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OPINION: French riots make a Le Pen presidency inevitable? I doubt it

John Lichfield
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OPINION: French riots make a Le Pen presidency inevitable? I doubt it
Leader of the French far-right Rassemblement National Marine Le Pen delivers a speech in parliament. Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

As the French right and far-right rush to make political capital from the recent riots, John Lichfield looks at the reasons why Marine Le Pen could become president in 2027, and the reasons why she won't.


And the winner of the 2023 French riots is…Marine Le Pen.

Does that mean - as a growing drumbeat in France and abroad suggests - that this crafty, shallow, incompetent woman is a certainty/shoo-in/ the great favourite to become the next President of the Republic in 2027?

I doubt it. I could assemble an argument why Le Pen might win. I could also assemble an argument why she will NOT win.

I am more persuaded by the second argument but I’ll try to set out both versions as fairly as I can.


First, here are the reasons why France will elect its first far-right leader since 1944 in four years’ time.

Even before the worst ever riots in France’s multi-racial suburbs, Le Pen had cashed in on President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular pension reform by saying not very much. One opinion poll in April suggested that she would win the second round of the 2022 presidential election by 55 percent to 45 percent if the vote was re-run.

France may not be a two-party state like the US or the UK but Le Pen has become de facto (in the absence of anyone else) the Leader of the Opposition. When Macron is down, she is up.

France is a country which detests its leaders and changes them at most opportunities. After three unsuccessful attempts, it should be Le Pen’s turn to win in 2027. Macron cannot run again; the Left is scattered (again); the centre-right is tiny and divided; Macron’s consensual, reformist, pro-European centre will be rejected by many on the Right and Left by association with Macron.

In the last year, Le Pen has craftily nurtured a more consensual image as Mother of the Nation. She has moderated her language. She has stood aside as President of the Rassemblement National for a plausible young man with boy-band good looks who performs the racist nods and winks on her behalf.

Le Pen’s large group of 88 deputies in the National Assembly has given her party new visibility and respectability. She has ordered her followers to work hard and avoid xenophobic outbursts to give the impression of a party of government-in-waiting.

And that was before the riots which began two weeks ago after a 17-year-old Franco-Algerian boy was shot dead by a traffic policeman in Nanterre, west of Paris. The riots were disgraceful, unjustified and self-harming. They had many causes. There are no easy solutions to the problems of police violence or the alienation and brutality of part (not all) of another generation in the multi-racial banlieues surrounding French towns and cities.

The French far right and large parts of the supposedly moderate centre-right refuses any complexity. They have plunged in the last two weeks into a joyous orgy of racial - and ultimately racist - explanations.

The Senate leader of the centre-right Les Républicains, the piously Catholic Bruno Retailleau, said 90 percent of the rioters might have been French-born but they had “regressed to their ethnic origins”.


Le Pen’s rival Far Right leader, Eric Zemmour, speaks of the start of a “racial and religious civil war”.

(Fact check: there are 6,000,000 people in the banlieues. About 8,000 people, maybe one in 20 of the teenage boys and young men, were involved in the five days of riots.)

Many senior members of Le Pen’s parties made similar remarks - suggesting that core issues were the race and religion of residents of the banlieues which were incompatible with France and “French values”.

There was, however, one exception: Marine Le Pen herself. She has made few public statements. She has made no visits to stricken banlieues or riot-damaged small towns. She has avoided the rhetorical escalation of the Zemmouristes and the Républicains and some of her own lieutenants.

Instead, she has circulated a would-be presidential video in which she speaks before a French flag, calling for a return to “Republican order”. While much of the centre-right makes a Gadarene charge towards racism, Marine has posed as a woman of caution; a safe-pair-of-hands, a President-in-waiting.


Some of her leading supporters are grumbling in private that she is being too soft. She has left the open goals to Zemmour and Les Républicains, they say.

Le Pen takes the view that some goals are so open that they don’t need to be scored.

That is the case for a President Le Pen.

Now here are the reasons why she will lose again in 2027.

The French political battlefield remains divided three ways between a radical Left, a reformist, pro-European Centre and a populist-nationalist Right.

Le Pen’s problem is the same as it was last year. Where does she get the votes above the 50 percent needed to win in a two-candidate second round?

She will almost certainly reach the run-off again for a third time; she may even top the first-round poll. If Macron was running again, mass abstention on the Left might just see her home. If she were confronted with a radical Left opponent, she might win.

But, given the poisonous divisions on the Left, her second-round opponent is likely to be another centrist candidate: possibly the former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, possibly the current finance minister Bruno Le Maire, possibly U.N. Autre (Jean Castex anyone?)


Without Macron in the race, more left-wingers will vote for a centrist candidate in Round Two to “block” the Far Right and Le Pen.

As she has discovered twice already, you can reach Round Two by being Opponent-in-Chief; you cannot become President without a coherent platform for government.

Le Pen’s past ties with Putin’s Russia, including loans to her perennially cash-strapped party, remain a potential vote-loser. But her greatest handicap is a muddled economic programme. Macron humiliated her on economic issues in the televised debates between the two candidates in both 2017 and 2022.

Le Pen’s offer has not changed since then, because it cannot change without ripping apart her unnatural coalition of populist leftism and populist rightism: more state spending and lower taxes.

She remains committed to reducing the retirement age to 60 for people who started work in their teens or 20s, without explaining how that could be funded. She has dumped her father’s pledge to leave the EU but much of her programme - including national preference and aids to industry - would infringe EU law.

To win in 2027, Le Pen needs: a self-defeating civil-war between would-be successors to Macron in the Centre; and a second-round contest between herself and Jean-Luc Mélenchon or some other candidate of the radical Left.

It might just happen. Far more likely, it won’t.

All predictions four years out are foolish but here goes anyway. There never will be a President Marine Le Pen.


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Anonymous 2023/07/14 16:46
She's got my vote.
Bryan Woy 2023/07/11 22:58
As usual, a well-argued, perceptive article. Let's hope you're right.
Anonymous 2023/07/11 13:24
Another excellent analysis - thank you. And reassuring!

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