Jaky Ruiz was on the verge of tears. For three hours, he had waited to be photographed with Marine Le Pen and voila. The former cabaret star looked at the photo on her outdated foldable phone.
“Oh my God, this is so moving. I told her that I had danced at a show that her father, Jean-Marie, attended in the 1980s when she was little and she said that she was there and she remembered it,” the septuagenarian said. He pulled a weathered black-and-white image of a long-legged dancer in a leotard from his pocket.
“I showed him this: it’s me. I can’t believe I have to talk to him. I will vote for her but I don’t think she will win. Although she has changed, Le Pen’s name is still scary.
There was more faith than fear among the crowds who turned out for the Le Pen roadshow in south-west France this week, the latest dates in a campaign that began more than two years ago. Le Pen said this third presidential bid would be his last, so for fans near the Pyrenees and the Spanish border, where far-right support is strong, it’s now or never. And they have never felt closer to victory than today.
A series of polls nearing the end of the campaign at midnight on Friday suggested Le Pen had narrowed the gap on Emmanuel Macron within the margin of error. Elabe put Macron at 26% and Le Pen at 25% for Sunday’s first-round vote, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the radical left at 17.5%. The small-sample poll suggested the second-round result could be just as close, with Macron winning 51% to Le Pen’s 49%. According to a larger Ifop poll, Macron won 52% to 48%.
At the Les Halles indoor market in the historic southwestern town of Narbonne, where Le Pen paid an impromptu visit on Friday morning, his older sister, Marie-Caroline, admitted the first round would be biting but said that everyone was keeping their cool, especially Marine: “She’s incredible; solid as granite. And judging by the upbeat mood of the members of Le Pen’s top team, in their sharp navy suits and crisp white shirts, they clearly smell of victory.
The evening before, during its last major meeting, a crowd of around 4,000 people had gathered in Perpignan, the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales. department led by Mayor Louis Aliot – who also happens to be the former vice-president of Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) and his ex-partner.
Yuni Yulianti, 40, of Indonesian descent, said she would vote for Le Pen: “I’m not worried about being a foreigner. She has nothing against those of us who follow the law. She’s against the many people who don’t. Her friend Stéphanie Bauer, 50, a pharmacist, nodded: “I vote for Marine Le Pen and I have Métis grandchildren.”
Most of those present were already Le Pen voters. They took merchandise, including t-shirts, scarves, pens, lighters and baby bibs, and chanted “Marine President” or “We will win” (we will win). His speech was littered with catchphrases: “patriots don’t abstain” (cheers); “ultra-liberalism” (boos); “no more police” (cheers); “Macron” (boos).
In the city, the opinions of those not attending the rally were more nuanced. “Personally, I am a Macron man. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his faults, but I think he’s the best choice to lead the country,” said Marc Sirjean, 75, a retired accountant. “I am not convinced by Marine Le Pen. I think she is too rigid and I don’t think she would be able to put together a team in government.
Le Pen, of course, has a ready answer to this; it promises to form a government of “national unity”. On Friday, RN acting president Jordan Bardella told the Observer this would include politicians from across the political spectrum, including “left and right”. And he was sure she would be able to do it.
“The end-of-campaign momentum is with us and Mélenchon. If the French will vote, we will win,” he said. “The reason she succeeded is that she talks to the French people about their daily problems, the cost of living, health, the concerns of young people.”
But the rise of Le Pen’s political star isn’t just due to a tectonic shift in the French political landscape to the right. It is also due to the inveterate aversion 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 the hawkish stance of his far-right electoral rival Éric Zemmour, who has made his hardline approach to controversial issues such as immigration, Islam and crime seem less extreme by comparison.
Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, never really approached power and would not have known what to do with it if he had. His raison d’être was to be a political troublemaker, flip the table and walk away. Its surprise first-round victory in 2002 had little to do with support for the far right: it was because the left was divided and French voters used their first-round ballot to “make send a message”, convinced that the place of the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in the second round was assured. As they discovered, that was not the case.
Marine Le Pen took over what was then the National Front in 2011 and set out to whitewash its image, tarnished by xenophobic neo-Nazi thugs with shaved heads and booted boots. Members have been expelled for racist and anti-Semitic remarks or for having defended Philippe Pétain, head of the French Vichy government, a Nazi collaborator in the 1940s. She even expelled her own father in 2015.
The “de-demonization,” as it was called, worked. In 2012, she made her first bid to become president, securing 17.9% in the first round for third place behind socialist Francois Hollande – who eventually won – and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy. In May 2014, the FN won two senators, the first time party officials had entered the upper house, and added 11 mayors to its 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 vote in the first round, enough to reach the second round. In the second round, she obtained 33.9%, a score well below that expected against Macron, then a newcomer to politics.
The National Front’s program at the time resembled that of Le Pen senior in 2002: the emphasis on “national priority” for housing, benefits and employment; the defense of small businesses against large groups; reinforcement of police and judicial powers.
After this defeat, she renamed the party the Rassemblement National or Rassemblement National. He has stopped calling for the death penalty and for France to leave the EU – although she remains determined to ignore Brussels. She continues to defend the nationalist discrimination of “French first”, but there is also a commitment to a more left-wing economy, including increased pensions, opposition to the privatization of public services and protectionism as an alternative to globalization.
Unlike Zemmour, she is not proposing zero immigration – she wants a referendum on the issue – and has stolen UK Home Secretary Priti Patel’s idea to process asylum claims overseas. Illegal immigrants and those who break the law would be deported, she said, but she dropped the party’s opposition to marriage equality and abortion.
Its foreign policy is vague. Until recently, she was a staunch supporter of Russia and Vladimir Putin – a photo with the Russian leader in Moscow appears in his manifesto – a stance that required a swift turnaround after troops invaded Ukraine Russians. This and a promise to withdraw France from NATO, echoed by the radical left, seems to have had little effect on his popularity.
In 2002, few would admit to having voted for Le Pen dad. Today Marine, at 53, the youngest of her three daughters, has managed to draw much of the poison from the notorious name.
Critics say she changed her style but not the toxic party stuff. A recent report by the left-leaning Fondation Jean-Jaurès claimed: “Form has taken precedence over substance… theater over program”. However, he added: “Arguments relating to her incompetence or lack of knowledge no longer seem to hold water at a time when some parts of France see her as completely presidential and close to the people, and no more worrying than d other candidates.It is therefore on a completely different ground that her future opponent will have to beat her in the second round, if she succeeds.
Speaking to voters outside Paris, the general impression is that the French are looking for change – often just for change. Sitting presidents have historically struggled to win re-election and some felt Macron left him too late to campaign, seeing it as evidence of arrogance. At his only rally last Sunday, Macron warned his supporters not to assume he would win a second term or defeat Le Pen. Afterwards he said The Parisian newspaper: “Marine Le Pen has a racist and extremely brutal program. She is lying to you.
Former rugby player Gilles Belzons, 50, owner of Chez Bébelle bar and restaurant in Narbonne market, said he had not decided who would get his vote: “I think you have to respect all the candidates, including Marine Le Pen in particular, because she could be the next President of the Republic. I am a businessman and a father: what I am looking for is a candidate who will make me feel safe, and my family, to do something about the cost of living and reduce small business burdens. She’s credible, she has conviction, and I admire her tenacity, but there are things about her program that I don’t follow. not so sure.
His point of view is not uncommon. For many French people, the name Le Pen is no longer viewed with disdain. If, as expected, Le Pen does enough to reach the second round on April 24, Macron will face the biggest political fight of his career to prevent him from entering the Élysée.