The Observer’s take on the French elections and right-wing populism | Observer Editorial

Despite his unpopularity – 54% of French voters disapprove of his performance in office – Emmanuel Macron is set to win a second five-year term in the French presidential election, the first round of which will be held next Sunday. However, we already know who won the campaign as opposed to the vote: the populist forces of far-right nationalism grouped around the candidacies of Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour.

As leader of the National Rally, formerly the National Front, Le Pen strengthened his hold on second place after a shaky few months. Her support is around 20%, against 28% for Macron, and she is closing the gap. As things stand, Macron would beat her in the two-candidate run-off on April 24 by 56-44%, although a poll last week suggested the margin had narrowed to just six points. The expected low voter turnout increases uncertainty.

The attractiveness exercised by Zemmour has faded but remains significant. The Islamophobic pundit-polemicist has around 10% support. If the far-right first-round vote, including the 2% backing the fringe party, Debout la France, coalesced around a single candidate, Macron would be pushed into second place.

Fortunately for Macron and France, that is unlikely to happen – on this occasion, at least. And in the second round, we can expect enough socialists, communists, greens, center-right conservatives and supporters of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon to hold their noses and support Macron, if only to prevent Le Pen from entering the Élysée.

If so, it would be a repeat of the 2017 run-off result. But while Macron won easily then, by more than 30 points, his margin this time may be in the single digits. So how did Le Pen catch up with so much ground? Observers point to hard work and the ability to learn from past mistakes. Avoiding large gatherings, she tirelessly courted the working class.popular votethrough personalized town hall-style rallies across the country as Macron navigated the international stage.

Zemmour’s repugnant, headline-grabbing anti-immigrant rants may have helped highlight Le Pen’s relatively less extreme stance. Unlike him, for example, she says Ukrainian refugees are welcome. She has abandoned plans to reinstate the death penalty and exit from the euro. The move reflects his strategy of detoxifying a party long seen as hopelessly racist, thereby making his candidacy more palatable to centre-right voters.

It works, up to a point. A study published by The world found that fewer voters now see Le Pen as a threat. While 50% would still not vote for her under any circumstances, the numbers were higher for Zemmour (64%) and Mélenchon (53%). The downside is that if and when Le Pen loses again, far-right supporters might conclude that moderation of any kind doesn’t pay off.

This is the immense challenge of a second term for Macron. Like Britain, France is grappling with the destructive effects of deindustrialisation, globalization and austerity. Right (and left) extremism has flourished among working-class voters who feel betrayed and forgotten. As with Brexit and in Trumpist America, divisive discourse demonizes migrants, Muslims and minorities of all kinds. It is fatally corrosive for society.

The Ukrainian crisis naturally turned Macron away from the campaign. But malignant forces are also advancing at home, and he must do better to thwart them and bring the country together. The trend is clear. The root causes of national distress must be addressed – or France could face a far-right nightmare in 2027.

About Timothy Ball

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