months, the president has played every card in what resembled a frantic reset. He’s fired his government to bring in the popular 34-year-old Attal as prime minister, a move that one Macron adviser described as a way to counter the appeal of Bardella, ahead of the EU polls. He has also borrowed a slogan from right-wing politicians to describe his shift in stance on immigration, security and education as an approach that will ensure “France remains France.”

The strategy, according to a person familiar with the political shift, is to directly challenge National Rally on its traditional campaign themes — some of which Macron has previously tried to shy away from — to appeal to voters who feel they are not being listened to on issues such as immigration. But it has been criticized by some on the left as further legitimizing the far-right.

Macron’s efforts around immigration have largely backfired. Le Pen was able to claim an “ideological victory” in December as an immigration bill only passed parliament after the government toughened measures to curtail migrant rights, securing the support of opposition lawmakers including those from National Rally. The episode drove a wedge through Macron’s centrist alliance in parliament, culminating in the resignation of his left-leaning health minister.

The constitutional court then struck down large swathes of the plan the French president had negotiated. While Macron has argued that immigration should be controlled in cooperation with EU partners, Bardella used derogatory language for migrants to cast the June elections as a referendum on “migratory submersion.”

All of this is happening against a backdrop of economic success. Growth during Macron’s stay at the Elysee Palace has outstripped Germany, Italy and the UK, according to government statistics, and unemployment briefly touched a 40-year low of 7.1% at the end of 2022. Paris has become a haven for banks looking for a post-Brexit hub in Europe and the country has cemented its global dominance in luxury goods with four of the largest companies in the sector calling it home.

Still, many voters are struggling to see how the government’s pro-business approach translates into improvements in their lives. In 2023 Macron’s attempt to boost the numbers in employment by raising the retirement age sparked months of protests, inflicting lasting damage on his approval ratings.

The president’s calculation is that by continuing to push his reforms, even when they are unpopular, he will expose Le Pen’s absence of a clear economic program, according to one senior official.

Le Pen’s lack of clear policy commitments has actually made it harder for Macron to strike a damaging blow against her. National Rally’s official website has yet to update Le Pen’s 2022 manifesto under the banner of the party’s political project. It promises a referendum to stop “uncontrolled immigration,” cuts to sales tax on core consumer products, and a reduction in the minimum retirement age to 60. Macron’s camp has dismissed such ideas as unaffordable, but accepts that they have popular appeal.

“We are at an absolutely decisive political moment,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire tells Bloomberg. “It’s now that things must be decided, because it takes two years to complete reforms. It’s better to start straight away.”

‘They Surf on Fear’

The Eure borders the northwest of the greater Paris region. It is unremarkable in many ways with living standards by income and population density hovering close to national averages. Unemployment and poverty rates are slightly lower than elsewhere in France as a whole, as is its share of university educated adults. And there’s a smaller than average ratio between the incomes of the richest and poorest among the Eure’s population of 600,000.

Yet it stands out as a harbinger of how Macron’s efforts to Le Pen-proof France are failing. In 2017, the area lent its support to En Marche! — the political movement created a year earlier by Macron — which bulldozed through the country’s political landscape. Centrists under his banner took a clean sweep of the five Eure seats in the National Assembly, displacing locally-rooted politicians from the mainstream parties.

By 2022 it stood out for a different reason: National Rally candidates took four of the seats in the assembly elections with the Socialist Party’s Philippe Brun taking the other.

National Rally’s success is partly explained by towns like Les Andelys, which voted 54.5% for Le Pen in the 2022 presidential runoff. According to Mayor Frédéric Duché, an ally of Édouard Philippe, the party’s breakthrough was triggered by discontent among voters who felt like victims, rather than beneficiaries, of government policies designed to attract big business.

“Society is changing fast, too fast,” Duché says. “It’s not a National Rally town here; it’s people expressing their exasperation with the system through National Rally.”

In January, the town’s century-old glass factory Holophane closed, at the cost of 200 jobs. The government loaned the company money to buy it time to find a new owner but a savior never materialized.

Houssin, who believes he wouldn’t have won his seat had the incumbent been more engaged locally, blamed the national government for failing to protect Holophane from surging power prices or help it adapt to the demands of the modern automobile market, its main customer. “In terms of industry,” Houssin told the National Assembly, “Les Andelys needs new projects, and France needs new policies.”

Recent industrial developments in the Eure include a Hermès luxury goods workshop — a half-hour drive west from Les Andelys on the outskirts of Louviers — and a €350 million investment by the pharmaceutical group GSK Plc at a factory near Evreux.

“My friends, how can we be stronger in times of crisis? Firstly, we mustn’t listen to declinists,” Duché told local officials and residents gathered for a New Year speech in January in a line that seemed aimed at Houssin. “They surf on fear without ever making any proposals.”

In Louviers, Brun, the sole remaining non-National Rally lawmaker in the Eure’s five districts, points to the withdrawal of the state as a critical factor in the success of Le Pen’s party with the closure of public services and a lack of doctors that has made the area one of France’s so-called “medical deserts”. He blames the pro-Macron lawmakers who preceded him and his own fractious leftist group in parliament for being too far removed from everyday concerns.

“There is clearly anger,” Brun told a class of 14 and 15 year-olds as he toured his district. “My duty as the one who resisted National Rally is to show people they are right to believe in politics and democracy and we can find solutions together.”

When asked what will happen in 2027, Duché, Les Andelys mayor, says he remains a “cheerful pessimist.”

“When something doesn’t happen the cheerful pessimist is happy,” says Duché who expects the European elections to be a “boucherie,” or bloodbath for Macron. “And when it does happen, he says ‘I told you so.’”

--With assistance from Jody Megson, Michael Ovaska and Cedric Sam.

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