Less than a year after the French presidential election, two dozen retired generals and a group of active military personnel joined the gallery of hauntings that cloud the dreams of President Emmanuel Macron last week.
In a letter published in a far-right magazine, they threatened to intervene against a “risk of civil war” which they attribute to Islam and anti-racist activism. “This was a very significant intrusion into civil affairs on the part of French military officers who have historically observed a pact of silence on political issues,” explains the professor of French politics at the University of Warwick ( United Kingdom) James Shields.
Shields draws two conclusions from the atypical manifestation. “Firstly, it shows that Islam and the racial question have driven a wedge into the center of the French national debate, following the Islamic terrorist atrocities committed in France since 2015”.
More and more secondary in countries like Germany, themes such as xenophobia and repulsion to immigration have remained at the forefront of French politics, notably thanks to Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right party of the National Meeting and Macron’s main nightmare at the time.
According to the latest polls, 1 in 4 French people say they vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s heir in the first round of the April 2022 presidential election, which should lead her again to the second round. But changes in public opinion on Marine Le Pen and Macron are already causing political scientists to seriously wonder if she has a chance of becoming president. And some believe it.
As the ultra-right consolidates itself as the president’s main rival in the first round, it has moderated its messages, in a process called “demonization.” In addition to softening the rhetoric, it purged members of the RN who were more prone to racist “slippages” or extreme speeches, say researchers Antoine Bristielle, Tristan Guerra and Max-Valentin Robert, in an analysis for the Observatory of the Jean-Jaurès Foundation.
It worked: this year, 34% of French people say they have a “very bad” opinion of Marine Le Pen, the lowest level reached by the candidate and a significant drop compared to 50% in March 2019. In April 2016, a year before the 2017 presidential election, this rate was 46%.
This leads to Shields’ second remark about the military letter: “This is a sign of a new right-wing activism finding a place in the space left by Marine Le Pen’s increasingly sanitized discourse.”
The political tension revealed by the military group’s message resonated with the public: 58% said they supported LCI’s research letter released last week, and 73% also agreed that the country should ‘collapses.
These are findings that indicate “a deeply pessimistic and anxious public mood and an acceptance of dramatic measures to prevent the most problematic areas of the country from descending further into illegality,” Shields says.
In this environment, Marine Le Pen has kept his base of support stable – 89% of his supporters in the last election remain ready to elect him – while the French president has seen nearly a third of his supporters disband.
“Macron has a more urgent need to renew his ‘hard center’ of support if he is to reverse the disadvantage in the first round,” Shields said. Although he has not yet launched, he is identified as the most likely candidate for his Republic party in March (LREM).
In this renewal, he will no longer be able to rely on the message of “neither left nor right” which gave him victory in 2017, not only because in the exercise of government he leaned to the right but also because that it has also become one of the main slogans of Marine Le Pen.
Another ghost that Macron is struggling with now is the mirror. His attempts to impose top-down reforms – like that of social security, which sparked protests and strikes in 2019 – preached an image of elitist and arrogant. “In the costume of a President of Jupiter, he became the perfect embodiment of an insensitive elite, with awkward comments that reflected contempt for those at the bottom of the social ladder.”
It took the fiery revolt of the yellow vests – against a fuel tax – for the bill to fall and for the president to try to adopt a slightly greater dose of humility. “The problem is, Macron has a lot more talent for arrogance than sympathy – and first impressions, as we know, can be lasting,” Shields says.
In a survey published in March, four negative emotions stood out when the French responded to how they feel when they hear or see Macron: anger (28%), despair (21%), disgust (21%) and shame (21%). Professor de Warwick also cites Odoxa’s research published in December, in which only 28% see him as close to the people and 25% describe him as humble.
Other figures from the same survey are also worrying: 57% disapprove of its management in general, 62% consider that it has mismanaged the pandemic and 74% think that it left something to be desired in terms of security and maintenance of order – a toll worsened by the terrorist last year. attacks, which they did to less than four dead, including Professor Samuel Paty, beheaded in Paris, and the Brazilian Simone Barreto, beheaded in Nice.
“As a presidential candidate in 2017, he balanced police and security with an emphasis on individual freedoms and openness to the benefits of France’s ethnic and religious diversity,” Shields said. After the terrorist attacks, the focus was on maintaining public order and repressing radical Islam.
One of the measures was the anti-extremism bill, which ultimately “wants to deprive Marine Le Pen of exclusive rights on the critical security issue,” Shields said. He thus tries to anticipate the strategy of dragging the far-right candidate. the electoral debate in the fields of violence, immigration and national identity, which are not the natural terrain of the centrist president.
As the 2022 campaign heats up, Marine Le Pen is expected to raise the anti-immigration tone, while Macron will seek to take a more cautious line, Shields says. “He will try to avoid criticism of exploiting the Islamic threat for political gain – hence the rhetorical change in the name of the bill, from” combating Islamic separatism “to” protecting Republican principles. “
Risks in the second round
No poll so far has shown Marine Le Pen’s victory over Macron in the second round, but a March 17 poll showed warning messages: the current president appears to be winning with 53% of the vote – there at four, he won two-thirds. desired votes.
For Professor Warwick, Chief RN’s great hope is not in those who vote, but in those who don’t. “There is strong evidence that a large number of center-left and left-wing voters, who played a crucial role in Macron’s victory in 2017, could refuse to elect him now and choose to abstain.” , he said.
Shields believes that this will probably not be enough to push the electoral balance towards the far right, but the conclusion of the Jean-Jaurès Foundation’s analysis is less comfortable.
“If, in 2017, Marine Le Pen won a third of the votes in the second round despite a calamitous campaign, just over a year from the next presidential election, we must consider the final victory of Marine Le Pen as a possibility not negligible, ”they write analysts.
To do this, they consider at least one of the three necessary conditions: 1) that the moderate right-wing electorate has focused on it, 2) that Le Pen’s “demonization” is enough to stop scaring the resistant voters, or 3) that Macron raised a rejection similar to that of the ultra-right outside his support bloc.
The former is the least likely, they say, based on the French Fractures survey. Moderate right-wing voters share cultural ideas about the far right – 97% of them agree that it takes “a real leader in France to restore order” – but they differ fundamentally on economic issues.
“Republicans are much more liberal on issues such as labor market flexibility, free trade or income redistribution. The only point of convergence is social assistance: 82% of Republicans and 73% of Le Pen’s supporters consider it excessive in France, ”they say.
In the second point, the relative “slowdown” of xenophobic extremism has helped reassure these moderate right-wingers.
In a “demonization index” created by researchers taking into account elements such as proximity to the interests of voters, assessment of the capacity to govern, perception of right-wing radicalism and the risk to democracy, the reunion national level has steadily improved.
“The ‘demonization’ is undeniable,” they conclude. “The National Meeting still has a very negative image, but it has fallen dramatically since the mid-2010s, and Marine Le Pen has eased the stigma that the ultra-right has given it in the past.
The main threat to Macron in the second round seems to be his rejection, which is close to that of Marine Le Pen when we look at voters from other parties. Researchers from the Jean Jaurés Foundation find it surprising that, in the moderate right-wing electorate, negative emotions are more associated with the French president than with the RN candidate.
“There is a significant risk that the voters of the defeated candidates in the first round refrain from hating Macron and Le Pen,” they conclude.