France’s far right plays to the base

It’s either just over or just under a year until France goes to the polls in the second round of its presidential election,* with Emmanuel Macron all but certain to seek re-election – and currently looking well placed to get it.

That claim might seem dubious based on a superficial look at the opinion polls. They put Macron’s first round vote only in the mid-20s, about level with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, and his disapproval rating is a worrying 60%.

But poor approval ratings are nothing unusual for a French president. Macron’s has been a good deal worse: in late 2018, nearly three-quarters of the electorate disapproved of his performance. What matters for his prospects is the likely dynamic of the election, and Le Pen’s strong showing actually helps him in that regard.

As a centrist, Macron is always going to be well placed in a runoff election. Whether his opponent is centre-left or centre-right, far left or far right, most of the other side of the spectrum will rally to him, making his election, while not a certainty, much more likely than not – provided he makes the top two. The more extreme his opponent in that case, the better.

The big threat to him is that he could be eliminated in the first round, leaving left and right to fight out the runoff. But that looks a lot less of a chance now than it did two years ago. Both left and centre-right are in disarray; neither shows any sign of settling quickly on a single candidate that could rally their respective support base enough to get into the runoff against Le Pen (or each other).

The latest trouble on the centre-right came overnight when Macron’s prime minister, Jean Castex, announced that his party would withdraw from the regional election in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) and instead merge with the centre-right Republicans in what is expected to be a close contest against the far right.

Head office of the Republicans, who have been trying to keep their distance from Macron, were appalled at this collaboration and promptly disendorsed their PACA ticket. The election is in less than two months, so it’s not clear whether the Republicans will have enough time to organise much of a new ticket, but it’s not a good look either way.

In 2017, when the Republicans’ presidential candidate placed third behind Macron and Le Pen, he and the rest of his party’s leadership all promptly endorsed Macron. Not all of their voters followed that advice, but enough did to help Macron prevail by a two-to-one margin in the second round.

If Le Pen is ever to become president, or even get particularly close, it’s that decision that she needs to reverse. She cannot possibly beat Macron in a runoff without the support of the large majority of centre-right voters, and at least the neutrality of their leaders. The Republican reaction to the PACA deal suggests that that neutrality might not be impossible, but it’s still a big ask.

And Le Pen herself has made it more difficult in the last couple of weeks by her strong support for a manifesto issued by a group of retired and dissident military figures, attacking Macron for his inattention to the supposed threat posed by France’s Muslim community and threatening “civil war” in the future. The government has moved strongly against the signatories, who face being cashiered.

This goes to the heart of the identity of Le Pen’s party, the National Rally (formerly National Front). The manifesto was issued on the 60th anniversary of the 1961 generals’ putsch in Algeria, an attempt to overthrow then-president Charles de Gaulle and prevent negotiations with the Algerian independence movement. For much of the French far right, including Le Pen’s father, the opposition to decolonisation in Algeria was a key formative experience.

Le Pen fille has tried to present the National Rally as a more respectable, mainstream option, distancing it from the ghosts of its racist and antisemitic past. But an issue like this is totemic for her support base; for all their past differences, she could hardly do otherwise than associate herself with her father’s cause.

That’s unlikely, however, to endear her to the mass of French opinion that she needs to win over. Military rebellion and overt racism might play well among the National Rally’s activists, but it will be a different story with swinging voters. And the Republican leadership, with de Gaulle as their founding father, can hardly look kindly on the descendants (figurative and literal) of those who plotted his destruction.

This is a common problem in politics. Parties have to cater to different audiences, both their own hard core and more moderate voters. The most successful either start from a position where the two are not very far apart, or else learn to fudge the differences in a way that avoids creating too much tension.

Even in a large party, it’s quite possible for some position to have majority support among its voters, but still be very unpopular in the circles where it most needs to gain support. The Republican Party in the United States seems to be falling into this trap: its Trumpist positions, including distrust of democracy and opposition to immigration, are sufficiently popular among its own membership to make it difficult for its leaders to abandon them, even if they are so minded.

But without doing so, they risk conceding more and more of the middle ground to their opponents.

* The date hasn’t been set, but the first round has to be held between 10 and 24 April, and since the 17th is Easter Sunday it will presumably be one of the Sundays either side, with the second round two weeks later, on 24 April or 8 May.

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