How Marine Le Pen French election win would change France

National Rally leader has sought to soften her far-right image and it appears to be working

As the far right gathers momentum in the run-up to the French presidential elections, a question on countless lips wonders what France would look like if Marine Le Pen replaced Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace.

Having conducted a long campaign to “de-demonise” her image, Ms Le Pen finds herself within striking distance of becoming France’s first female president.

What was a 12 point gap between her and Macron has narrowed dramatically as she toured towns and villages, casting herself as the defender of the “little ones” against Macron’s reputation as the “president of the rich.”

Mr Macron voiced regret on Friday for starting campaigning late as opinion polls now showed him holding a slender lead.

Bloomberg’s polling average calculated on April 8 showed Macron ahead by just 3.5 points in the first round.

Supporters wave the national flags as Marine Le Pen gives a speech during a campaign rally in Stiring-Wendel. AFP

As the country prepares for the first round of French election voting on Sunday and a decider two weeks later, a Le Pen victory is a prospect that inspires emotions ranging from excitement to trepidation.

France is accustomed to political leaders of the left, right and centre but traditionally presents a united front against extremism. And to opponents, even a detoxified Marine Le Pen is an extremist.

Reacting to what one pundit called the “democratic accident” of a Le Pen victory, financial markets are nervous. Political enemies have stepped up their attacks on her.

Valerie Pecresse, the centre-right candidate trailing far behind the front-runners in opinion polls, calls her a “demagogue”. At a rally in Normandy, west of Paris, one of the president’s closest colleagues, his Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, mocked her passion for Bengal cats.

“Let's not be fooled,” he said. “She is the heiress of the most radical party [in France] and has always preached hatred. Now she’s turned into a kindly cat breeder?”

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His vitriol reflects unease in the Macron camp at Ms Le Pen’s success in deflecting attention from her anti-immigration obsession, dwelling instead on the rocketing cost of living. Her mission is eased by the presence among candidates of Eric Zemmour, a polemicist whose rabid Islamophobia makes her seem moderate by comparison.

Despite a low-key campaign marked by his absence as he concentrates on the war in Ukraine, Mr Macron remains narrowly favoured to win a second term.

But opinion polls trace Ms Le Pen’s gradual rise. Only between three and six points separate them, suggesting a run-off to repeat the 2017 presidential contest.

Then, Mr Macron was a compellingly fresh campaigner, a dynamic young centrist drawing support from left and right. He trounced Ms Le Pen in a televised debate and won handsomely with two thirds of the vote.

A similar outcome appears unlikely, polls indicating a margin of only six percentage points in a second round between the two.

The left, especially, is disenchanted with Mr Macron, now 44, seeing him as a “president for the rich”. He suffers from perceptions of arrogance and detachment from the struggles of ordinary people.

Crucially, he can no longer rely fully on the French tradition of voters forming a “republican front” to keep the far right out of office. Even some supporters of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon will switch to Ms Le Pen if he is eliminated, because she also prioritises working-class grievances.

Without forgetting her core themes on immigration, security and Islamism, Ms Le Pen has worked relentlessly to gain mainstream support.

Opponents insist she is fundamentally unchanged at heart and remains a xenophobic, anti-Muslim menace.

But her manifesto focuses on the everyday concerns of millions. She promises retirement at 60 and help for low-income groups, countering the effect of higher childbirth rates among immigrants by restricting the most generous aid to French couples who have three or more children.

If some observers are alarmed by her nationalism, putting French people ahead of foreigners in jobs and social housing, her appeal to a sizeable minority electorate is undiminished.

She no longer aims to withdraw France from the eurozone or to hold a referendum on a Frexit, promising instead to seek a new “Alliance of European nations”, seen by the Macron camp as a “sneaking out of the EU”.

Supporters seem undeterred by her past ties to the Russian President Vladimir Putin. More concerned with domestic issues, they trust her to cut taxes and energy prices despite the president’s aides warning that her programme is devoid of credible funding.

Le Pen's flag-waving France

Opponents are horrified. “What will France look like under Le Pen?” asked Thomas Guenole, a political scientist, academic and essayist. “Think Hungary’s Orban, America’s Trump, Russia’s Putin.”

He told The National that Ms Le Pen would impose flag-waving, protectionist nationalism together with draconian immigration curbs and reinforced law enforcement powers, effectively creating a “full-on police state”. Becoming French, he said, would become virtually impossible for most foreigners.

Others acknowledge her ability to distance herself from the stigma of extremism that marginalises Mr Zemmour and previously hampered her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who helped create her party but was later expelled from it by her.

Cecile Alduy, the author of a new book The Language of Zemmour and a professor attached to California’s Stanford University and Sciences-Po in Paris, told state-owned France 24 television that this allows her to appear “calm, composed and less divisive”.

To win on April 24, Ms Le Pen would need help from those who vote on Sunday for others, including Mr Zemmour, whose Reconquest movement she described in February as a melting pot of “traditionalist Catholics, pagans and a few Nazis”. If she succeeds, she will hope for a “victory bounce” in parliamentary elections to give her a working majority. Now 53, she has said she will not stand again if defeated.

Watch: French presidential election frontrunners

Updated: April 08, 2022, 9:53 AM