In January, I predicted that Marine Le Pen would win the French presidential election. Back then, the race was between the National Front leader and and the centre-right François Fillon, who beat the favourite in his party’s primary to stand as the Margaret Thatcher for France. Does France want its own Thatcher? I argued no. Fillon’s platform of radical public sector cuts and welfare reform would, I argued, do him no favours with France’s traditional working class voters and trade unionists. Le Pen, in contrast, was promising that the French people could keep their 35-hour working week and cushy benefits, as long as all the immigrants were kept out. Who would your money be on?
All of that still holds, except for one crucial change: Fillon may not be in the run-off against Le Pen. The 62-year-old has spent the past month putting out fires concerning how much public money he spent paying his wife to be his “parliamentary assistant”, and whether he can prove she actually did any work. (Answers: almost €1 million, and whatever Mrs Fillon did is now a question for the anti-corruption police, who raided the Senate as part of their investigation into the alleged fraud.) The scandal has, unsurprisingly, scuppered Fillon’s poll ratings somewhat, paving the way for a new challenger to Le Pen: the young upstart Emmanuel Macron.
Macron is the radical centre-left independent candidate, known for his youth, his vivacity, and the fact that his wife is fifteen years older than him and was once his high school teacher. As for his policies, those are less clear, although progressivism, liberalism, and anti-establishmentism are all in the mix somewhere. The most promising way to think of the 39-year-old is, bizarrely, as a cross between Donald Trump and the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. Like Trump, Macron is an upstart with little political experience (despite a brief stint as economy minister in Hollande’s Socialist government), who relies on charm and sheer force of charisma to get noticed. His rallies attract huge crowds, and he is playing up the sense that he is a political outsider who can come in and fix the broken system. (The fact that Macron went to a top university and then became an investment banker is irrelevant – Trump, after all, got his money from his father and spent decades making shady backroom deals with other members of the establishment.) And like Trudeau, Macron is championing the social liberalism and openness that has been demonised by nationalists and traditional conservatives. He is trading on his youth and good looks, and seems to be hoping these distract from the fact that he has few actual policies.
So, can the young outsider Macron beat the veteran Le Pen’s continuation of her father’s dynastic campaign? Not a chance.
The polls this week show Le Pen enjoying a 7-point lead on Macron in the first round. Commentators who cannot stomach the possibility of a Le Pen presidency have been quick to point out that she still trails Macron in the final run-off, but fail to mention that she is gaining on him fast – his advantage has halved in two weeks. And even if the polling data was more reassuring, every poll before the US election had Hillary Clinton beating Trump comfortably. Populism and anger against the elites create unpredictable results.
Macron also has the same enemies as Clinton. The truth-crusaders at WikiLeaks who campaigned to damage Clinton as much as possible by publishing e-mails from and about her obtained by Russian hackers have moved on to Macron. This month, the site advertised that it had thousands of documents full of compromising information about the young French candidate. Shockingly, WikiLeaks has offered no such revelations about Le Pen. It’s almost as if the site isn’t interested in bringing down candidates who say nice things about Vladimir Putin.
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Macron was in London this week to meet Theresa May and rally support from French voters living the UK. (Over 300,000 French people live in London alone, equivalent to France’s sixth biggest city.) No such visit for the National Front leader – the UK government has confirmed that it refuses to have relations with Le Pen. This will only help her cause: she is France’s one and only champion, up against a member of the liberal metropolitan elite who has tea with the British prime minister. Her message is crystal clear; Macron’s is a mess. She may be hated by wide swathes of French society, but everyone knows what she stands for. It doesn’t matter if her final opponent is expense-fiddling Fillon or message-less Macron – my money is still on Marine Le Pen as the next president of France.