Now that Trump has been elected, will fate make a mockery of polls in the case of Le Pen as it did with Trump? The French and American election systems differ so vastly, particularly in that a French candidate needs to win at least 50 percent of the vote, that direct comparisons make little sense. No matter. The underlying trends that carried Trump to power are also present in France, and they are likely to fuel an inordinately strong performance by Le Pen next May — perhaps even her victory.
In evaluating her chances, the first question to tackle is polling, which currently shows Le Pen losing to a center-right rival, probably Alain Juppé, in a runoff round of the presidential election. Unlike Trump, Le Pen has been tested multiple times at the ballot box over the past two years, and is a career politician with a track record. When her National Front party, which advocates withdrawal from the European Union as well as drastic cuts to immigration, participated in an election, it topped out just under 30 percent of the popular vote.
This pattern gave rise to a theory espoused by many National Front observers, including this reporter. It goes like this: Le Pen cannot be elected president, because she simply does not have enough reach to gather 50.1 percent of popular vote. The main problem: Her party’s plans to withdraw from the eurozone remain scary for big chunks of decisive voters, like seniors, executives and the highly educated, who do not want to run the risk of seeing their euro-denominated assets dilapidated in the event of a “Frexit.”
This argument still has a lot of merit. While Trump promised radical change on trade and fiscal policy, he never told Americans he was going to devalue their currency. Had he done so, even the angriest voters might have thought twice about casting a vote that could lead to the value of their homes or their retirement portfolios dropping precipitously.
Withdrawal from the eurozone remains a huge factor of uncertainty for many French voters — so much so that Le Pen may still have serious trouble winning over the extra 20 percent she would need to get elected president.
However, as online stockbrokers warn, “past performance is no indicator of future results,” and the same holds true for Le Pen in the next election. For one, she may further water down her euro withdrawal proposal to reassure voters (she has already done so twice). Secondly, the presidential election is a very different beast from the regional, departmental, municipal and European Parliament elections that preceded it, and in which the National Front never won more than 28 percent of the popular vote.
In those elections, voters were choosing a party — a popular, rebellious one, to be sure, but a party. Next May, they will be voting for Marine Le Pen, a political celebrity. What’s more, they are likely to turn out in vastly greater numbers than for any of the intermediate elections — a fact that, as Brexit and the U.S. presidential result have shown, can easily throw off polling.
A more useful guide to Le Pen’s future is how she did in the 2012 presidential election, one year after she took over the National Front’s leadership from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. She won 17.9 percent of votes in the first of two rounds, or just over 6.4 million votes. That is a huge number by any standard, especially for a first-time candidate. The National Front only surpassed that vote total, and narrowly, three years later in the regional elections of December 2015, right after the Bataclan attacks.
Next May, bet on this: Marine Le Pen will explode her total-vote record. And this time, whoever ends up challenging her on the Left will not win 28 percent of the vote, as François Hollande did in the first round last time. They will be lucky to get 12 percent, on par with far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Which means that Le Pen is all but guaranteed to be in the runoff (not a wholly original statement: some 40 polls in the past two years have shown her breaking through to the final round). Against whom? If polls are any guide, her rival will be Juppé, who is currently competing to win a presidential nomination in a primary open to centrist and conservative voters. Juppé, a moderate conservative who has been in politics a long time, is seen beating Le Pen in a runoff. But then again, Hillary Clinton was seen beating Donald Trump, right up until the last minute.
The Clinton factor
Juppé is not Clinton, to be sure. He is running as a member of the opposition against a deeply unpopular government, not one defending a legacy. He is not so hated by his rivals as Hillary Clinton was by hers.
However, drill down, and you find many similarities between Juppé and Clinton. Both have been active in politics for decades, Juppé having occupied the post of prime minister and foreign minister. Both are assimilated with “mainstream” positions — Atlanticism, defense of globalization, belief in the European Union in Juppé’s case. Both have been accused of political corruption (Juppé was even found guilty and sentenced to a suspended jail sentence albeit many years ago).
In terms of campaign dynamics, they also echo one another. Both were seen as the “default” candidates for right-thinking, proper people who believe their countries should be improved incrementally and who did not hate anyone. Both enjoyed relative supremacy in polls months before the election, without inspiring fits of enthusiasm in their supporters. Neither had the charisma nor the energy to stir crowds emotionally — unlike Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen.
The common wisdom is that, if Juppé faces Le Pen in the final round, he will win with about 60 percent of votes versus 40 for her. This is a rudimentary extrapolation, based on the idea that Marine Le Pen is about 20 percent less toxic than her father, who won about 18 percent of the vote when he reached a runoff against former president Jacques Chirac in 2002. It’s foolish guesswork. The world really is not the same in 2016 as it was in 2002. After all, Brexit happened. Donald Trump happened.
Can Le Pen, as a political veteran, replicate Trump’s wild ride to the White House? Their campaigns are likely to be very different. Temperamentally, Le Pen is risk-averse, while Trump tended toward recklessness in some of his pronouncements. While she presses the same buttons and seeks out a similar tranche of voters, Le Pen is more timid than Trump when it comes to making polarizing statements that dominate the news. But her campaign teams are pushing her to go much harder from February, when she officially launches her campaign.
Of course, Juppé could lose the conservative primary, which takes place in two rounds on November 20 and 27. And former president Nicolas Sarkozy could win it. In fact, that is precisely what many people in Le Pen’s entourage expect to happen.
Sarkozy would be a younger, possibly more energetic opponent to Le Pen than Juppé. But he’s also got skeletons in the closet, and many more so than Juppé. With Sarkozy in the final round, the presidential election could turn into a yes/no vote focused on him. That’s what happened in 2012, and François Hollande got elected.
None of this is to say that Marine Le Pen has an open, easy road to the French presidency in 2017. But, after Trump’s election, the notion seems less absurd. In fact, it’s starting to look quite plausible.
Author: Nicholas Vinocur