MARION ANNE PERRINE LE PEN never really wanted to be in politics. It was his older sister, Marie-Caroline, who was believed destined to follow in the footsteps of their father, Jean-Marie, co-founder in 1972 of the French far-right National Front. Marine, as she became known in her childhood, was the baby of the family, the third blonde girl, who decided to pursue a career as a lawyer. However, for ten years, for reasons of chance and cunning, it is Marine Le Pen who leads the party she renamed Rallye National. And in 12 months, his name will appear on the ballot in the next French presidential election, for the third consecutive competition. Is it time to think the unthinkable?
Dwell on the possibility, as slim as it is, that Ms. Le Pen could take the presidency bothers the Liberals. The very discussion of it gives her oxygen and gives legitimacy to a candidate who once compared Muslims praying in the streets in France to the Nazi occupation. Yet the odds of Ms Le Pen’s victory are no longer close to zero. With a new surge in covid-19 infections and a vaccination campaign that has only just begun, the odds of Emmanuel Macron are down. After a president of the right (Nicolas Sarkozy), of the left (François Hollande) and of the center (Mr. Macron), a disenchanted electorate could be tempted to try something else. The main reason voters tend to support his party is that they are fed up with everyone else.
In addition, Ms. Le Pen is now a seasoned activist, who knows the toll of a two-round presidential election, and the scars of defeat are fading. She overpowered the crushing one-liner, mocking Mr Macron’s March 31 decision to put France in a nationwide lockdown after just like her “Waterloo vaccine“. “Containment, deconfinement, reconfinement», Scande Ms. Le Pen, taunting the government’s change strategy. Polls suggest that if a second round were held today, she could score 47-48% against Mr Macron’s 52-53%, a terribly narrow margin. It was once assumed that moderate voters on the left and right would rise up in shock and shame across the country to prevent a Le Pen of the highest office. Today voters disappointed with Mr Macron, especially on the left, are simply swearing to abstain.
While Mr Macron’s issues open space for Ms Le Pen, they also bring closer scrutiny. Some unsavory guys are still hiding in his shadow. There will be questions about his approach to the democratic exercise of power. Further inspection will also involve what might be called the skills challenge. In the past, when the National Front was a protest party, it didn’t matter. His father wanted to howl, not to rule. She seeks power.
Four years ago, his political argument was distinctive. She was a Frexiteer, who had sworn to pull France out of the euro, close its borders to immigrants, suppress Islamism, and force factories to make things and keep jobs at home. She opposed her “patriotic” approach to what she called that of Mr. Macron.globalist»Vision: of deregulation and post-national Europeanism.
Today, Ms. Le Pen has abandoned Frexit, would keep the euro and promises to forge a “Europe of nations” by reforming from within. The candidate no longer has a monopoly on questions of national sovereignty; all parties undertake to manufacture more masks, vaccines and drugs in France. Mr. Macron’s “republican values” bill, meanwhile, which his detractors see as a hunt for Ms. Le Pen’s far-right vote, also aims to curb Islamism. Indeed, Gerald Darmanin, his Minister of the Interior, surprised her in a debate by accusing her of being too soft on such subjects. Today, Ms. Le Pen, popular among anti-vaxxers, supports vaccination.
Many voters will still see the family name, ignore the fresh packaging, and dismiss the underlying message as divisive and toxic. About a quarter of them say they would support Ms Le Pen in the first round, but that’s no more than a year before the previous presidential poll. Still, there is room for her to grab more. Some of its policies are now difficult to distinguish from those of the conservative or traditional nationalist right. Indeed, his promises to curtail citizenship rights and curb immigration are backed by conservative parties across Europe, including in Britain. When Ms Le Pen promises to run things better, voters may think she is competent enough to do so.
Who, paradoxically, offers macronistas a little comfort. No one has forgotten Ms Le Pen’s second-round debate against Mr Macron in 2017, when he calmly reminded her that she confused a company that makes phones with a company that makes industrial turbines. He could be damaged by his handling of the third wave of covid-19. But, as vaccinations resume, Mr Macron could still recover. He is less hated than Mr. Sarkozy or Mr. Hollande at this stage in their conditions. If the next election is based on technical expertise, Mr. Macron will have a significant advantage.
However, concerns over Ms Le Pen’s suitability to govern could also help potential right-wing rivals. One, Xavier Bertrand, head of the Hauts-de-France region, has already announced that he will be running. Another, Valérie Pécresse, responsible for the Paris region, could still do it. Yet another, Edouard Philippe, the former Prime Minister of Mr. Macron, passes him off as mayor of Le Havre, describing himself in a publicity tour for a new book as “faithful” but also “free”. Which, probably, read: I won’t run against Mr Macron, but won’t hesitate to declare it if the president decides he can’t. Even Michel Barnier, the EUThe former Brexit negotiator could give it a try.
Ultimately, Ms. Le Pen can still be judged, at least in the first round, not on expert brain calculations, but on anti-elite identity, emotion and anger in rural and industrial France. . The skill challenge will apply more in the second round. Which, at this point, is still most likely to see Mr Macron narrowly face and beat Ms Le Pen. But the policy remains very fluid. Traditional festivals are hollow. The French rebels like to surprise. No one is better placed to know that than Mr. Macron. ■
This article first appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Thinking the unthinkable”