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Analysis

Emmanuel Macron moves to the fore

Le Pen’s hard-line move weakens election chances

by Jacques Lafitte in Brussels

Fri 17 Feb 2017

Views have been gaining ground that French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing and eurosceptic National Front (FN) party, may win the spring election. I disagree with these assessments. The chances that she can win are vanishingly small.

According to recent polls, Le Pen can count on 25-26% support in the first round of voting, to be held on 23 April. She was at 27% one month ago, up from 24% immediately following December’s centre-right primary elections. One year ago, before Britain held its referendum on leaving the European Union and Donald Trump won the US presidential election, she was at 28-29%, and 30-31% two years ago. This trend does not resemble an unstoppable rise to power.

François Fillon, the Republican candidate beset by a scandal about the employment of his wife and children as parliamentary assistants, has recovered slightly at around 20% in the first-round polls. This is below social-liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron, who has plateaued at 21%.

Macron will unveil his programme in early March. If he makes smart openings to the centre-right, in particular on questions of law and order, he might receive a significant boost in the polls and move past Le Pen.

The central scenario is clear: Le Pen and Macron will make it to the second round of the election, to be held on 7 May, and Macron is likely to win by a margin of around 65% to 35%. The alternative scenario is that Fillon beats Le Pen by around 60% to 40%. Commentators have tried to enumerate various factors that may contribute to a more populist conclusion. These, though, are flawed.

The risk of low voter turnout for the centre-left candidate is unfounded. This portion of the electorate knows what is at stake in the event of a Le Pen victory. Some believe her position as the ‘new’ candidate may be a benefit. These commentators forget that Le Pen was already a candidate in the 2012 presidential election, and that the name ‘Le Pen’ has appeared on all but one presidential ballot since 1974 – Marine took over the leadership of the FN from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Others point to Le Pen’s rallying of the populist cause after the election of Trump and Britain’s forthcoming exit negotiations with the EU. However, she has been ‘playing her Trump card’ for three months, to little effect, and promoting Brexit to even less effect.

Following the Kremlin’s alleged intervention in the US presidential election, some commentators believe that Putin will clandestinely support Le Pen. However, she is probably no longer Moscow’s first choice to win the presidency. The First Czech Russian bank that had lent Le Pen €9m to fund her campaign has dissolved, and the Russian Bank Deposit Insurance Agency initiated recovery proceedings in December.

Le Pen has been quick to cite the danger of Islamist terrorism during her campaign, but this has not benefited her much to this point. Anti-Islam activity was down in 2016 compared to 2015, as was anti-Semitic and racist activity in general. There is no chance that Le Pen will mellow her programme to lure moderate voters. She just moved back to the party hard line, reasserting her plan to take France out of the euro.

In France unemployment is down, business and consumer confidence are up, and a quiet entrepreneurial revolution is underway. The voters who propelled the reformist Republican politician Alain Juppé to polling figures of 38% last September have not disappeared. These voters may be hesitant about how to vote right now, but many will still be nervous about having gifted the Republican nomination to Fillon’s supporters. They are unlikely to make the same mistake in April, and they will not vote for Le Pen.

Jacques Lafitte is founder at Avisa Partners, Brussels, and formerly oversaw the euro dossier in the Cabinet of Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Yves-Thibault de Silguy.

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