There is an air of optimism in the campaign of Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally (RN) and candidate for the third time for the presidency of France. “Things are going better,” Louis Aliot, mayor of Perpignan, former partner of Le Pen and vice president of the RN, says on the phone. “I think there is a real opportunity and it is possible to win this election,” adds the leader of the heir party of the National Front, the historical force of the French extreme right founded by the candidate’s father, the patriarch Jean-Marie.
Le Pen (Neuilly-sur-Seine, 53 years old) is imposing himself on the pulse with Éric Zemmour, the popular talk show host who broke into the electoral arena in the fall and tried to dispute the leadership of the extreme right. And he already dreams of beating the current president, Emmanuel Macron.
Before Zemmour entered the campaign, it was assumed that the 2017 duel would be repeated in 2022: Macron against Le Pen. Everything changed in a few weeks. With his rhetorical gall, his bar counter erudition and the broadsides against Muslims and foreigners that have taken him to court several times, the talk show host destabilized the head of the RN. And he upset the forecasts.
Zemmour captured some party leaders and the most prized figure: Marion Maréchal, Marine’s niece and Jean-Marie’s favorite granddaughter. In addition, he wanted to break the dam that, with greater or lesser success, has separated for decades the traditional right of Los Republicanos (LR) —the sister party in France of the Spanish PP— from the extreme right.
In November and December 2021, Zemmour matched or beat Le Pen in the polls. He seemed like a candidate in a position to qualify for the second round and challenge the centrist Macron for victory.
But, like so many times in Marine Le Pen’s career, she was given up early. Now, with little more than a week to go until the first round of elections, on April 10, the polls are unanimous: on the extreme right, Le Pen will defeat Zemmour. The second round, in which the two most voted candidates participate, is held on April 27.
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The latest survey by the Ifop institute, which publishes one a day, places the intention to vote for Le Pen at 21%, 10 points more than Zemmour. The RN candidate is thus in a comfortable second position that would classify her again, as in 2017, for the second round. Macron leads the voting intentions with 27.5%.
A much narrower margin
In 2017, Macron won with 66% of the vote. Le Pen took out 34%, Now the margin would be much narrower. According to Ifop, the president would get 53%; his rival on the extreme right, 47%. Another poll, Elabe institute, narrowed the margin even more on Tuesday and contemplated a victory for Le Pen.
“Little by little we are approaching the margin of error,” celebrates Aliot. In his opinion, the key to winning in the second round is participation: “The more important the participation, the more important the result for Marine Le Pen. Because we have a popular class electorate, rather lower middle class, and these people only go to vote when there is something at stake and they think we can win.”
Aliot won the mayoralty of Perpignan —the largest city governed by the RN— in 2020 with a strategy similar to that of Le Pen: softening the most unpleasant angles of the speech, presenting himself as a pragmatic manager rather than an ideologue and leaning on the rejection of the outgoing administration to bring together votes from other political tendencies.
Le Pen had been involved in the so-called process of dediabolization. It was about cleaning up the party’s image of him, associated with racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. He expelled the father from him. He renamed the match. He said that she was neither on the left nor on the right and she used the populist discourse of “those below” against “those above”. Like the Communist Party for decades, the FN and later the RN presented themselves as the “first workers’ party” in France.
The candidate herself, who in 2017 demonstrated her incompetence in the televised debate before Macron, has made an effort these years to prepare herself better and to appear as a reliable and friendly politician.
But the dediabolization he left the terrain of the old extreme right free. And it was occupied by Zemmour, the son of Algerian Jews who vindicates the figure of Philippe Pétain, the leader of France who collaborated with the Nazis, and promotes the racist theory of the great substitution of white Europeans for Africans and Arabs.
After living his moment of glory, Zemmour deflates. “He has carried out a very aggressive, very violent campaign: people saw that he did not have the bearing of a President of the Republic”, judges the mayor of Perpignan.
Zemmour’s radicalism, by contrast, allows Le Pen to appear more moderate, even if her views on immigration are not so different. “During these five years he has worked a lot,” says Aliot. “She is serene, nothing restless. The French perceive this solidity”.
The provocations and tone outbursts, which when entering the campaign attracted the spotlight on the talk show host, have ended up harming him. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine leaves it in a bad position. Not only because of his enthusiastic admiration for Vladimir Putin. Le Pen was also an admirer of the Russian president, and more than that: she visited him during the 2017 campaign, and in a previous campaign she financed herself with a loan from a Russian bank.
Both, however, did not react the same after the invasion of February 24. Le Pen defended the reception in France of the Ukrainian refugees. Zemmour kept up his usual speech. “I prefer Poland to be here,” he said. “It is not right to uproot people so far from their country, and destabilize France, which is already submerged by immigration.”
Perhaps he thought he was showing ideological coherence. Perhaps, as Brice Teinturier of the Ipsos demoscopic institute points out, it was a sign of “rigidity”, of his inability to get out of his theories. And this is another advantage of Le Pen: she has adapted to the concerns of the electorate. She has left immigration in the background; she now she talks mostly about economics.
“We have focused our argument on purchasing power”, defends Aliot, “and today this is what worries the French: how to make ends meet with the increase in food and energy prices”.
The internal battle on the extreme right reveals a background trend in this campaign: pocket issues prevail over identity issues. Le Pen soon took note of this; Zemour, no.
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