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Will far-left French voters back far-right Le Pen in the second round?

France’s traditional political structure has been fundamentally changed with the emergence of populist movements and centrist Emmanuel Macron in the previous elections, while the country’s traditional leftist party Socialists and centre-right Les Republicains nearly collapsed. 

Now, under this new political reality, Macron needs the support of far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon voters to stop the far-right leader Marine Le Pen from clinging to power in the second round of the presidential election on April 24.  

In the first round two weeks ago, Melenchon surged and came third, slightly behind Le Pen with 22 percent support, nearly qualifying for the second round. Now the 70-year old leftist firebrand’s voters will decide who the next president of France will be. 

“In working-class areas and towns that fell victim to both the deindustrialisation of France and the delocalisation of companies, many of those who voted for Melenchon would say ‘no way are we going to vote for Macron,’” says Yasser Louati, a French political analyst and the head of the Committee for Justice & Liberties (CJL), a French NGO. 

Those working-class voters suffering from globalisation’s worst effects say that they “choose instead to vote for Le Pen,” an opponent of both globalisation and the EU, even though the far-right leader does not have “an economic program that protects workers,” Louati tells TRT World. 

Centrist Macron’s pro-business and pro-globalist policies, which seek to increase the retirement age and overhaul the pension system, are not popular among France’s disillusioned working-class neighbourhoods, which showed strong support for Melenchon in the first round.

Many Melenchon voters, which could be as much as 27 percent or more, might back Le Pen in the second round, some polls indicate.

Cost of living

There has definitely been a wealth issue in France since the country’s switch to the euro from its national currency franc, making people complain that their cost of living has increased as their buying power has decreased, according to Murat Yigit, an academic at Turkish National Defence University, who was educated in France. 

Both Melenchon and Le Pen share a similar view on France’s increasing cost of living under the EU. “A significant portion of Yellow Jackets back Le Pen’s far-right party,” Yigit tells TRT World, referring to the country’s large anti-Macron protests, which began in 2018, demanding economic justice. 

“Normally, people like them should vote for a leftist party,” but in France, it happens differently as the far-right replaces the left, says Yigit. In France, many see migration as a cause of their economic problems. 

But while Melenchon urged his supporters “not to give a single vote” to Le Pen on April 24, he did not endorse Macron either. Anger toward Macron in Melenchon’s working-class base is so high that they might vote for Le Pen in significant portions, even though her economic policy might “further expose them to their bosses and company owners,” Louati says. 

“The rationale behind far-left voters who decide to go for Marine Le Pen is to vent their anger against Macron’s policies, even though venting their anger means going against their co-workers who also fell victim to Macron,” Louati analyses. 

Seeing the far-left’s potential support for her campaign, Le Pen has also pledged to appoint left-wing figures in her government if elected. 

Melenchon is the kingmaker

According to analysts, if Macron can not get much of Melenchon’s political base, he might be in serious trouble clinching a victory in the second round. Recent polls show that the distance between Macron and Le Pen is narrowing as some surveys indicate a four percent difference between the two candidates. 

“He needs to get a lot of Mélenchon voters; otherwise I’m not sure how he’s going to make it,” said Dominique Reynié, a political scientist at Sciences Po university, referring to Macron’s chances of winning a second presidency. 

Compared to the 2017 runoff, when 60 percent of Melenchon supporters voted for Macron to block Le Pen’s path to the presidency, this time, much fewer Melenchon supporters will vote for the French centrist, according to different polls. 

A recent online survey conducted by Melenchon’s party showed that a majority of his supporters would not vote or cast a blank vote in the second round to protest the current right-wing dominant nature of France’s political structure. Only 33 percent said that they would vote for Macron. The online survey had no option to vote for Le Pen. 

Polls also indicate that Le Pen’s anti-NATO and anti-EU stances, joined with her message to strengthen the country’s working-class, resonate with some parts of Melenchon’s political base. Melenchon, an anti-capitalist politician, also strongly criticises both NATO and the EU. 

There is also a big unknown of Melenchon’s supporters because polls show that a majority of them also appear to be undecided and some, who think to abstain or cast a blank vote, might decide to vote for either Macron or Le Pen at the final hour. 

Distressed by ‘arrogant’ Macron

Unlike many analysts who think Macron still has a clear path to a second victory, Louati senses so much anger and disappointment toward the centrist French president across the country. 

“Emmanuel Macron and his party do not realise how much people do not like them. There is really a rejection of Macron as a man and as what he represents as an arrogant president, who did not care about those who did not win in the globalisation race,” says the French political analyst. 

On the other hand, Le Pen is able to manage to make her image look softer and more acceptable to ordinary people, as opposed to the other far-right leader Eric Zemmour, whose “brutality and the lack of diplomacy” discarded him from the presidential race, according to Louati. 

Benefited by Macron’s deteriorating image and the radical posture projected by Zemmour, Le Pen capitalises on disenchanted voters by saying that “I am here to protect you.” At the same time, Macron’s offer of removing employment protections has created much anger against the centrist politician, says Louati. 

Many people think that Macron’s urge to reform the labour market means creating a legal structure in which employers could easily “hire and fire,” says Louati. 

The battle of ideas

Some analysts think that Le Pen has already won the battle of ideas, tilting the country toward a right-wing political agenda even under centrist Macron, who sometimes tried to prove his stance regarding the country’s large Muslim population and migrants was as radical as that of the far-right leader. 

During the campaign trail, Le Pen has offered to ban Muslim women from wearing the headscarf in public if she is elected, creating a lot of backlash from both Muslims and human rights advocates. Under criticism, Le Pen toned down her initial banning plan saying that she recognises things like banning hijab are “complex problems,” requiring a further “debate” in parliament prior to bringing in a complete ban. 

Macron criticised Le Pen’s plan, labelling it as “an extremist project.” But in the past, Macron also defended a controversial anti-separatism bill, which gave the government powers to close down mosques and Islamic charities, eliciting condemnation from the country’s Muslim community. 

Le Pen has set the political framework in which the election campaign has been conducted, says Louati, showing how her agenda items are influential across France. But even in the real sense, Le Pen might win, and Macron’s “disastrous campaign” might help her snatch a victory, according to Louati.

“Wherever Macron goes, he is being called out. He is called a traitor, arrogant and brutal. All the images his team was able to collect so far are highly negative,” he says. And if a large voting block belonging to Melenchon abstains, her chances might increase yet more, he adds. 

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