France Braces for Runoff Between Nationalism and Globalism

  • Le Pen needs to overcome voter dislike of National Front
  • Emmanuel Macron’s challenge is his past, plus globalization

Le Pen, Macron to Faceoff in Presidential Runoff

In the coming two weeks of the French campaign, Marine Le Pen’s challenge is to break through a wall of voter antipathy that she inherited from her father. Emmanuel Macron’s task is to persuade the French he has the gravitas and experience to be president.

The far-right Le Pen and centrist Macron both took just under a quarter of the vote in a contest with 11 candidates. Now they must convince the rest of the population that they have what it takes to lead the country after the May 7 runoff.

The next round will see two radically different visions. Macron embraces globalization and European integration, Le Pen channels the forces of discontent that triggered Brexit and brought Donald Trump to power. The runoff will also be unique in that it will be the first contested by neither of the major parties, giving Macron, 39, and Le Pen, 48, space to try to forge alliances that might have seemed unlikely until recently.

“Marine Le Pen’s toughest job is to break the traditional glass ceiling which her father Jean-Marie also suffered from,” said Yves-Marie Cann, a pollster at Elabe. “Even if her image is better than his was, the truth remains that most voters say they don’t share her ideas and have a bad opinion of the Front.”

Macron has still to convince voters he has the aura of a head of state and can reach out to a nation in which 40 percent of the electorate opted for anti-European extremes on both left and right. A snap Ipsos survey late on Sunday suggested that Macron, who’s aiming to be the country’s youngest head of state, would win by 62 percent to 38 percent for Le Pen, who would be the country’s first female president.

“Macron is not yet the president the French want,” said Frederic Lazorthes, a communications consultant who was an adviser to Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. “He needs to show that he can assume the great responsibility of a nation that is divided and convince the country that it can thrive in a globalized world.”

Euro Pledge

Runoffs are not traditionally fertile territory for Le Pen’s National Front. In the 2002 presidency race, in local elections and in the 2015 regional elections -- when it scored more than 40 percent of the vote at times -- the party performed strongly in the first round but then was defeated in the second.

While Le Pen’s signature pledge on taking France out of the euro has served to keep her fractious party in line during the campaign, it will stop her winning because most voters want to keep their currency, said Dominique Reynie, a professor of political science at the Sciences Po institute in Paris.

In her final rallies, Le Pen at times backed away from her euro pledge and steered toward the other themes that most strike a chord with her electorate: Islam, immigration, national identity and terrorism. She may need to go further than that if she’s to win the ultimate prize.

Marine Le Pen on April 23.

Photographer: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

“She’ll have to drop her plan to leave the euro -- it’s not enough to wash her hands of the issue by promising a referendum,” Reynie said. “If she doesn’t change her line on the euro, she’s beaten.”

Le Pen would also need to gather roughly two-and-a half-times as many votes to win, especially among older voters and the middle- and upper-middle classes among whom she is weak, according to Elabe’s Cann.

In a foretaste of the battleground ahead, Macron sought in his speech on Sunday to portray himself as a force for unity -- he has repeatedly dismissed Le Pen as a divisive figure. He pledged to be the “president of all the people of France, the president of the patriots against the nationalists,” in a dig at Le Pen’s stress on nationalist values.

“There are not several Frances, there is one,” Macron said. He listed his defeated rivals one by one, and then thanked his supporters for applauding them, an early attempt to forge the anti-Le Pen unity of mainstream and other forces which he needs to win.

Macron may well succeed in his appeal. “We expect most of those French voters who backed Fillon and the official Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon today to switch to Macron in the second round,” Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank, wrote in a note to clients.

‘Least Divisive’

“Macron has been by far the least divisive of the major candidates,” Schmieding said. “That should enable him to attract extra support.” Both Republican candidate Francois Fillon and Hamon endorsed Macron on Sunday.

Still, Le Pen will argue that only she can bring real change to France. More than 40 percent of the electorate voted for parties that want to upend the political order once support for the leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon is taken into account. And she can also point to Macron’s background as an investment banker and a graduate of one of France’s elite universities.

In her speech after the earliest results, Le Pen said that at stake was nothing less than “savage globalization that threatens our civilization.”

“The French have a very simple choice: either we continue on the road of total deregulation, without borders and without protection with the consequence of job losses abroad, unfair global competition, mass immigration and the free movement of terrorists. It’s the choice of money as king,” Le Pen said.

“Or you can choose France -- with borders that protect our jobs and our purchasing power,” she added.

— With assistance by Helene Fouquet, Gregory Viscusi, Robert Williams, Fabio Benedetti Valentini, Ania Nussbaum, and Gaspard Sebag

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