Why Does Marine Le Pen Both Frighten and Fascinate?

Marine Le Pen’s possible victory this May scares many, including financial markets in fear of a bursting of the euro and Europeans in fear of a bursting European Union.
If Marine Le Pen scares people, it is because she embodies the French extreme right, because she is populist and protectionist who, according to surveys, has an actual chance to be in the second round of the French presidential election.

French citizens will have to vote in a first round of voting on April 23, with the top two candidates opposing each other in a second round of voting on May 7.

The winner will become president of the French Republic, and therefore head of the executive, the highest political position in the country. The list of candidates isn’t closed yet, as contenders have to gain 500 endorsements by mayors by March 15.

Nevertheless, some have already reached that number or are more or less sure to, including François Fillon (Republicans), Benoît Hamon (Socialist Party), Emmanuel Macron (En marche), Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Unsubmissive France), Nathalie Arthaud (Workers' Struggle), Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (France Arise) and Marine Le Pen (National Front).

What is scary about a Le Pen victory?

Defining herself as the "patriotic choice," Marine Le Pen is the candidate of protectionism and populism. She is in favor of a withdrawal from the European Union by referendum, as well as from NATO, as she wants to restore the "national sovereignty" and cut loose "bad public expenditure" (including participation in the EU budget and immigration policies).

She is in favor of the restoration of the franc as the national currency and restoration of national frontiers (and, therefore, the exit of France from the Schengen area), as well as the renegotiation of several free-trade conventions under her scheme of "smart protectionism."

Le Pen also wants to end the Common Agricultural Policy to create a French Agricultural Policy (even though France is one of the main beneficiary of the CAP), and institute a tax on foreign workers' employment to counter "unfair international competition."

There are populist ideas that seem to please some, especially when she talks about "restoring the public republican order and state of rights everywhere and for all," a theme 59 percent of non-National Front voters agree with. Many also like her promises to "simplify and automatize expulsion" of "illegal" foreigners, "defend national identity" and "raise French citizenship as a privilege."

Stronger than ever?

The National Front's (FN) candidate appears in the media stronger than ever, as a recent survey reveals a third of French electors (32 percent) said they already planned to vote for the National Front or are considering it.

This same third doesn’t considers FN’s ideas to be dangerous enough not to vote for its politicians. Indeed, Marine Le Pen’s electoral base is quite fixed. Even if the FN’s image hasn’t improved in the public eye these last months, the party's efforts to strengthen its base have obviously worked.

According to the aforementioned survey, from Kantar Sofres-One Point for France Info and Le Monde, a very high percentage of non-FN voters are sympathizers to a number of Le Pen’s ideas.

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So in the end, just weeks before the first vote, she is the only one with a secure electoral base. The Republicans, until Monday March 7th weren’t sure that François Fillon would stay as a candidate because of the "Fillongate." This late uncertainty and juridicial affairs may lead to a leak of part of the right wing to the extreme-right, and of its leftest part to Emmanuel Macron. As Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s programs are quite close and an alliance seems impossible, a part of the left wing may go to Macron too.

But in the end, the En Marche candidate will have to deal with a very unstable electoral basis as well, whereas Marine Le Pen goes to the ballot with 30 percent of the likely vote, a very large margin that could grow before April 23rd.

In that sense, and as 60 percent of France’s public debt is held abroad, financial markets consider political risks at the number one risk to consider, and when asked which geographical area they consider as the most risky, many say Europe, even despite Trump and the fact that the euro zone has (for the first time since 2008) a higher growth rate than the US.

Time to panic?

Even if Marine Le Pen appears today as strong and assured to be a part of the second round of voting, we need to keep in mind that this is predicted by polls, the same ones that had predicted that Donald Trump couldn't win.

Moreover, and despite its large base of support, the National Front isn’t a "catch-all party,"and we need to keep in mind the 2002 election (Jacques Chirac vs Jean-Marie Le Pen) ended with over 82 percent of voters choosing Chirac.

The idea that because both the UK and the US seem to have tumbled into populism, France could easily do the same, seems to be enhanced by the fact that many people, not to mention the financial markets, do not really understand the French political context and its two-round system.

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Forty-nine percent of surveyed people still consider Marine Le Pen as a danger for democracy and as the representative of a "nationalist and xenophobic extreme right," against 40 percent who see her as the representative of a "patriotic right, attached to traditional values."

The balance seems tight, but it is a reflection of the degree to which public opinion can be influenced, and we also need to question how representative each survey is of the electorate, and remember that in the end in a democracy, only human voters can decide.

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