On 24th April 2017, immediately following the first round of the French Presidential elections, I said that though Le Pen might theoretically win the French Presidential elections it was extremely unlikely she would do so.
Many people thought otherwise, and there has been much talk in the hours since the election of Macron’s “convincing victory” and of his winning by a “landslide” against a supposedly strong challenge from Le Pen.
The reality is that of the three front runners apart from herself – Macron, Fillon and Melenchon – the only one against whom Le Pen might have won in the second was Melenchon, who is as unacceptable to the French establishment as she is.
I would add that there was never the slightest possibility that the candidate of the French Socialist Party Benoit Hamon would step aside for Melenchon, and any calculations about a possibly different result of the election based on that possibility are misconceived. The French Socialist Party – including Hamon, despite his left wing antecedents – consider Melenchon beyond the pale. Given the choice between Melenchon and Macron, they would prefer Macron.
As to why Le Pen never had any real prospect of winning the second round of the election, I explained it in my article of 24th April 2017
In spite of all this, electoral politics are not logical, and I have to say that I think the prospects of Le Pen winning the second round look to me very slim.
Elections in France to a great extent are still governed by the two great events of modern French history – the 1789 Revolution and the Second World War – making it very difficult to see how someone who has been successfully painted an ‘extreme right fascist’ can win, unless there is a fundamental sea-change of opinion in French society. Since I don’t think that such a fundamental sea-change of opinion in French society has happened, it still seems to me far more likely that the large majority of Fillon’s, Mélenchon’s and Hamon’s voters will vote for Macron in the second round to ‘keep the fascist’ out.
That all but guarantees Macron victory in the second round, probably by a large margin. That is what the opinion polls have been saying for months, and I am sure they are right.
Once this is understood the true message of the election becomes clear.
Far from winning by a landslide, Macron has done surprisingly poorly in an election where Le Pen won more than a third of the vote and where an unusually high number of ballot papers were spoilt. That suggests a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Macron across French society. Without a strong established party behind him, with only the vaguest program, and with the claims about his private life contained in the leaked emails still to hit home, that suggests a weak Presidency made worse by Macron’s lack of authority and experience. He will require quite exceptional political skills – far beyond anything he has shown so far – if he is to make an impact.
It would be easy to conclude from this that Le Pen is in a strong position come the next Presidential election in 2022. That is however very far from being the case. Even if this election has shown the lack of enthusiasm in French society for Macron, it also shows that Le Pen is very far from achieving the sort of political breakthrough she needs to be confident of winning in 2022 or indeed thereafter. The same factors that worked against her in this election will still be working against her in 2022, and there is no certainty that her opponent in that election will be as weak and unconvincing as Macron was in this one. The fact has to be faced that as things stand a majority or at the very least a plurality of French voters will vote for any candidate who is not Le Pen, making her prospects of ever becoming France’s President look frankly slim.
Indeed the moment may have come for those who look to Le Pen to deliver change in France to ask themselves whether given the peculiarities of French electoral politics and the way she has been successfully labeled an “extreme right fascist” she can ever produce the change they want. As of today it seems more likely that her fate will be to lose in the second round of any French Presidential election she runs in against whatever candidate the French establishment runs against her.
That actually increases the French establishment’s ability to manipulate the outcome of any Presidential election – as they did so successfully in this one – perpetuating thereby the status quo.
If so then Marine Le Pen is not so much a force for change within French society but rather one for keeping things as they are.