With two days to go before French voters head to the polls, far-right figurehead Marine Le Pen stands just 2.5 percentage points away from victory in the first round of the presidential election (IFOP). Yes, you read that correctly. Never has a far-right candidate polled this close to the winner’s spot, not even when Marine’s father, Jean Louis Marie Le Pen, came runner-up in 2002. Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine and the candidacy of overt racist Eric Zemmour have meant Macron’s party has spent little time focusing on Le Pen as an adversary. While Macron finally begins to sound the alarm against his Rassemblement National opponent, it may be too little too late.
Where did it all go wrong? We remember well when the fresh-faced former minister of François Hollande took the 2017 election by storm, tearing up the rulebook with his new party, La République En Marche ! He promised to do away with conventional party politics, and formed a first cabinet with political figures from across the spectrum.
A key priority of his campaign had been to tackle gender inequality, while he promised ‘democratic revolution’ that would transform France’s outdated political system. He launched the ‘Make Our Planet Green Again’ initiative in 2017 and vowed to fight for a more open Europe in the face of nationalist populism. On national television even his critics watched in awe as he demoralised Marine Le Pen in the final debate before the second round. Pundits dubbed it the end of Le Pen’s political career.
Et voilà, the state of play in 2022: Marine Le Pen stands just 2.5 percentage points away from Macron in the first-round voting intentions, with a predicted abstention rate of 28%.
The years spent by Macron’s incumbent government on appeasing Islamophobia and co-opting Le Pen’s anti-Islam rhetoric is one of several phenomena that, over the last five years, have normalised the far-right leader as a mainstream politician. Furthermore, Macron’s authoritarian handling of the gilets jaunes protests and a heavy dependence on precarious jobs to boost employment numbers have further disenfranchised the working class. No surprise then that a significant number of working-class voters make up the electoral base of Marine Le Pen, who has spent the majority of her campaign promising to make workers’ money go further.
If Macron manages to secure re-election, the legacy of his first quinquennat will ultimately be his government’s unprecedented empowering of the far right.
Legitimising the far right: a fait accompli
Despite Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 promises of progress, it was sheer political opportunism that led to him taking a hard right turn in the second half of his quinquennat. Following the government reshuffle in 2020, the newly appointed Minister for Delegate for Citizenship, Marlène Schiappa, launched her ‘reconquête républicaine’, a ‘republican recapturing’ of France. The thinly veined nationalism behind an ostensibly ‘feminist’ initiative to keep French women safe from sexual harassment did not escape intersectional feminists, who were quick to dub Schiappa’s ideology ‘fémonationaliste‘.
The whiffs of Islamophobic dog whistles soon turned into a stench, when the President announced to the Islamic world that their faith was ‘experiencing a crisis’. In his October 2020 speech in Les Mureaux we heard the utterance of an ever-elusive enemy of civilisation: l’Islam politique. Political Islam. No matter how many times you repeat these words, they become no clearer. But perhaps clarity wasn’t the point.
For as the post-gilet jaunes status quo brought little improvement to workers’ lives, Macron chose to tap into the far right’s handbook to transform his image into a leader protecteur. The enemy of his people was no longer free-market reforms, but l’Islam politique. He described this phenomenon as an ‘endogenous terrorism’, taking ‘hybrid forms’ including ‘networks of a radical Islam’. How curious, then, that among the measures introduced to combat this nefarious Islamic nexus that is miraculously both ‘imported’ and ‘endogenous’, Macron should include a crackdown on halal menus in public institutions.
Macron’s government waged its war against Islam to the end. In 2021, the infamous ‘anti-separatist law’ was passed, with clauses worded ambiguously enough to allow for discrimination against French Muslims, a phenomenon already existent in the country. In October 2019, a French Muslim mother was heckled by a far-right politician, who demanded she take off her hijab as she accompanied her child on a school trip to the regional assembly.
Months of debate from France’s enlightened politicians included highlights that would be comical were the political consequences not so dire. Perhaps the lowest point of Macron’s government was reached when, live on national television, the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, accused Le Pen of being ‘soft’ on Islam.
The faux-pas of Darmanin – who was appointed Minister of the Interior while facing legal action for an accusation of rape – revealed what Macron’s supporters have refused to admit. That is, in a bid to reinvent his political image, their knight in shining armour and his ministers had broken the creaking dam that had thus far kept Le Pen’s National Rally from bursting through the floodgates of political legitimacy.
The results of this political choice – for it was a choice that Macron did not have to make – have been predictably catastrophic. Since the passing of the ‘anti-separatist law’, French authorities have been accused of shutting down mosques across the country based on scant public evidence. Islamophobic attacks increased by 53% in 2020 alone, with 2021 seeing further Islamophobic attacks against mosques, as well as a spate of anti-Muslim graffiti on town walls.
But the gravest consequences of Macron’s love affair with Islamophobia could be yet to come. If the polls are correct, Le Pen will meet Macron in the second round, in which voting intentions now give her 48% against Macron’s 52% (IFOP). With a predicted first-round abstention rate of 28% and millions of supporters of other right-wing candidates for the taking, it is too early to know where these votes would go in the second round.
Crucially, Macron will find it difficult to accuse his opponent of extremism when it is he who has sanctioned France’s most radical crackdown on Islamic institutions, on Islamic customs, on Islam itself. If Le Pen achieves the unthinkable, it will be in part due to the groundwork laid by Macron’s administration. It will be French Muslims who pay the price for a Le Pen victory, the severity of which we cannot know until that moment comes, if it comes. But we need not look too far back into Europe’s history to know what can befall religious minorities when far-right movements ascend to power.
The Zemmour effect and Marine Le Pen’s new image
It is impossible to deny that Marine Le Pen has benefitted from her own successful rebranding. Since her debacle in 2017, she has spent the last five years reworking her defeat as a learning curve. She has ditched, for example, her much-ridiculed proposals to quit the Eurozone, espousing instead an EU that is an ‘association of free nations’.
Le Pen has also spent months giving tête-à-têtes with (select) newspapers, in which she has divulged on her love for cats, her experiences growing up in the limelight, as well as her anxieties and fears. This is not a coincidental embrace of the press. Le Pen has sought to construct an image of herself that is a distant cry from the abrasive politician hurling insults at her political adversaries that French voters have watched on their screens for the past twenty years. For not only has she positioned herself as a champion of the working class, but she has sought to tailor her political image into a palatable alternative for older conservative voters.
As the conservative Les Républicains candidate, Valérie Pécresse, struggles to reach double-digit scores, Marine Le Pen’s strategy of self-polishing appears to be working. Not without the help of several full-page interviews with right-wing papers like Le Figaro on how she is ‘ready to be President’.
Perhaps Marine’s greatest help has come in the form of a late adversary: Eric Zemmour. When the polemist announced his candidacy earlier this year, it looked as if Le Pen’s meticulous rebranding had been in vain. Zemmour stormed the polls, leaving Le Pen struggling for second place.
But what we have seen in recent weeks is the fruits of Le Pen’s labour ripening in extraordinary fashion. For while Zemmour ‘shocked’ audiences with his calls for French Muslims to renounce their faith, and for disabled children to be segregated from schools, Le Pen has used Zemmour’s candidacy as a reminder to voters of her comparative political experience and pragmatism.
Compounded by her criticism of Macron’s government waging a war against Islam as opposed to ‘Islamism’, the image of a pragmatist was not difficult for Le Pen to weave. The reality is that she is still Marine Le Pen, leader of the virulently Islamophobic far-right party, Rassemblement National. Her programme includes a bill that would, among other things, seek to fine Muslim women for wearing the hijab as part of an offensive against ‘Islamist ideology’. Her manifesto promises to restrict medical aid available to non-residents, and to terminate France’s jus soli.
Thanks to the arrival of Zemmour and Macron’s dog-whistling however, the image of Marine Le Pen the pragmatist seems to have stuck. Meanwhile, the novelty of Zemmour has worn off, and the percentage points he garnered have since melted away in favour of the National Rally leader.
Of course, there are still millions of voters who will vote for Zemmour, and the conservative candidate Pécresse in the first round. If the polls are correct and neither Zemmour nor Pécresse advance to the second round, these voters will be faced with a choice: Le Pen, Macron, or stay at home.
While it is still uncertain what choices they will make, the electoral reserves of Marine Le Pen are undoubtedly deeper than they were in 2017. Then, she relied on the support of those who’d voted for right-wing populist, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan. This year, she will have several right-wing bases to choose from. Bases that have been riled up in xenophobic bloodlust by Macron’s war on Islam, and disenfranchised by his free-market cynicism.
In 2017, the prospect of a Le Pen presidency seemed too much to risk for French voters. This year, the polls paint a contrasting picture. Years of Islamophobic dog whistling, shoddy free-market economics and broken promises have created the perfect conditions for France’s fascist hydra to rise from the ashes. The head may have been cut off in 2017, but the ugliest face may yet reveal itself.
Article Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons