France’s far-right leader Le Pen softens his image for the elections
PARIS (AP) — French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen has softened her rhetoric and image to broaden her appeal in next week’s presidential election — but is under threat from a defiant rival who broke her monopoly as a dog custody of the identity of the country they claim is threatened.
For more than a decade, Le Pen has been known for her fierce anti-immigration stance, seeing herself as the guard at the parapets of French civilization. Now she is focusing on consumer purchasing power, the main concern of voters.
“I obviously consider that immigration and insecurity are serious problems that require urgent responses, but it’s not just that,” said Le Pen, leader of the National Rally, during a television program presenting voter questions. “I worry as much about making ends meet as about the end of France.”
Meanwhile, Eric Zemmour, 63, a novice in politics, runs under the banner of his brand new Reconquest! party, now poses as the protector of old France, with bold proposals on immigration and Islam. He has proposed a “Ministry of Remigration”, equipped with planes to speed up deportations of what he says are unwanted migrants.
Their rivalry illustrates France’s growing tilt to the hard right and how that has set the agenda for the presidential election, held in two rounds on April 10 and 24. While polls suggest centrist President Emmanuel Macron is the frontrunner, nearly half of those polled say they are ready to vote for a far-right candidate in the deciding second round.
This is despite the fact that Zemmour, a television pundit who draws inspiration from former US President Donald Trump, has three convictions for inciting racial or religious hatred.
Zemmour, who says he entered the race to “save France”, has made the so-called “great substitute” conspiracy theory the centerpiece of his campaign. The term evokes a false assertion of white supremacy that immigrants and other people of color – notably Muslims – are supplanting natives of Western countries and will one day obliterate Christian civilization.
He recently claimed that without a halt to immigration, France would become “an African nation, an Islamic nation” in 10 to 20 years. A large majority of French people are white Catholics, and statistics on the evolution of immigration contradict this assertion.
Zemmour’s political objective is to create a “union of the right”, bringing together conservatives, including traditional Catholics, and far-right parties. Le Pen, who also denounces the “migratory submersion”, affirms that his objective is “the union of France”.
Voter polls suggest that Le Pen’s focus on wallet issues could work. They consistently show her second behind Macron, with Zemmour in third or fourth place. That could put her in a runoff against Macron, a repeat of their 2017 clash, which she lost 66%-34%.
This time, the two far-right candidates are gathering more support than the centrist president, making their supporters a threat to the established order.
Low voter turnout could render all pre-election calculations useless. Le Pen’s party is still suffering from his party’s failure in last summer’s regional poll, blamed on a turnout of just 33% of voters in the first round.
Le Pen’s focus on purchasing power is in line with her work of detoxifying her party since taking the reins from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the incendiary leader of what was then the National Front. She changed the name of the party and then expelled him after he repeated anti-Semitic remarks for which he had already been convicted.
Her father, who now supports her new presidential bid, once compared her to Diet Coke, saying she was ridding the party of hardliners was like watering down its values.
A batch of officials and their supporters abandoned it for the more extreme Zemmour. She slammed most of them with insults – except for her niece, Marion Maréchal, a former popular MP who returned to politics to help Zemmour.
“Poor Marion,” Le Pen said, lamenting Maréchal’s role as a “lifeline” for Zemmour.
National Rally specialist Sylvain Crépon said Zemmour did not pose a serious threat. He says it’s Le Pen who embodies nationalist ideas, and “in the end, voters prefer the original to the copy.”
Le Pen, 53, who represents northern France and is in her third presidential run, has adopted a less aggressive tone, and she has all but ditched her navy wardrobe in favor of pastels.
On political issues, she emphasizes concerns that affect those struggling to make ends meet. She also abandoned her earlier goals of leaving the European Union and abandoning the euro.
But his nationalist stock remains firm. If elected, Le Pen plans drastic measures – which will be put to a vote in a national referendum – to contain immigration and “eradicate” political Islam. Among them, the end of the family reunification policy, which allows immigrants to settle in France if a close relative is resident. Like Zemmour, it would deport delinquent foreigners and those who have not worked for at least a year.
She says she honors the religion of Islam but pledges to ban Muslims from wearing headscarves in the streets, calling them an “Islamist uniform”.
In public appearances, however, the spotlight is often shone on the day-to-day issues of the middle class and the working class, its base of support. His platform calls for measures to soften the blow of rising prices, such as reducing taxes on energy bills from 20% to 5.5%. Le Pen promises to put 150 to 200 euros a month back in people’s pockets.
“What she understood are subjects that interest the French which are not ideological subjects” such as the payment of bills, declared Jean-Yves Camus, a great specialist on the far right.
“Eric Zemmour says the only important subject is the end of France,” Camus said. “The French do not necessarily believe that France is finished. And if you want France not to be finished, you must give it purchasing power.
For Macron, Le Pen is the candidate to beat.
The Macron camp has openly worried about an electoral “accident”, possibly due to the low turnout of moderate voters, which could put Le Pen in power.
Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire denounced Le Pen’s “amazing metamorphosis”.
“Don’t let yourself believe that we are the elite and they are the people,” he told the French press during a visit to Normandy.
Romain Lopez, mayor of the southwestern town of Moissac and a member of Le Pen’s party, said he would vote for Zemmour in the first round but support Le Pen in the second round if Zemmour fails.
“Zemmour has given himself a glass ceiling with his excesses of language,” Lopez said, citing “remigration” policies.
Lopez is looking beyond the election as he believes a new party will emerge on the right with a major role for Le Pen’s niece Marechal.
For far-right pundit Camus, Zemmour helped Le Pen by making her look more palatable.
A presidential candidate has to bring voters together, and that’s what Le Pen did, he said.
“At some point you are forced, as the French say, to water down your wine, to compromise,” Camus said. “You are obliged to make proposals that unite not 40% of voters but 50.1%.”
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