Marine Le Pen: Can a Sputtering Economy and Fears of ISIS Lift Her into the Élysée Palace?

Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen, French National Front candidate for the French 2017 presidential election, attends a news conference in Paris on April 21. Le Pen wants a "Frexit," but the EU's real threats are further east. Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Updated | The town of Caumont-Sur-Durance in southern France was quiet on a recent Saturday night. Shops were closed, the streets were empty, and a few elderly men sat sipping beers at the local bar, scratching at lottery cards or placing bets on the horse race on television. But inside the town hall, where a meeting for the far-right National Front party had just finished, the atmosphere was euphoric. “Marine gets me shaking,” said Monique Zaouchkevitch of the party’s charismatic leader, Marine Le Pen. A former president of the Red Cross in the nearby town of Cavaillon, Zaouchkevitch had never followed politics until she heard Le Pen speak. “The people of France have been forgotten,” she said. “But Marine, she’s close to the people.”

Nearby, Jean Truffen, an 80-year-old army veteran, was proudly showing off his collection of National Front membership cards, all featuring Le Pen’s smiling face. “I’m not ashamed. I voted for Jean-Marie. Now, I’m voting for Marine,” he said, referring to Le Pen’s father, who ran the party until 2011. “My future is behind me, but I’m voting for the future of France.”

The energy around Le Pen is palpable, particularly in France’s southeast. Some supporters are hesitant, at first, to admit they are voting for a party with a reputation for xenophobia. Anita, who was packing up her store at a Sunday market in the town of Sorgues, wouldn’t give her last name, afraid that if people knew which candidate she’d chosen, it could hurt her business. “I’m voting for Marine,” she said.

On April 23, that enthusiasm got Le Pen 21.4 percent of the vote, enough to qualify for a runoff on May 7. Her strong showing marked the first time since World War II that neither France’s center-right nor its socialist left advanced to the second round of a presidential election. This remarkable shift has set up a battle for not only the future of France but the future of Europe as well. The favorite, Emmanuel Macron, is a hope-and-change centrist who inspires the kind of youthful energy that got Barack Obama elected: A committed globalist, Macron wants the country to remain in the European Union and pledges to be “the president of all French people.”

Le Pen, on the other hand, is a nationalist who vows to fight globalization, close off the country’s borders and take France out of the EU. Macron’s lead is substantial, but Le Pen’s base is energized, and as the French economy continues to sputter and fears of Islamist militants grow, it may be too soon to discount her chances—especially after the shocking victories of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the Brexit campaign in Great Britain.

Related: Key takeaways from the first round of the French elections

“Marine Le Pen has by far the most stable and committed support base,” says James Shields, a professor of French politics at Birmingham’s Aston University. “Her challenge now will be to build a grand coalition from supporters of eliminated candidates.”

So far, those candidates—Socialist Benoît Hamon and Republican François Fillon—have rallied around Macron, who capitalized on the country’s frustration with the status quo. A former economy minister under President François Hollande, he broke away to form his own political movement, En Marche! (On the Move!), and defines himself as neither right nor left. "The two political parties that have governed France for years have been discarded," he said in a speech on April 23. Polls show him defeating Le Pen by over 20 points in the second round, a far wider gap than Trump or the Brexit campaign ever had to face. When you factor in the widespread dislike for the National Front among most French voters, Macron’s victory seems almost assured.

But Shields says Le Pen could also benefit from the collapse of the traditional left-right divide, pitting her protectionist economic agenda and hard-right stance on immigration against Macron’s liberal, globalist message. “A social appeal to the right and an economic appeal to the left is what Le Pen hopes would be a winning formula against Macron,” he says.