France: Macron Faces Tough Poll Fight with Le Pen’s National Rally in European Elections

Emmanuel Macron’s popularity slumped during the Gilet Jaune crisis in the winter 2018/2019. Macron’s recent moves aimed at addressing public grievances combined with increasing public disillusionment with the Gilet Jaune movement have, however, produced a revival in his political fortunes. The campaign for the European elections, temporarily suspended following the Notre Dame cathedral fire, will nevertheless see Macron facing a strongly contested poll fight against Marine Le Pen and the National Rally.
Emmanuel Macron and his Le Republic En Marche party (LREM) emerged from the elections of 2017 as the dominant force in French politics. Macron’s opponents by contrast came out of the elections in a fragmented and demoralised state. In the first round of the presidential elections in April 2017 Macron led the field with 24% of the vote. In the second round run-off in May Macon, with 66% of the vote, defeated his populist rival, Marine Le Pen, from the National Front with 33% support. In the parliamentary elections which took place a month later LREM and its allies secured a clear parliamentary majority with 350 seats in the 577 member parliament.
The year which followed saw Macron enjoying a domestic and international political honeymoon. In July 2018, however, Macron’s popularity was dented by its first major political scandal when film emerged of Alexandre Benalla, a senior Macron security aide, assaulting a demonstrator during a May Day rally. In November the pressure on Macron increased with the advent of the Gilet Jaune movement. The Gilet Jaune movement took their name from the yellow, high visibility, vests that French motorists are required by law to carry with them. The protests were ostensibly in response to the imposition of a new ‘green tax’ on fuel. The protests also, however, brought together people reacting to a wider set of economic grievances. The Gilet Jaunes demonstrated on a weekly basis in Paris and other major French towns and cities. They also set up roadblocks across the country. Over 300,000 people took part in the first Saturday of Gilet Jaune protests. A poll undertaken at the time for Le Figaro indicated 77% public support for the Gilet Jaune movement. There was speculation at this time that the Gilet Jaune might develop into a significant electoral force. Support for Macron plummeted. Macron appeared to be experiencing the crisis of his presidency.
Macron’s initial response was to seek to address some of the stated causes of the Gilet Jaune protests. The fuel tax was removed, and an increase in the minimum wage was instituted. Macron announced in December a major listening exercise or ‘national debate’ which was set to run from January until March 2019. The debate was launched at a meeting in Normandy involving six hundred mayors in which Macron undertook a marathon seven hour long question and anser session. During the perio of the debate a total of 10,000 individual meetings took place. There were also 1.5 million on-line contributions from individuals, civic organisations and political parties. The debate’s finale took place in at a meeting in the southern French island of Corsica. Even some opposition representatives who had been initially sceptical about Macron’s great debate were ready to admit that while it may have been, to some extent, an exercise in PR it had also been effectively organised, and accomplished in its presentation. A speech by Macron, scheduled to take place on 15 April, in which he was set to give his official response to the National Debate was cancelled following the Notre Dame cathedral fire.
While Macron was taking steps to address Gilet Jaune grievances the movement, in a significant sense, acted to defeat itself. Although the majority of the Gilet Jaune protesters were peaceful there had from the beginning been a violent element, associated with both the far-left and far right who had attached themselves to the movement. The violent clashes between these Gilet Jaune extremists and the police became a regular feature of the Gilet Jaune’s Saturday afternoon demonstrations in Paris and other cities. The Gilet Jaune demonstrations were also accompanied by widespread attacks on property. These attacks on property included the destruction newspaper kiosks, wrecking of bus shelters, and the burning of a bank which endangered the residents living above it. There was also an observable element of anti-Semitism evident amongst the extremist elements within the Gilet Jaunes movement. This was demonstrated on 16 February when Gilet Jaune protestors were filmed directing anti-Semitic abuse at the Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. Alain Finkelkraut had previously made statements sympathetic to the Gilet Jaune movement. On 19 February thousands of people rallied in Paris to protest atn this and other recent instances of anti-Semitism. This violence and vandalism, along with the instances of anti-Semitism, resulted in diminishing participation in the protests, and declining public support for them. By the end of February only around 47,000 people were turning out across France for the weekly protests. Polling conducted at the same time showed that 55% of the public wanted the protests to end. The Gilet Jaune protests had from the beginning been ideologically heterogeneous. These divisions became more obvious as the numbers attending the protests dwindled. The splits in the Gilet Jaune movment were on open display on 10 January at a meeting in Lyon where violent clashes took place between groups of left-wing and right-wing Gilet Jaunes. In the end the police had to intervene to keep the two groups apart. Such scenes of intra-movement conflict taking place on the streets further diminished the Gilet Jaune credibility in the eyes of the public.
This combination of actions taken by the French government and the faltering strength of the Gilet Jaunes resulted by March/April in a recovery in Macron’s popularity. His poll rating of between 26-29% put him ahead of all other major French political figures. The polling undertaken in this period also showed LREM to be the most popular political party with around 23% of the vote.
The European elections taking place in France on 26 May will provide the first electoral test for Macron following the Gilet Jaune crisis. On 27 March Nathalie Loiseau, a career diplomat and former Director of the academically elite ENA, stepped down as Europe Minister in order to run Macron’s campaign for the European elections. This move was indicative of the seriousness with which Macron and his government took the European elections. It was subsequently announced that Loiseau would be the first candidate on the ‘Renaissance List’ consisting of LREM and other allied parties. Efforts were taken to provide the list with ideological balance. While Loiseau, who is seen as a centre-right figure, headed the election list second place was taken by Pascal Canfin, a former Socialist MEP, Development Minister under the Hollande Presidency, and head of the French section of the World Wildlife Fund. Alongside the members of LREM and other centrist parties the list also included candidates with little previous political experience, chosen to represent a cross-section of French public life. The candidates list was also designed to achieve gender parity. The Renaissance list was also notable for its inclusion of the non-French candidates, Sandro Gozi, the former Italian Under Secretary for European Affairs, and Chrysoula Zacharopoulou. a Franco-Greek surgeon and gynaecologist. The inclusion of these candidates emphasised Macron’s European credentials, and the way in which he saw the European elections not only as a test of domestic political popularity, but also as a pan-European contest between his own brand of liberal centrism, and the ideas of nationalist parties.
Although Macron appears to have weathered the storm of the Gilet Jaune crisis, and is now leading in the opinion polls, he and LREM will nevertheless face a difficult electoral contest in the European elections. Their primary political opponents will be the National Rally (NR) led by Marine Le Pen.
In the presidential election first round Marine Le Pen gained 21.3% of the vote. In the second round of the election Le Pen’s vote share rose to 33%. This was the best result ever achieved by a National Front candidate, but it fell far short of the expectations of Le Pen’s supporters. The demoralisation of potential National Front voters, combined with the two round election system, meant that the National Front secured only eight parliamentary seats in the June legislative elections. Marine Le Pen was, however, elected to parliament for the first time representing the northern constituency of Henin Beaumont. In the aftermath of the elections the National Front underwent a period of introspection and internal conflict. This turned out, however, to constitute only a temporary set-back for Le Pen and her party. In July 2018, Marine Le Pen, in a move designed to drawn a line under its post-election divisions, renamed her party as the National Rally. In the 2017 presidential election campaign Marine Le Pen had advocated French withdrawal from the European Union or Frexit. In the aftermath of the presidential elections this was widely recognised as having been a serious strategic error. Although the rhetoric of the National Rally has remained strongly critical of the European Union and its structures it has abandoned any talk of Frexit. In December 2018 the National Rally announced that it was appointing Jordan Bardello, its 23 year old party spokesman, to head the party’s European election campaign in the following year. National Rally’s focus on youth with the appointment of Bardello contrasts with the LREM’s emphasis on experience with their decision to put Loiseau in charge of the European election campaign. In January 2019, in the middle of the Gilet Jaunes crisis, the National Rally moved ahead of the LREM in the opinion polls. Opinion polls undertaken in March/April 2019 show the National Rally to be just behind or in one case equal to the LREM.
In the 2017 presidential elections Francoise Fillon, the candidate of the centre-right Republicans won only 20% of the vote, coming third after Macron and Le Pen. This was a major blow for the mainstream centre-right Republicans who had, before Fillon was engulfed by scandal, believed they could win the election. The June parliamentary elections saw the Republicans with 112 seats emerging as the largest opposition party, but also suffering a loss of 82 compared to the previous elections in 2012. In December 2017 Laurent Wallquiez became the new president of the Republicans. Wallquiez sought to shift the Republicans to the right. It was reasoned that with Macron dominating the political centre ground the Republicans should move to take advantage of the post-election disarray amongst the National Front on the right. The consolidation of the National Rally and the continuing strength of LREM has, however, meant that the Republicans have been unable re-establish themselves once again as a leading force on the political scene. Opinion polling in March/April put support for the Republicans at around 13%.
After the Notre Dame cathedral fire on 15 April all the main parties in France announced a temporary suspension of campaigning activity in the European elections.

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