PARIS - Marine Le Pen was finishing up in the final candidates’ debate Thursday when the first reports came in about a shooting on the Champs-Elysses. The timing of the headlines could not have been more perfect for her security agenda. Even if details surrounding the attack remain murky, Le Pen’s combative words resounded: “The first and most important issue in this election is the lack of any kind of security for citizens.”
It is clear that the shooting, during which the city’s most famous avenue was closed, and the chase after the Kalashnikov-armed assailants serves the agenda of the two rightist candidates, Francois Fillon and Le Pen. Commentators can already surmise that the main benefactor will be Le Pen.
This opinion spans French society. It would seem hard for gay people to vote for Marine Le Pen, yet a survey by the prestigious Sciences Po Institute of Political Studies found that 28 percent of gay French people support Le Pen, just like the general population. The National Front party’s hostility to same-sex rights, such as its desire to repeal their right to adopt, affected the lesbian vote but not gay males. The research found that clashes between Muslims and gays in Paris and its suburbs, including violent attacks, played a role.
But then how can someone be a civics teacher and vote for Marine Le Pen? Very easily. According to a survey by the secondary school teachers’ union, 37 percent of teachers have declared their intent to vote for her, a larger percentage than among the general population. There too, the reason is the harassment that many teachers feel in the schools from Muslim students.
And we could go on and on, from group to group, mapping Le Pen’s France, which is to a great extent everyone’s France.
In a much talked-about article, the assistant editor of Le Monde asked the question many journalists are avoiding: How can it be explained that only 22 percent of respondents to polls say they intend to vote for Marine Le Pen, while every second person on the street says he or she intends to vote for her? Taxi drivers, bakers, teachers, the unemployed, Jews, blacks, even Muslims – support for Le Pen seems more widespread than ever.
The candidate of the traditional right, Francois Fillon, has an explanation. He claims that the French electorate will surprise everyone when they cast their ballot on Sunday, and “act with the proper responsibility.” That is, they will abandon their primary and sincere intention to vote for Le Pen, and support Fillon. In a series of interviews Fillon gave yesterday, from the right-wing daily Le Figaro to the public television network France 2, Fillon declared that he would move up to the second round of voting, among other reasons because of a “sudden and powerful regaining of their senses” by Le Pen voters.
Fillon’s message to right-wing and extreme right-wing voters was frightening: If you vote for Le Pen, you’ll get the radical leftist politician Jean-Luc Melenchon as president. Fillon’s analysis is not as paradoxical as it seems. If right-wingers vote in droves for Le Pen because a Fillon win seems hopeless, they will ensure Le Pen’s rise to a second round – but not by a supermajority. Under those circumstances, the second round, on May 7, will pit Le Pen against the candidate of the left, which might very well be Melenchon. Because center and left voters prefer Melenchon to Le Pen, right-wing voters who have absconded to the National Front will end up bringing an extreme leftist into office by their “blind and selfish vote,” as Fillon put it.
The sudden rise of Melenchon in the polls over the past few days has also been good for the rhetoric of centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron (“I am the only one whose election will prevent total chaos in France”) and for Fillon’s as well (“I am not asking you to love me, but to vote for me”). It has not been as good for Le Pen, who finds herself suddenly fighting an unexpected rival whose views on the economy are as extreme as her own, and who is stealing many anti-establishment voters from her.
Le Pen at first tried to ignore the trend, and did not respond even when she lost her first-place lead in the polls Monday to Macron. But the more Fillon’s message percolates down to right-wing voters, the more extreme her statements are becoming. Yesterday she managed to say that by her very election she would prevent terror attacks; to pledge to completely halt immigration, even of legal immigrants, by freezing their visas; to attack Protestants, whom she said are too arrogant toward Catholics; and finally to warn right-wing voters that this is not a presidential election, but rather a referendum in which the question is: “Do you love France, or not?” A vote for Fillon, for example, is an answer in the negative.
This is a personal war: If Marine Le Pen does not move up to the second round, her niece, Marion Le Pen, will immediately be elected to replace her as president of the National Front. If Fillon does not move up to the second round, then interrogation under warning, meaning he is suspected of committing a crime, awaits him on suspicions of bribery that could land him, his wife and perhaps even his children in jail.
Le Pen’s initial intent was to keep the campaign as somnolent as possible to ensure a low voter turnout. That would theoretically allow her to be elected on the first round. But the knives have been drawn on the French right, and they won’t be put away before Sunday at 8 p.m.
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