In the 2017 French presidential election’s second round of voting, Republic On The Move leader Emmanuel Macron defeated National Front leader Marine Le Pen by 66.1 to 33.9 percent of the vote. Five years later, they face each other in another run-off.
Portions of the French electorate are pulling for a Macron victory. While they haven’t been overly pleased with their liberal-leaning president, the thought of a Le Pen presidency terrifies them. She and her party are often depicted as nationalist, populist, anti-globalist, anti-immigrant and “far-right.”
As Anthony Trollope wrote in Barchester Towers (1857), “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”
Is this an accurate depiction of modern French politics? Would the country really be better off with Macron remaining at the helm?
With respect to Le Pen’s candidacy, domestic and international concerns tend to be less about her and far more about her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The elder Le Pen founded the National Front in 1972. He was the party’s most recognizable face and its biggest political albatross. He had some good ideas that appealed to French conservatives, including support for economic liberalism (although that gradually dissipated), a strong law-and-order agenda and opposition to communism. Yet he attracted controversy through comments that could be tied to Muslim hatred and Holocaust denial.
That’s why he was often called the “Devil of the Republic.”
His greatest political moment occurred in the 2002 presidential election. Le Pen shocked the nation by finishing second in the first round with 16.86 percent of the vote. This put him just above Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin (16.18 percent) and not far behind then-president and Rally for the Republic candidate Jacques Chirac (19.88 percent). This mobilized French voters on the right and left to get behind Chirac, who crushed Le Pen by a margin of 82.21 to 17.79 percent.
France knew the devil far too well and kept him out of high office.
Nevertheless, this stunning result started the National Front’s shift from fringe outfit to mainstream party.
Le Pen finished fourth in the 2007 presidential election but served as a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2019.
Marine Le Pen took over the National Front in 2011. She sat with her father in the European Parliament from 2004 to 2017 and became a member of the National Assembly representing Pas-de-Calais’s 11th constituency shortly after. She’s finished no lower than third in her three presidential runs.
Where the story changes is her transformation of her father’s old party.
She set out to conduct a “de-demonization” of the National Front. She suspended and expelled controversial members, including her father in 2015. She softened policies related to race, religion, marriage, globalization and the European Union. She established a more moderate and inclusive visage to attract non-traditional support. She changed the party’s name to National Rally in 2018 to give it a fresh look.
Le Pen also shifted the party’s focus on Islam to opposing Islamic terrorism. She even improved relations with Jews and Israel – aided by her then-domestic partner Louis Aliot, who is of Algerian-Jewish descent.
The daughter clearly isn’t the same as the father. Her National Rally may have similar policies to his old National Front on immigration, protectionism and nationalism, but it’s not even close to being the same entity.
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Much of current elite opinion would be soundly rejected by voters if ever openly expressed at the ballot box
But questions about Le Pen and National Rally remain, including her criticism of NATO, distrust of the United States and supportive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin. There are also worries that the French economy could take a nosedive if she’s elected.
But Macron’s presidency has been less than stellar. His inability to handle the yellow vests movement crushed his popularity. He nationalized the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard and cut housing benefits despite public disapproval. France’s status in the international community has declined badly and relations with the U.S. are dicey.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also hurt Macron’s re-election bid.
His supporters suggest he’s been taking important steps to help bring this conflict to an end. The Economist, however, correctly pointed out on March 19 that “abroad, especially in eastern Europe, he was seen as a loose cannon and even as an appeaser when he first tried to court Mr. Putin with talk of a new European security architecture. Last month, after his shuttle diplomacy to Moscow failed to prevent the war, he was regarded by some as naïve.”
One suspects that French voters will re-elect Macron on April 24, albeit by a small margin. Yet it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Le Pen could become president of France – if the electorate decides the devil you don’t know is worth knowing, that is.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics. For interview requests, click here.
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