France’s future hangs in the balance

The received wisdom is that in the electoral runoff in France on April 24 between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the president will win. The French, it is argued, will not entrust the republic to a hard-Right populist and have demonstrated this twice before – at the last election in 2017 and when Jean-Marie Le Pen was defeated by Jacques Chirac in 2002.

But as we have seen in recent years, received wisdom is often wrong. After all, those in the know were adamant that Britain would never vote to leave the EU and Americans would not elect Donald Trump. In many ways, the same forces that led to those two outcomes are at play in France. Ms Le Pen has sought to tap into the anti-globalist disgruntlement among people who previously voted for the Socialist Party, which has completely collapsed as a political force.

She has embraced a populist economic agenda designed to appeal to those who feel left behind by promising financial help to counter the cost-of-living crunch now beginning to bite. Her welfarist economic policies are Left-wing while her anti-immigration, anti-EU stance appeals to the Right-wing nationalist cultural tradition that remains strong in the French countryside.

The big question is whether she can stop the Left-wing vote swinging behind President Macron to keep her out of power, as happened on the two previous occasions. She has tried to detoxify her party’s racist and anti-Semitic image, broken her links with Vladimir Putin – out of necessity, given what has happened in Ukraine – and purged much of the legacy from her father’s Front National.

Has she done enough to win? Mr Macron did better in the first round on Sunday than he did in 2017, but this time he is the incumbent. His unpopularity among swathes of the electorate is apparent, but whether that is sufficient to overcome fear of a Le Pen presidency is by no means clear.

Mr Macron has endeavoured to present himself to the French people as an international statesman so busy with global affairs that he hardly bothered to campaign and entered the race only at the last minute. He took it for granted that the Left and the young would be so appalled by the possibility of a Le Pen presidency that he could not possibly lose.

On April 24 he will find out whether this lofty approach has worked or if received wisdom has been confounded by reckless complacency.

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