Rematch for the Elysee: Emmanuel Macron fights to hold ‘Republican front’ against Marine Le Pen

In the last round of the French presidential election 20 years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right Front National was beaten 82 percent to 18 percent by centre-right incumbent Jacques Chirac as voters rebelled at the prospect of an extremist taking over the Elysée Palace.

A similar “Republican front” of anti-extremist political parties and citizens emerged five years ago when Le Pen’s daughter Marine faced centrist political newcomer Emmanuel Macron, beating her 66 percent to 34 percent to win the presidency.

This year – with the two facing a rematch on April 24 after first round of voting on Sunday – the latest polls give Macron a slight advantage. But they also show that the Republican front is crumbling and that Marine Le Pen may finally be within reach of a victory that would have huge consequences at home and abroad.

She and her supporters feel they have the momentum to win after their surge over the past month. “It’s all about the dynamics and that’s the case now with Marine Le Pen,” said Jean-Paul Garraud, a judge who is set to be appointed justice minister if she wins. “There was a psychological breakthrough in the public that she has the ability and character to be president.”

Marine Le Pen will run for the presidency for the third time © Joan Mateu Parra/AP

But Macron has a history of proving to be an excellent political activist – when push comes to shove, “I fight,” he recently said – and he has already arranged trips to northern and eastern France for Monday and Tuesday to stay at the Elysée for a second term.

Should Macron win in two weeks, he has pledged to continue his economic reforms and maintain his policy of liberal internationalism, which puts France at the center of both the EU and the Western alliance, which now faces Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. His keywords are “humanism”, “openness” and “enlightenment”.

“This competition is not over yet and the debate that we will have over the next two weeks will be crucial for our country,” he said on Sunday evening.

Conservative Valérie Pécresse nearly fell below the 5% threshold required to recover campaign spending © Adnan Farzat/EPA/Shutterstock

If Le Pen wins, she has vowed to transform French society by restricting immigration and foreigners’ rights and banning Muslims from wearing the veil in public, while protecting French industry and EU laws and rules Rejects which, in their opinion, violate France’s interests Withdrawal from NATO’s military command structure. She speaks of “protection” – from high prices and crime – and “law and order”.

Events in France and abroad in recent years have bolstered Le Pen as she and her increasingly optimistic campaign team press ahead with her third candidacy for the presidency.

At home, the traditional left-right structure of post-war French democracy – which had already been challenged in 2017 by Macron’s innovative and successful “neither right nor left” campaign – appears to have been buried by Sunday’s vote.

The left-wing extremist anti-NATO nationalist Jean-Luc Mélenchon threatened to overtake Marine Le Pen © Julien Mattia/Le Pictorium Agency/dpa

In its place is a competition between liberals and internationalists like Macron on the one hand and populists and nationalists like Le Pen on the other.

Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, won just 2 percent of the vote on Sunday, while conservative Les Républicains’ Valérie Pécresse was in danger of falling below the 5 percent hurdle needed to claw back campaign spending from the state.

The closest candidate to Macron and Le Pen was not a conventional candidate, but far-left anti-Nato nationalist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who appears to have nearly beaten Le Pen in the second round like last time. Some of his supporters have told pollsters they will vote for Le Pen at the opposite end of the political spectrum, although he urged them on Sunday night not to support the far right.

Mélenchon supporters have been urged by their losing candidate not to move to the extreme right © Anita Pouchard Serra/Bloomberg

Abroad, populists and nationalists like Le Pen have been rising above liberal Democrats for a decade or more, a trend exemplified by the 2016 Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump later that year and the rise of authoritarian leaders like Vladimir will be Putin in Russia and Viktor Orban in Hungary.

Le Pen’s supporters say that by exploiting Macron’s reputation for arrogance, she not only managed to win over the 7 percent of voters who chose Eric Zemmour – a far-right, anti-immigration candidate Le Pen – in the first ballot briefly eclipsed last year – but also many from the far left and right wing of Pécresses LR.

Emmanuel Macron acknowledges his supporters as the results of the first round come in, but the President has a fight ahead © Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

“There are many people in France who want to get rid of Macron,” said Gilles Lebreton, a member of the European Parliament who supports Le Pen. “We didn’t try to create the ‘Everyone But Macron’ movement – he did it himself with the little phrases that attack and divide the people and with his program that favors the elites.”

Polls from both Ipsos and Elabe show that Mélenchon supporters split their votes three ways: abstain, support Macron and vote for Le Pen in a second ballot.

By Sunday, Le Pen had stolen the show by criss-crossing France and listening to villagers complain about the high cost of living, while Macron was very late to the campaign trail after being lashed out by international diplomacy over the war in France Ukraine had been distracted.

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But Macron won around 28 percent of the vote — more than in the first round of 2017. Now that the first round is over, all his fire will be on Le Pen, particularly her lack of experience as head of state in times of crisis, which he says is an inconsistency her economic policies, and most notably her ties to Putin: Le Pen was financially backed first by Russia and now Hungary with bank loans, while her campaign literature originally featured a picture of her proudly shaking hands with Putin in the Kremlin.

Macron supporter Guillain Gilliot, 22, a political science student in Paris who supported the president’s campaign, said there was a need to explain who Le Pen really was, beyond her public image as a cat lover and a woman of the people. “She seems to be softer now, but her program is a tough one,” he said, “and we must explain that she is still Putin’s ally.”

Georgina Wright, head of the Institut Montaigne think tank, said of Macron’s speech after the results of the first round: “For the first time I felt that Macron was not running for president but as a candidate for a second term. But the race is going to be very close – and he has to convince people to get out and vote on April 24th.” Rematch for the Elysee: Emmanuel Macron fights to hold ‘Republican front’ against Marine Le Pen

Adam Bradshaw

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