French people

French election: in the last round, voters vote for the candidate they hate the least | world news

There’s a surge of excitement, a surge of the crowd, and then a cacophony of cheers. Marine Le Pen, smiling and waving, arrived in town.

She is surrounded by a mix of well-wishers, journalists, security guards, curious shoppers and lackeys.

Slowly she drives down the road of this Normandy town, normally a quiet corner of the Calvados-Le Pen region amidst a huge rolling maul, signing autographs, posing for photos and sharing a few thoughts.

“Are you confident?” I ask him above the noise, struggling to keep my balance. Back returns a smile, “Oh yes. Very,” she replies.

“And will you win?”. She stops and responds with as much emphasis as one person can muster smiling with such determination. “Yes,” she told me. “Yes. I think I will win.”

Picture:
Marine Le Pen was surrounded by supporters, journalists and security agents

Polls suggest otherwise, with Emmanuel Macron maintaining a clear lead over her as the days go by.

But, even if the two candidates are the same, no one thinks we will repeat the result of the 2017 election.

At the time, Macron won with two-thirds of the vote, leaving Le Pen looking broken and hobbled.

The only person to suffer a worse blow in the presidential election was Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, when he was completely beaten by Jacques Chirac in 2002.

But France has changed in the last five years. For starters, Macron is no longer the newcomer, so dissenting that he created a whole new party.

He is now part of the political mainstream. You cannot spend five years as French president and still claim to be an outsider.

Marine Le Pen
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Marine Le Pen campaigning in Normandy

On the other hand, Le Pen has worked hard to soften his edges, broadening his rhetoric beyond immigration and much further into economic policies.

For example, she wants to lower taxes, reduce taxes and lower the retirement age. How all of this will be paid for remains unclear.

At the same time, she also speaks of banning Muslim women from wearing the headscarf and remains clearly skeptical of the merits of the European Union. The image may have been softened, but, deep down, she remains a radical far-right politician.

Thus, the rapidly rising prices of daily necessities have become a kind of blessing for her.

This happened under Macron’s watch, and it had a huge effect on rural communities and low-income families – the foundation of his support.

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What do people think of Macron and Le Pen?

Among those who have come to see her in Normandy, there is not so much support as a mixture of reverence and hysteria.

“Macron prefers Europe to France but we prefer France to Europe,” a young man told me.

His girlfriend proudly shows me her phone – there’s a photo of her and Le Pen, smiling next to each other. Will she vote for her? “Of course,” she replies, laughing. How could I even ask?

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Jean Claude Vasset brandishes a poster of Le Pen and shouts his name. She signed it, and he is delighted because, in this politician more than any other, he thinks he finds empathy.

“Marine Le Pen’s arguments have improved. I have been unemployed for five years, living on benefits and supporting a family of five and Macron has done nothing as the cost of living has risen .”

His wife, Edwige, says Macron “helps the richest people but Marine Le Pen is the opposite of that – she’s on the side of the workers not the rich”.

It’s a refrain you hear over and over again in this city, and in much of France – that Macron is running France for the benefit of the rich and for his own aggrandizement.

Even in Paris, where we can assume that Macron will lead the polls with a healthy majority, he doesn’t seem to command much affection.

But there’s also a familiar adage about the presidential election: in the final round, people vote for the candidate they hate the least. And in Paris, it’s often Macron.

Jean Claude Vasset said Marine Le Pen's arguments have improved.
Picture:
Jean Claude Vasset said Marine Le Pen’s arguments have improved.

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“He is for the rich. He says he is half left and half right, but he has made great gifts for the rich”, confides a Parisian passing through. “But I’m sure he will be the next president because it will be less horrible than Marine Le Pen.”

“I think Macron will win because he’s a brilliant young man, but I don’t like him,” said another, as he strolled through a street market near Luxembourg Gardens.

A woman passing through the markets intervenes: “There are no words to say how much I don’t like Marine Le Pen. We have voted for the past 20 or 25 years to keep the far right out. They say they are different now. but they are not. They haven’t changed.

What has changed for the two politicians over the past five years?

Tonight, the two contenders will meet for a live televised debate. Five years ago, it was under studio lights that Le Pen’s campaign ended prematurely, as his edgy and unconvincing performance all but guaranteed Macron’s victory.

She learned the lessons. This time around, Le Pen and his team have put a lot more effort into the preparations, reflecting his attempts to soften both his image and his rhetoric.

Macron and Le Pen are both important and imposing figures on the French political scene. Macron created his own party to help him pursue his ambitions; Le Pen inherited a party from his father but has since kicked him out and changed his name.

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He attempted to redefine centrist politics while presenting himself as a great European leader; she did her best to make French nationalism an acceptable and dominant ambition.

Both have their staunch supporters; both have huge swaths of the country that can’t stand them. As with much of modern politics, this is a nation being asked to choose between divisive candidates.

The polls favor Macron, but we know that the polls can end up being deeply wrong and, as you stand among the whirlwind of raw noise that follows Le Pen through the streets of this city, it is clear that she is tapping into a heady vein of discontent.

Whoever wins this election will have their work cut out for them.