When asked to define Marine Le Pen in a single word, a majority of French people came up with ‘cats’ rather than ‘extreme-right’. In the past five years, she has worked hard at ‘detoxifying’ her brand. She softened her platform so that she no longer advocates Frexit or even leaving the Euro. Unlike Eric Zemmour, the former Le Figaro columnist, she insisted Islam was compatible with the values of the Republic. It’s Islamism that isn’t, she said.
Having fired her then-85-year-old father for anti-Semitism in 2015, she tried to reshape the old Front National. She changed the party name in 2018 (to Rassemblement National or National Rally). Throughout, everyone including her dear old dad heaped abuse on her, claiming the RN was losing its USP. Why would people vote for a less free-market clone of Les Républicains, Sarkozy’s old party?
But what Marine achieved on the sly was relatability, and that may prove a quality that will work to her advantage in the TV debate tonight. At 53, she has taken to a confessional tone at her low-key rallies. Her core voting block is the Lidl-shopping French working (or often not working) class, in the Northern rust belt, or those small towns all over the country with few public services, a closed-down train station; where the loss of the local employer means nobody wants to buy your home when you try to move out. Fifty-five per cent of her voters are women.
When she tells them how much it hurt that her own niece Marion Maréchal defected to Zemmour’s new party, it’s something they understand. They know of Marine’s own relationship with her difficult father and her two divorces. Her family is a mess; she is a handsome rather than beautiful woman, not of the size-six Parisian type (think Valérie Pécresse). She wears clothes they understand. She has often said that her six cats console her.
Le Pen’s political Instagram has 942 posts and 267,000 followers; her private one devoted to her cats has 167 followers and 3,768 pictures. To them, she is genuine – she will never call them ‘people who are nothing’, as Macron infamously did when comparing ordinary citizens to the movers of his ideal France, la start-up nation.
In essence, Marine Le Pen is no longer scary; which is why she may yet overcome the Project Fear against her – as launched most recently by Emmanuel Macron but also by every centre-right and centre-left French politician hoping to survive the atomisation of their natural political habitat. Project Fear is intensifying before the final vote this weekend. The French expression is ‘Le Front Républicain’, with a nod to 1930s anti-Fascist leagues.
Every day, politicians from Nicolas Sarkozy to the Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the closest France has to Jeremy Corbyn, hammer voters that backing Le Pen is unacceptable. Academics, liberal journalists, and various personalities sign long letters in Le Monde to denounce her.
Even a former British Europe minister, Denis MacShane, circulates bullet points explaining in French why Marine’s apparently toned-down platform will drag France out of the EU, ruin the country and do Putin’s work. None of these arguments is false, but the hysterical tone is counterproductive. There’s a widening French constituency that will vote for her precisely because she works the great and the good into such fury.
It is still likely that Emmanuel Macron will win on Sunday. The French, after all, are extraordinarily risk-averse. But certain? Non.
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