A sort of proverb, or a popular wisdom sentence from this century, is often used in France: never underestimate a Le Pen. A few days before the election, the candidate of the Rassemblement National, whom a certain number of actors and observers of political life had buried a little too early, is making a stand. The polls are multiplying that give her a lead that she had never had before.
President Emmanuel Macron enjoyed a moment of glory when the Russian-Ukrainian conflict broke out. He was in the lead at the time, even surpassing the 30% mark in voting intentions. But the spotlight has dimmed, and for several weeks now, his numbers have been consistently falling, to where now he finds himself in dangerous zones. The last authorised polls to be published before the end of the official campaign give Marine Le Pen 24%, while Emmanuel Macron is estimated at around 25-26%. The gap between the two favourites has narrowed to critical levels for the incumbent president. Some articles even suggest she could be ahead of him.
There is nothing surprising in this situation. Emmanuel Macron has multiplied serious mistakes by contemptuous statements, which put together clearly tip the balance against him. He wanted to “piss off the French,” and he refused any form of debate. Uniquely in the history of the French media, the society of journalists of France 2—the main public service channel—officially protested in a statement against the president’s refusal to take part in the campaign programme, Elysée 2022.
Instead of conducting live debates, images of his appearances were broadcast via media networks: a real democratic slap in the face. After much procrastination, the National Financial Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into the Senate report exposing Macron’s reliance on consultancy firms, where suspicions of money laundering have been aggravated by tax evasion. Macron is clearly not in a good position, and press articles multiply worried echoes: that beyond Parisian offices, voter enthusiasm is waning.
The question that plagues both the small microcosm of political commentators and the voters is always the same: should we believe the polls?
Éric Zemmour’s supporters maintain that we should not, which allows the Reconquest candidate to hammer his conviction that he will be in the second round, claiming that the polls are bought or rigged, even ordered by the government; in any case, not reliable. They like to cite the example of 2002—when the polls underestimated Jean-Marie Le Pen—to advance their conviction that Zemmour will be in the second round.
Except that things didn’t quite happen that way. In 2002, the polls of the last week before campaigns ceased showed Jean-Marie Le Pen’s inevitable progression. But the legislation at the time forbade this data to be published: history has thus retained the ruse that the polls “did not see him coming.” Moreover, the political and social context of 2002 has little to do with the one we know twenty years later.
Militants of Reconquête are struggling to understand the mediocre score that is announced for their candidate. Nothing is decided, but it seems now that he will have to be satisfied with a limited base of support in the ballot box. An offensive campaign on social networks, packed meetings, and sensational vitality are not enough to win.
Pollsters know the phenomenon. There was a precedent in French history, namely the campaign of right-wing candidate Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour in 1965. On the ground, he ran an impeccable campaign, with packed meetings and very effective militancy. He never got above the 5% mark. His campaign manager at the time went by the name of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The parallel with Éric Zemmour, who intends to revive the pre-Marine Front National, is striking.
Éric Zemmour continues to assert that he will be in the second round. But for those who know how to read between the lines, this militant conviction is gradually eroding. In an interview with Le Parisien on Monday, April 4th, Zemmour dropped some ambiguous words: “it’s always possible to catch up, but it’s short, I’m not going to lie.”
Could it be end-of-campaign blues kicking in, when fatigue begins to accumulate? Perhaps, but it’s not only that. There are other audible cues that should be noted: there is the absence of a categorical statement about his participation in the legislative elections (he says he is “not against the principle” but does not want to “go too fast”), and his wish—this time clearly stated—to write a new book. He imagined a book-experience, a book-review on his favourite subjects: the media, political correctness, the resignation of the elites in the face of France’s wreckage. The interview revealed a Zemmour who might have been preparing the ground for a possible defeat, and was planning his reconversion, or rather a return to his roots—political commentary and writing.
At a time of doubt, Marine Le Pen, for her part, is consolidating her positions. Since the beginning of her campaign, she has been digging her furrow. No metaphor probably fits her better than that of the ploughman: through his slow, repetitive but indispensable work, he never stops turning over the clay, hoping one day to reap the fruit of his labour. He doesn’t shine, sometimes gets tired, but perseveres. “A boring but effective campaign,” as the left-wing newspaper Libération put it a few days ago. Indeed: a campaign far from the ‘sound and fury,’ according to the candidate’s own assessment.
For several weeks, she has given excellent television appearances, which have been praised by the media. Her tone is firmer, more serene. It is becoming difficult to label her as an extreme right-wing extremist—and besides, that place is already taken. She thus appears in a simple and obvious way as a candidate who contrasts with the abstract discourse of an irrelevant progressivism, incarnated by Emmanuel Macron. She knows what she is talking about. She has worked, and can afford, as on the set of the popular TV programme Face à Baba, to attack her rival’s team with a jab that hits the nail on the head: “We are working, you are enjoying yourself.”
We hear what’s behind this statement. Her problem is no longer to convince herself that she is telling the truth, but to win, and therefore to give herself the means to do so. The strategy seems to be working, so much so that the scenario of a Marine Le Pen election, which only a few weeks ago was political fiction, is starting to become plausible, or at least conceivable.
A repeat of the 2017 duel therefore seems to be on the horizon. However, one must be careful not to make a hasty prognosis. The leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is improving in the polls. He’s uniting the Left and dreams of the second round. There is also the unknown factor of abstention to consider. It is estimated to be around 30%—the highest ever for a French presidential election—but it is extremely difficult to predict who will suffer the most from it.
Emmanuel Macron is given between 25-30% of voting intentions. This does not mean that 25-30% of voters will go out to vote for him. They may well consider that he is the best candidate, but that it is not worth going to the ballot box to vote for him, because his re-election is already assured. In the same way, Marine Le Pen is given between 20-24% of voting intentions, but nothing says that her electorate, which appreciates her excellent grassroots campaign, will not let itself be caught by the abstention virus at the last minute. She is perfectly aware of this danger. Therein lies the truth about the “inflated” polls that regularly give the Rassemblement National points above its final score. Many voters who want to vote Rassemblement National are more than ever prey to discouragement, weariness, and are crushed by the heavy weight of daily life. The main challenge for Marine Le Pen at the moment is not to convince them—she has already succeeded in this respect—but to mobilise them.
The probable replay of the Macron-Le Pen duel from 2017 will not be a reproduction of that confrontation between these two personalities. To imagine that we are heading towards a 2017-ish debate is dishonest—and fortunately so, given that the former debate had left nightmarish memories for so many French people.
Both candidates have nothing today to do with what they were then. Emmanuel Macron is no longer the dashing young man who managed to make people forget that he worked for François Hollande. He is a worn-out president, with a complicated record to defend, who has done much to make himself unbearable. The great modernisation of the start-up nation that he promised the French is now appearing for what it is: a fiasco orchestrated from the offices of McKinsey.
But Marine Le Pen is also no longer the same. She worked and knew how to intelligently use the group of the Horaces—a close guard of high-ranking civil servants who advised her and helped her mature. She is at fault, however, for not putting them to better use, because of the need for secrecy. Less secrecy would have offered proof that she knows how to surround herself with quality people in exercising power.
Her opponents are not the same either. On Friday, April 8th, the Les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécresse announced for the first time that she would not give any recommendation for the second round. In 2017, François Fillon had brought his immediate support to Emmanuel Macron. This indicates that the state of mind towards Marine Le Pen is changing, and that Emmanuel Macron has never been so unpopular.
The French media have been playing the same score for the past few days. What if Marine Le Pen manages to win, against all odds? Clearly, it is in the government’s best interest to play this little tune, precisely in order to mobilise a Macronist electorate that is confident in its superiority but a little too inclined to take the easy way out. Will it work? Enthusiasm has left Macron’s supporters, and he’s getting aggressive—even saying he wanted to “brawl” with Marine Le Pen.
For many months, the re-election of Emmanuel Macron has been taken for granted. The official government websites are already projecting themselves into the aftermath, with total disregard for the electoral deadline. But the French—as history has already shown, as in 2005 during the referendum on the European Constitution—hate it when a scenario is imposed on them in advance. To put it another way, it is not certain that Marine Le Pen can win. But it is just as certain that Emmanuel Macron can lose.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).