Le Pen surges against Macron ahead of French election

Le Pen surges against Macron ahead of French election

French President Emmanuel Macron has positioned himself as the diplomatic linchpin in Western Europe’s response to Russian’s invasion of Ukraine ahead of France‘s election on Sunday, but a right-wing opposition candidate could complicate Mr. Macron’s path to a second term.

Closing opinion polls are showing a far tighter race than initially anticipated amid a last-minute surge by fierce nationalist Marine Le Pen, who has widened the appeal of her National Rally party among mainstream voters by softening hardline stances on immigration and focusing her campaign on economic issues.

With no candidate projected to take a majority in the first round of voting, the election is expected to head to an April 24 runoff between the 53-year-old Ms. Le Pen and the 44-year-old Mr. Macron. Mr. Macron broke traditional hard left-right divisions in 2017 to become the youngest president in French history and its youngest head of state since Napoleon Bonaparte.

Many had predicted Mr. Macron, a centrist and former investment banker who has threaded a needle of leadership through the economic and social tumult of the COVID-19 era, was on a much easier path to winning a second term. He handily defeated Ms. Le Pen five years ago, beating her by 32 percentage points in the 2017 runoff.

But that was before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent economic and political shock waves through Europe.

While the latest polls show the French president with as much as a 5-point lead over Ms. Le Pen in a head-to-head matchup, pundits are scrambling to calculate how the election will be affected by the ongoing war, which has sent energy prices soaring in Western European countries that depend on Russian oil and natural gas, while also pushing hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees into the European Union.

Sunday’s vote will be the third major election held in Europe since Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbian President Aleksander Vucic — both of whom are considered by analysts to be populist nationalists who have cultivated good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin — won reelection in April 3 elections.

But the nuances are different in France, a major Western European power that plays a more consequential role than Hungary in the European Union, of which Serbia is not even a member.

Mr. Macron, who by chance holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU as the voting takes place, has sought on the campaign trail to portray himself as a major European leader and global voice. He has positioned himself at the forefront of international talks on supporting Ukraine, leading the pre-war diplomacy trying to dissuade Mr. Putin and strongly pressing for punitive sanctions against Russia when the outreach failed.

Analysts point to wider European consequences of the vote in France. “When French citizens go to the polls, only around 45.5 [million] registered voters will cast ballots. … But the decision will affect all 400 [million] citizens of the EU,” according to a recent analysis by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“That’s because France is one of the two largest EU member states — and because [Mr. Macron] has been one of the most visible and vocal European leaders in responding to all manner of challenges facing Europe, be it the Russia-Ukraine crisis or the effort to handle the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Susi Dennison, who heads the Council’s “European Power” program, and Tara Varma, who runs its Paris operation.

“If a French president with a positive agenda for the EU emerges from the election, he or she will be able to form a strong alliance with the new coalition government in Germany, which has committed to place EU action at the heart of its approach to policy challenges — as underlined by its ground-breaking decisions on [defense] spending and economic sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion,” they wrote.

Mr. Macron, who cultivated a close relationship with former President Donald Trump but has also gotten along with President Biden, has impressed U.S. hawks who have long pushed for Western Europe’s NATO allies to spend more on their own defense. Mr. Macron has vowed to invest more in the French military and to significantly reinforce the overall capacities of European armed forces in a second term.

But uncertainty swirls over the extent to which such issues will matter with French voters frustrated by inflation and other economic issues. While the country’s jobless rate dropped to its lowest rate in a decade during Mr. Macron’s first term, the cost of living has continued to rise, an issue Ms. Le Pen has hammered on heading into Sunday’s vote.

As head of the opposition National Rally party, Ms. Le Pen has promised to cut taxes on energy and essential goods, but also says she wants to raise the minimum amount of France‘s government-funded pensions and maintain the minimum retirement age at 62, as opposed to Mr. Macron’s proposal to raise it gradually to 65.

Detoxifying an image

Ms. Le Pen’s emphasis on buying power is in line with her work to detoxify her party since taking the reins from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the firebrand leader of what was then the National Front. She changed the party name and then expelled him after he reiterated antisemitic remarks.

But for more than a decade, Ms. Le Pen herself has been known for fierce anti-immigration stances. Her critics characterize her as Islamophobic for vowing to ban Muslims from wearing headscarves or face coverings in public. She says she honors the religion of Islam, but views the coverings as an “Islamist uniform.”

She also has presented herself as a guardian of French civilization. All the while, the issue of Muslim immigration from North African and the Middle East has faded amid the Ukraine crisis. Ms. Le Pen has modified her previous good relations with Russia by saying she supports the Ukrainian people and that refugees from the Russian invasion must be welcomed.

She also appeared to put economic issues above immigration during a recent television appearance that featured questions from voters. “I obviously consider that immigration and insecurity are serious problems which need urgent answers, but there’s not just that,” Ms. Le Pen said, according to The Associated Press. “I worry about making ends meet as much as the end of France.”

Ms. Le Pen has also sought to distance herself from Mr. Putin, despite having cultivated ties with Moscow over the years, receiving a loan of nearly $10 million from a Russian bank in 2014 and Mr. Putin personally hosting her during a visit to the Kremlin in 2017.

Mr. Macron has sought to undercut Ms. Le Pen on the campaign trail by referring to her Russia ties. While he did not mention her by name, he told voters Tuesday that “other candidates” should be scrutinized for their “indulgence regarding Vladimir Putin” and their “financing with Russia,” according to Agence France-Presse.

For her part, Ms. Le Pen has told voters that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine partially changed her views about Mr. Putin, asserting that he was wrong.

Her history with the Russian president may be getting overshadowed, meanwhile, by another right-wing French candidate. Eric Zemmour, a political novice running under the banner of his newly created Reconquest party, made headlines in 2018 by proclaiming that he “dreams of a French Putin.”

Mr. Zemmour, 63, is polling behind Ms. Le Pen but threatens to cut into her support on the right. He’s pushing an even more aggressive anti-immigration posture, proposing the French government establish a “Re-migration Ministry,” equipped with airplanes to expedite the expulsions of what he says are undesirable migrants.

The contrast presented by Mr. Zemmour’s firebrand nationalism has helped Ms. Le Pen cultivate a more moderate image, according to Agence France-Presse, although the outlet cited a recent analysis by the Paris-based Jean-Jaures Foundation as saying Ms. Le Pen “remains a candidate of the far-right.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.