JAcky Ruiz was close to tears. For three hours he had waited to have his photograph taken with Marine Le Pen and now there it was. The former cabaret star stared at the picture on his outdated folding phone of him.
“Oh my goodness, this is so moving. I told her that I’d danced at a show attended by her father de ella, Jean-Marie, back in the 1980s when she was a small girl and she said she was there and she remembered it, ”the 70-year-old said. He pulled a battered black-and-white image of a long-legged dancer in a leotard from his pocket.
“I showed her this: it’s me. I can’t believe I got to speak to her. I’ll vote for her but I don’t think she’ll win. Although she’s changed, the Le Pen name still makes people afraid.”
There was more faith than fear among the crowds that turned out for the Le Pen roadshow in south-western France this week, the final dates in a campaign that started more than two years ago. Le Pen has said this third presidential bid will be her de ella last de ella, so for fans near the Pyrenees and Spanish border, where far-right support is strong, it is now or never. And they have never felt closer to victory than they do now.
A string of polls in the run-up to the end of campaigning at midnight on Friday suggested Le Pen had closed the gap on Emmanuel Macron to within the margin of error. Elabe put Macron at 26% and Le Pen on 25% for Sunday’s first-round vote, with the radical left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon on 17.5%. The small-sample poll suggested the second-round result could be equally close, with Macron winning at 51% to Le Pen’s 49%. A larger Ifop poll has Macron winning 52%-48%.
At Les Halles covered market in the historic south-western city of Narbonne, where Le Pen paid an impromptu visit on Friday morning, her eldest sister, Marie-Caroline, admitted the first round would be nailbiting but said everyone was holding their nerve, especially Marine: “She’s amazing; solid like granite.” And judging from the upbeat mood of members of Le Pen’s top team, in their sharp navy suits and crisp white shirts, they clearly scent victory.
The previous evening, at her last major meeting, a crowd of about 4,000 had gathered in Perpignan, the capital of the Pyrenées-Orientales department run by mayor Louis Aliot – who also happens to be the former vice-president of Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party and her ex-partner.
Indonesian-born Yuni Yulianti, 40, said she would be voting Le Pen: “I’m not worried about being a foreigner. Ella she has nothing against those of us who respect the law. Ella she’s against the many, many people who do n’t.” Her friend de ella Stephanie Bauer, 50, told a pharmacist: “I’m voting for Marine Le Pen and I have mixed-race grandchildren.”
Most of those attending were already Le Pen voters. They snapped up merchandise including T-shirts, scarves, pens, lighters and baby bibs, and chanted “Marine President” or “On goes gagner” (we’re going to win). Her speech was littered with trigger phrases: “patriots do n’t abstain” (cheers); “ultra-liberalism” (boos); “more police” (cheers); “Macron” (boos).
In the city, the views of those not attending the rally were more nuanced. “Personally I’m a Macron man. That’s not to say he does n’t have his faults, but I think he’s the best choice to run the country, ”Marc Sirjean, 75, a retired accountant, said. “I’m not convinced by Marine Le Pen. I think she’s too rigid and I don’t think she’d be able to put together a team to government.”
Le Pen, of course, has a ready answer to this; she promises to form a government of “national unity”. On Friday, the RN’s acting president, Jordan Bardella, told the observer this would include politicians from across the political spectrum, including the “left and right”. And he was sure she would be in a position to do so.
“The dynamics at the end of the campaign are with us and Mélenchon. If the French go and vote we will win,” he said. “The reason she has succeeded is she speaks to the French about their daily problems, the cost of living, health, the concerns of young people.”
But the rise of Le Pen’s political star is not only due to a tectonic shift of France’s political landscape to the right. It is also down to the inveterate dislike of an incumbent president. Macron, once the new face, an outsider shaking up the left-right political scene, is now seen as part of that scene.
Le Pen has also benefited from far-right election rival Éric Zemmour’s hawkish stance, which has made her hardline approach to contentious issues such as immigration, Islam and crime seem less extreme by comparison.
Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, never really came close to power and would not have known what to do with it if he had. His raison d’être for him was to be a political disruptor, to overturn the table and walk away. His surprise 2002 victory in the first round had little to do with support for the far right: it happened because the left was split and French voters used their first round ballot to “send a message”, convinced that socialist candidate Lionel Jospin’s place in the second round was assured. As they discovered, it was not.
Marine Le Pen took over what was then the Front National in 2011 and set about laundering its image, tarnished by xenophobic neo-Nazi thugs with shaven heads and jackboots. Members were expelled for racist and antisemitic remarks or for defending Philippe Pétain, head of France’s Nazi-collaborating Vichy government in the 1940s. She even threw out her own father from her in 2015.
The “de-demonisation”, as it was called, worked. In 2012 she made her first bid to become president, polling 17.9% in the first round for third position behind the socialist François Hollande – who eventually won – and the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy. In May 2014, the FN gained two senators, the first time party representatives had entered the upper house, and added 11 mayors to their electoral tally. The FN also won the European elections that year, with 24.9% of the vote, sending 25 representatives to the European parliament.
Le Pen ran again in 2017, winning 21.3% of the first round vote, enough to reach the second round. In the run-off she scored 33.9%, a far lower score than she predicted against Macron, then a political newcomer.
The Front National’s program at the time looked similar to Le Pen senior’s from 2002: the emphasis on “national priority” for housing, benefits and jobs; the defense of small businesses against large groups; tougher police and judicial powers.
After that defeat, she renamed the party the Rassemblement National, or National Rally. Ella it has stopped calling for the death penalty and for France to leave the EU – although she remains committed to ignoring Brussels. She continues to champion nationalistic “French first” discrimination, but there is also a commitment to more left-leaning economics, including increases in pensions, opposition to the privatization of public services, and protectionism as an alternative to globalisation.
Unlike Zemmour, she does not propose zero immigration – she wants a referendum on the issue – and has stolen the UK home secretary Priti Patel’s idea of dealing with asylum requests abroad. Illegal immigrants and those that break the law would be expelled, she says, but she has abandoned the party’s opposition to marriage equality and abortion.
Her foreign policy is vague. Until recently, she was a vocal supporter of Russia and Vladimir Putin – a photo with the Russian leader in Moscow appears in her manifesto de ella – a position that required a swift U-turn after Russian troops invaded Ukraine. This and a pledge to pull France out of Nato, echoed by the radical left, seem to have had little effect on her popularity.
In 2002, few would admit voting for Le Pen pere. Today, Marine, at 53, the youngest of his three daughters, has succeeded in drawing much of the poison from the notorious name.
Critics say she has changed her style but not the party’s toxic substance. A recent report by the left-leaning Jean-Jaurès Foundation stated: “Form has taken precedence over substance… theater over programme.” However, it added: “The arguments linked to her incompetence or her lack of knowledge of her no longer seem to hold water at a time when parts of France consider her to be completely presidential and close to the people, and no more worrying than other candidates. It is therefore on a completely different terrain that her future opponent will have to beat her in the second round, if she gets there.”
Talking to voters outside Paris, the overall impression is that French people are looking for change – many just for change’s sake. Serving presidents, historically, have a difficult job getting re-elected and some felt Macron had left it too late to campaign, seeing this as evidence of arrogance. In his only rally last Sunday, Macron warned supporters not to assume he would win a second term or defeat Le Pen. Afterwards, I have told Le Parisian newspaper: “Marine Le Pen has a racist and extremely brutal programme. She’s lying to you.”
Former rugby player Gilles Belzons, 50, owner of the Chez Bébelle bar-restaurant in Narbonne market, said he had not decided who would get his vote: “I think we should respect all the candidates, including Marine Le Pen especially, as she could be the next president of the republic. I’m a businessman and a father: what I’m looking for is a candidate who will make me and my family feel safe, do something about the cost of living and reduce the charges for small businesses. She is credible, she has conviction and I admire her tenacity, but there are things in her program I’m not so sure about.
His view is not uncommon. For many French people, the Le Pen name is no longer viewed with disdain. If, as expected, Le Pen does enough to reach the second round on 24 April, Macron will face the biggest political fight of her career to keep her out of the Élysée Palace.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism