The World

Le Pen’s Post-COVID Moment

France’s far-right looks to capitalize on Emmanuel Macron’s pandemic stumbles.

Close-up on Le Pen looking upward
Marine Le Pen in Paris on March 22. Chesnot/Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron often appeared to be channeling the tenor and tropes of Charles de Gaulle in a nationally televised speech on Wednesday. “It has been a year of anguish and sacrifices, but also a year of heroic acts during which we have learned and resisted,” the president intoned. As it soon became clear, the invocation of de Gaulle’s spirit was an act of calculation born from desperation. France, announced Macron, would be subjected to a series of public health measures amid a new surge in coronavirus cases, including a monthlong closing of schools and the shutting of all nonessential businesses. It’s France’s third national lockdown since last March.

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The decision marks a year littered with mistakes made by Macron in his effort to master the pandemic. It could also mark a pivotal moment in the fortunes not just of Macron’s presidency, but the French republic. Should this latest lockdown either fail or falter, it may well be that, come next year, the next resident of the Elysée Palace will be Madame la Présidente Marine Le Pen.

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All lockdowns are unhappy, but every lockdown is unhappy in its own way. Inspired by the measures that had already been taken in China, the goal of the first “confinement” last March was “zéro COVID.” It ranged far and deep, closing schools, offices, restaurants, and, apart from those deemed essential, stores and markets. Though the economic and social consequences were seismic, the vast majority of French supported the measures. The rewards seemed to be equal to the sacrifices. When the lockdown was partially lifted two months later, France’s case and mortality rates had dropped sharply.

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But the reopening was short-lived. By early fall, the incidence of positive cases—no doubt fueled by the traditional summer vacations and the relaxation of basic health protocols—began to rise once again. Region by region, stores and restaurants that had reopened just months earlier were again shuttered. In late October, when this piecemeal approach failed to stem the surge of positive cases, Macron announced a second confinement, a kind of lockdown lite. Concerned the economy could not recover from a second full lockdown, and his popularity could not recover if he imposed the same strict constraints, Macron kept schools open this time and broadened the range of essential businesses. The idea, this time, was not to crush the virus but instead live with it.

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The French managed this delicate cohabitation with the virus for several weeks, leading Macron to ease restrictions for the Christmas season. Once a new and more virulent variant of the virus appeared in early January, however, the arrangement became unmanageable. Praised by his communications team for his mastery of the scientific evidence, Macron decided to ignore his health advisers, who understood the dire consequences of the new variant and urged the president to impose a third lockdown. Instead, he prescribed curfews and restrictions on a region-to-region basis, wagering that this would keep the virus at bay until vaccines arrived.

Macron lost the wager. His dash to find une troisième voie, or “third way,” between battening down the hatches and bursting them open, was kneecapped by the government’s poor logistical planning. While the absence of masks for medical personnel was the measure of the government’s muddle last March, the absence of deep freezers for the vaccine became the new standard for administrative incoherence.

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Between the end of January, when Macron embarked on the third way, and the end of March, there were nearly 20,000 more COVID-19-related deaths. With less than 5 percent of French having received both doses of the vaccine, the president-cum-epidemiologist yielded to reality. The man who once described himself as the “clock master” conceded the virus was now the true timekeeper.

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So much now rides on the tempo of vaccinations and the timing of the renewed lockdown. Should the former prove too slow and the latter too late, the human cost will be incalculable. More easily calculated, though, is the political cost. A year from now, the first round of presidential elections will take place. Over the past several months, nearly all the polls predict a sequel of the 2017 election, in which the centrist Macron faced Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right-wing Rassemblement National, or National Rally, in the election’s second round. (French presidential elections go to a runoff if no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first round.) In 2017, the contest was over before it began. Though the unknown and untested Macron was mistrusted by both the left and right, he benefited from their shared fear and loathing for Le Pen, as well as her catastrophic performance in their single televised debate. With three-quarters of voters turning out, Macron tallied 66 percent and Le Pen 34 percent of the vote.

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While Macron’s victory was decisive, it was not the blowout it appeared to outsiders. In 2002, the conservative Jacques Chirac won over 82 percent of the vote in the second round against the other Le Pen, Jean-Marie, the street-brawling father of Marine and founder of the anti-Semitic, anti-European, and anti-Muslim party the Front National. When she took over from her father in 2011, the younger Le Pen launched a process of dédiabolisation, or de-demonization of the party whose name dared not be spoken by respectable republicans. She declared that the Holocaust, whose reality her father variously questioned or reduced to a “historical detail,” was the “height of human barbarity,” and purged the party’s ranks of Holocaust deniers and revisionists. (Her father, who refused to recant his earlier denialism, was also shown to the door.)

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Changing the party’s name to the less confrontational and more inclusive National Rally, Le Pen now emphasizes her party’s attachment to the republic—though, crucially, not all of its laws—as the “common rule.” In short, Le Pen recognized the sanctity of the constitution, yet reserved the right to tweak it. Discovering the French were more attached to the euro than she anticipated, Le Pen stopped clamoring for a Frexit and now claims her goal is to “reform” the European Union from within. But when it comes to Islam and immigration—the two terms are one in right-wing rhetoric—the more things change chez Le Pen, the more they stay the same. Promising to introduce a referendum on overhauling immigration laws should she become president, Le Pen has also proposed a law banning the wearing in public of the hijab—an item of clothing she insists is “Islamist.”

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For the moment, Le Pen’s proposals are only that—proposals. But will this be the case next year? According to a flurry of recent polls, a rematch between Macron and Le Pen in 2022 appears a much closer affair than it was five years ago. In a poll conducted by the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique, or IFOP, Le Pen outscores Macron in the first round—28 percent to 24 percent—and comes a close second in the final round, 53 percent to 47 percent. The narrowing gap reflects what IFOP identifies as the “fragilization” of the republican front that first coalesced around Chirac two decades ago. Le Pen’s efforts at de-demonization and the growing “normalization” in political discourse of her party’s once-extreme positions are shifting the country’s political landscape.

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Perhaps more so than any other leading political figure, Le Pen has benefited from the pandemic. In a polemical book she published last summer titled The Black Book of the Coronavirus: From Fiasco to Abyss, she blasted the government’s stumbling response to the crisis. She claimed that the pandemic revealed the failure of “France’s elites” and its “hyperliberal” ideology—themes dear to the “yellow vest” protest movement that had paralyzed Macron’s government in the months leading up to the pandemic. She called the third lockdown Macron’s “Waterloo.” But Le Pen faces a delicate balancing act: retaining her disaffected base while reaching out to mainstream voters.

Tellingly, Macron has chosen to give Le Pen a helping hand. For months, parties across the political spectrum, from the left-wing France Insoumise (“Defiant France”) to the right-wing Républicains, have railed that Macron, too weakened to face their own candidates, has done his utmost to make a rematch with Le Pen a reality. These same parties, however, are largely responsible for their predicament. The Socialist Party, humiliated in the 2017 elections, is now a shadow of its former self, with no other movement able to unite the left. As for the right, Les Républicains’ equally mortifying defeat in 2017, followed by the series of scandals enmeshing leading figures like Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon, has perhaps fatally wounded it as well.

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In a speech to members of his party, La République En Marche (“Forward the Republic”), Macron insisted they “have just one opponent: the National Rally. We must reaffirm this opposition, one the French themselves have made.” Though Macron gave that pep talk before the pandemic—and the string of governmental miscues and mistakes—took center stage in France, he has tried to keep the public’s eyes on Le Pen. In mid-February he agreed to a televised debate between Le Pen and his hard-line interior minister, Gérald Darmanin.

Not only did the debate make the case that a Macron–Le Pen rematch was inevitable, but it also allowed Macron to appeal to the same voters who tend to support Le Pen. This led to a remarkable moment when Le Pen, striving for a presidential and republican tone, was needled by Darmanin for being too soft on Islamist radicals.

With each passing day the cynical strategy imposed by Macron resembles ever more closely the doomsday machine from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—a device that seeks to deter nuclear war by guaranteeing armageddon if anyone starts one. By locking in as his opponent someone he thought a majority of French would never support, Macron now runs the risk of an automatic and cataclysmic electoral response next year.

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