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Is France sleepwalking into a potential far-right win?

The runoff French presidential election on April 24 will see far-right candidate Marine Le Pen face current president Emmanuel Macron and his centrist, pro-European La Republique En Marche party in a repeat of the 2017 second-round presidential race, which saw the latter win by a landslide with over 60 percent of the vote.

The French have historically fended off the advance of far-right candidates at the polls by granting their vote to the alternative candidate in the second round. In 2002, 80 percent of voters turned up to cast their ballot in favour of Jacques Chirac in the runoff with Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean Marie and his National Front. Known for his extremist views, he once characterised the Holocaust as a ‘detail.’

But analysts say that this time, the rebranded ‘National Rally’ could stand a better chance than ever before of winning, fundamentally changing France’s trajectory in the EU and its relations with the rest of world, much in the same way Trump did in the United States.

Macron leads in the polls by a narrow margin – with some polls putting the two candidates neck and neck with 51 percent for Macron and 49 percent for Le Pen. Others have given Macron an eight-point lead. 

Key to the final result will be the electorate of the third runner up, left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. It remains to be seen how far Macron will succeed in wooing those voters in the last leg of his campaign, and how many of them will decide to vote for the incumbent rather than abstain.

“In the past, after the first round French voters have gone back to the centre,” Scott Lucas, a politics professor at the University of Birmingham told TRT World.

“[This time] I think it’s a much more uncertain landscape,” Scott explained. “Melenchon did much better in the first round than we had initially anticipated. Centre-right and centre-left parties have performed so badly [in the first round] that you don’t have a large pool of those voters that Macron could seize.”

The first round of the elections, held on April 10, saw Macron in the lead with 27.85 percent of the vote against Le Pen’s 23.15 percent. Jean-Luc Melenchon was narrowly knocked out of the race with nearly 22 percent of the vote. Polls taken after the first round of voting suggest that just over a third of Melenchon’s electoral base would vote for Macron, while 23 percent would opt for Le Pen – 44 percent would vote blank or abstain.  

“We have the possibility that some on the left will vote for Le Pen in the same way as some voters on the left voted for Trump in 2016,” Lucas argued, “Le Pen hasn’t had a disaster or setback yet like she did in 2017, when she performed so badly in a debate with Macron.” 

Helping Le Pen’s “softened” image

In the last leg of his campaign, Macron has been trying to woo some of Melenchon’s 7.7 million voters by pushing his credentials on climate change and the environment. While Marine Le Pen has promised an exit from the EU’s Green Deal, which Macron undersigned, environmentalists  say the incumbent’s record on climate is mixed, criticising him for his support of gas, a fossil fuel, and nuclear – arguing the mining and refining of uranium contributes to pollution.

Another domestic issue where Macron will struggle to appeal to a sector of Melenchon’s left-wing electorate is the incumbent’s much-criticised record on Islam. About 70 percent of France’s 5.7 million-strong Muslim community backed Melenchon in the first round, in the midst of what they see as President Macron’s attacks on Muslims that include a so-called “anti-separatism” bill passed last July, and the closure of several mosques and groups accused of promoting “Islamist extremism.” While Marine Le Pen has promised to introduce a blanket ban on the hijab, Macron supports the current ban on girls wearing it in schools.

“In 2017 Macron was perceived as progressive,” Julie Pascoet from the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) told TRT World.

“But now, after the policies he implemented, which contributed to the persecution of Muslims, a lot of the electorate don’t see him as credible to block the extreme right. A lot of them think he has enabled the extreme right to access the second round, to be normalised in French society,” she added.

While those policies may have contributed to “softening” Le Pen’s image by de-facto mainstreaming some of her ideas, a far-right win would bring further erosion of the rights of minorities and Muslims. Among others, Le Pen has plans for an “immigration and identity” bill that would legalise discrimination against foreigners and dual nationals on housing and jobs.

The EU anti-fraud agency (Olaf) has recently accused Le Pen and several members of her party of embezzling funds while serving as members of the European Parliament. But that isn’t likely to play a major role in the upcoming runoff, according to Lucas.

“I think it’s doubtful it will work against her because she’ll play the victim,” Lucas argued, “and generally fraud accusations are so complicated to explain to the public when you get into the details of what happened.” 

In times of economic instability, voters often tend to opt for more of the same rather than for radical change. But it remains to be seen which domestic issues the French public will take to heart, making Sunday’s results difficult to predict. What is certain is that a Le Pen victory would be another massive blow for the EU.

“Given the situation we already have with Orban, think about what it does to the EU trying to stabilise itself, given the challenges within,” says Lucas. 

“A Le Pen victory would lead to almost emergency discussions in a number of capitals around the world.”

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