France’s Macron Faces Powerful Election Challenge From the Right

With the first round of the election only days away, French President Emmanuel Macron faces a surprisingly strong challenge from right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen following a major surge in the polls. France employs a run-off system in which the two leading candidates in the first round then face each other in the second round of voting. That second round will almost certainly see Macron and Le Pen in a rematch of their 2017 battle.

National Rally exceeding expectations

Marine Le Pen has been a perennial presidential candidate since she took over the National Front (now National Rally) party founded by her father, also a perennial candidate.

Jean-Marie Le Pen was always a controversial figure in French politics and he was expelled from the party by his own daughter in 2015.

She has moderated the party’s stance on a number of issues but National Rally remains a strongly nationalist and anti-immigration party.

In 2017 Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron led in the first round of voting but the outcome of the second round was never in doubt; Macron won twice as many votes as Le Pen and was elected for a five year term.

That election did see Le Pen nearly double her share of the vote. Her strong performance was widely regarded as drawing from the same trends that saw Donald Trump elected, including by Le Pen herself.

After a late surge, polling now shows another huge gain for Le Pen. This time polls place her only a few points behind Macron in the second round, which gives her a real chance of defeating the centrist incumbent.

Le Pen maintains dominance on the French right

Early in the race Le Pen was in danger of being sidelined on the French right by Eric Zemmour, a firebrand candidate who grabbed headlines at every turn.

In contrast to Zemmour, Le Pen has run a quiet race and has further moderated the National Rally platform, presenting herself as a less divisive option in a race between big personalities.

Support for Zemmour has declined and Le Pen has proceeded to become Macron’s leading opponent. Both of the right wing candidates have benefited from a collapse in support for the far left among working class voters.

Le Pen has previously called for France to distance itself from the United States and build closer ties to Russia; rather than letting it destroy her campaign, she has successfully pivoted in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion to highlight other issues.

Her campaign focus has turned to the plight of working class voters who might suffer from the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine; she has cast herself as the realist candidate with concrete plans to keep prices and unemployment down.

The first round of the vote is on April 10 and will see Le Pen and Macron face a crowded field of other candidates. In the second round on April 24 she just might finally have her chance to win the presidency.

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