It was not the speech one would expect from one of Europe’s most prominent far-right female leaders, known for her crusade against globalism and immigration, whose potential to winning the French presidency in a run-off election on April 24 shook capitals across the continent. .
Macron beats Le Pen in the first round of the French elections
The decision to organize one of its most important gatherings in a left-wing stronghold, located the Vaucluse region, which tends to favor far-right candidates, sums up the strategy it is pursuing in the days leading up to the election. His narrow path to victory against centrist Macron will hinge on his ability to tackle abstentionism among his most likely supporters in Vaucluse and other far-right strongholds, but also make inroads in cities like Avignon. .
Left-leaning voters in Avignon and across the country hold “the key to the second round”, said Emmanuel Rivière, director of international polls at Kantar Public, a data analytics firm. The idea that Le Pen has a chance of attracting significant support on the left shows how far she is from the last presidential election five years ago, when Macron united a “republican front” against her and swept her away. beaten by more than 30 points in a runoff.
Le Pen leads a platform that is in many ways as radical as it was five years ago and is in some cases even more extreme. The candidate, who refused to wear the headscarf in Lebanon in 2017, doubled down on her stance last week by saying her government would fine women wearing the headscarf in public in France.
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But unlike 2017, she adopted softer rhetoric, emphasized economic issues rather than concerns about radical Islam, and suggested she wanted to change the French political system from within rather than to blow it up.
Whereas five years ago she called for a massive reduction in immigration to France, she now wants to hold a referendum on immigration, making her proposal less vulnerable to a wave of legal challenges but leaving little doubt about the outcome for which Le Pen would campaign.
She also stopped talking about abandoning the euro or leaving the European Union. But she still wants to end the pre-eminence of EU law, for example, by introducing preferential treatment for French citizens looking for a job, although EU law requires all citizens of the EU are treated on an equal footing.
The key question, when voters head to the polls on April 24, will be how many people will find Le Pen’s new flavor a more palatable choice than in 2017.
Polls suggest that the response is quite large. The number of French people who say they would never vote for Le Pen has fallen by 10% over the past five years. And while Macron has accused Le Pen of continuing to promote “racist” ideas, voters no longer associate him with xenophobia as much as they used to, according to a Kantar Public poll from earlier this year.
Marine Valette, 23, said she would never have considered voting for Le Pen five years ago because she considered her too “rude” and vehemently disagreed with his immigration proposals. Instead, Valette said she left her ballot blank.
But she had come to the event in Avignon on Thursday to reconsider this position. Le Pen “stepped back and realized that there were things that people didn’t agree with,” Valette said, citing the proposal for a referendum on migration rather than an outright ban.
On stage Thursday, wearing a red blazer with a white blouse in front of a blue screen, Le Pen alternated seamlessly between references to “diversity” or national unity and her nationalist proposals. “Let’s be pragmatic,” she said, before lashing out at EU institutions and saying they had their chance and missed it.
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She said little about immigrants. The enemy she kept coming back to, raising her voice and changing her tone, was Macron. His name was met with jeers from the crowd of some 4,000, a response that at times sounded more emotional than applause for Le Pen.
Bruno Decoret, 74, said: “Macron is murdering France, he locked us up for two months, wants to force us to get vaccinated and wants to take possession of our bodies. For now, Marine Le Pen is our only recourse.
Decoret said he noticed that Le Pen was relatively restrained in her public comments on immigration, but he was convinced that it was part of her electoral strategy and that she would restrict immigration once she was in office. “She’s a lot closer to people these days,” he said.
Le Pen has tried to moderate her image, to varying degrees, since she took her side from her father. Jean Marie Le Pen is a polarizing figure who called the Nazi gas chambers a “detail” of World War II. His daughter changed the name of the party, from National Front to National Rally, and transformed it from a toxic fringe movement.
His strategy seems the most effective in attracting part of the electorate “in great difficulty and where anti-elite feelings are flourishing”, said Christèle Lagier, a political scientist at the University of Avignon.
Around the circular auditorium in Avignon, Le Pen’s face was plastered on posters with the slogan “give the French back their money”. Avignon attracts tourists from all over the world to its squares and to the palace that once served as the papal residence.
But behind the facades, the city is also one of the poorest places in the south of France, with a poverty rate that exceeds 60% in some areas of the city. Voters’ main concerns here in recent weeks have centered on the economy and the perception that Macron has failed to address growing inequality.
In the first round of the election, the far left candidate Jean Luc Mélenchon won the city with 37% of the votes in Avignon. Macron came second with 20%. But the total far-right vote, shared between Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, came out on top at 27%.
At the national level, for the second round, Macron remains the favorite. But his advantage has shrunk to around six points, much closer than in the weeks leading up to the 2017 second round.
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Frustration with the incumbent is typical of French politics. But his narrow lead also reflects the fact that a growing number of French people, including some on the left, seem willing to give Le Pen the benefit of the doubt.
In Avignon, Kim Caritoux, 24, says she was torn between Mélenchon and Le Pen. “I really struggled between the two,” she said. “They are both for an equal distribution of wealth.”
Outside the Le Pen rally on Thursday, a small group of protesters observed the crowd from a distance. “It’s horrible to come here and see how many people showed up for her,” said Mohammed, a 25-year-old student, who declined to give his last name because protests near the venue had been banned. in advance.
He said he feared Le Pen would set up a “segregationist system and a system that will destroy freedom”. But he did not say whether he would vote for Macron.