How Marine Le Pen Threatens to Upend French Elections

STIRING-WENDEL, France — Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader making her third bid to become president of France, already had the backing of voters who came to hear her recently in Stiring-Wendel, a former mining town in coal that fights to reinvent itself.

But after a 40-minute speech that focused on the rising cost of living, Ms Le Pen managed to do what even some of her supporters would have anticipated just a few months ago: impress them. Voters walking out of an auditorium into the cold night said she had become “less extreme,” more “mature” and “confident,” even “presidential.”

“She has softened, she is more composed, calmer, more collected,” said Yohan Brun, 19, a student who grew up in Stiring-Wendel and had come to listen to Ms. Le Pen because “she cares more about the French. than the other candidates.

But more importantly, he has consciously sanded down the rough edges of his personality in an effort to appear more presidential and voter-friendly.

The makeover is part of a long and deliberate strategy by Ms Le Pen to “demonize” herself and her party and ultimately win the French presidency. While her effort remains unconvincing to many who consider her a wolf in sheep’s clothing, she has managed to give him a last-minute boost in the polls ahead of Sunday’s election that worries Macron’s camp.

“Marine Le Pen seems more understanding than Emmanuel Macron,” said Pierre Person, a national lawmaker from the president’s party, adding that he was worried she might win.

Ms. Le Pen had learned to speak directly to working-class French people by showing a simple life not unlike the life her own supporters lead, said Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Radical Politics Observatory and an expert on the Party of the Ms. Le Pen, National Grouping.

“The question is whether it sounds fake or real,” Camus said. “And to me, she sounds real.”

It has also convinced some voters.

“Many people are scared when they are told they will leave Europe,” said Kurt Mehlinger, a former miner who attended the rally with his wife, Christiane Mehlinger, referring to Le Pen’s earlier proposals to leave the eurozone, which she left behind. fall. few years ago. “We feel more comfortable with their current platform.”

The perception of Ms Le Pen has certainly been helped by the contrast with Éric Zemmour, a television pundit and rival in the race, who managed to overtake her on the far right, where previously few thought there was much room left for a politician. looking to break into the mainstream.

It has even acted as a lightning rod for past far-right praise of Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin, allowing Le Pen to reposition herself by being firm against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sympathetic to fleeing refugees. from the war.

That juxtaposition has left Ms Le Pen appearing as the most presentable and acceptable far-right candidate, although it is unclear how much actually separates them.

Ms Le Pen has dropped her opposition to dual citizenship, a long-standing core position of the far right. But she still wants to make it more difficult to become French and reserve social services for the French. She wants to reduce taxes for the French by cutting services to immigrants. She wants to make it illegal for Muslims to wear headscarves or other face coverings in public, even though she recently took a selfie with a teenager wearing a.

“She is looking to broaden her electoral base while maintaining the core of her program,” Camus said.

Still, the changes mark some evolution for Ms. Le Pen and her party, which had long been identified with her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an anti-Semitic firebrand whose politics were shaped by war and colonial history. France.

Back then, she was seen as a “war machine,” “a charging bull,” an “ideologue,” “not very human” and acting according to “political logic,” Olivier said. And she had always refused to talk about her private life because she felt that she and her siblings had suffered personally because of her father’s political career.

“She was reticent,” Olivier said, adding that before a recent speech in which she spoke about herself, she said she had “thought about it all day.”

But recently it has opened up: about the lasting trauma of the apparently politically motivated bombing of his childhood home in Paris; of losing friends whose parents were afraid to let them play with a Le Pen; of not being able to maintain a legal career due to his radioactive name.

Her relations remain complicated with her father, who last year publicly flirted with the idea of ​​supporting Zemmour over his own daughter and even remarried in a religious ceremony that Le Pen learned about only through the media. media.

Ms Le Pen has also warmed to her love of cats, which she breeds. In the fall, she sat down for an Oprah-style TV interview at her house, accompanied by her cats and her roommate, a childhood friend. Her mother, with whom she was separated for 15 years, spoke excitedly about her daughter.

He earned positive reviews last month for his performance on a popular political and entertainment show. She seemed comfortable in her own skin, and even revealed that she had been without romantic commitments for the last three years and that, as president, she would live in the Elysee Palace with only her cats.

For voters in Stiring-Wendel, a town of 12,000 on the German border, Le Pen’s proposals to cut energy taxes and crack down on crime sounded favourable.

The city became a far-right stronghold after mines began closing in the region more than a generation ago. People talk about life before and after the mines: about the young men who left, the laid-off miners who drank themselves to premature death, and about the town’s main shopping street, where the last bookstore recently closed.

“You see, every two or three stores, there is a store that is closed,” Olivier Fegel, a 55-year-old trucker whose father was a miner, said in the city center a few hours before Ms Le Pen’s campaign. . stop.

At her pet grooming shop, Karine Barth said her business had been struggling lately due to rising fuel prices. “She would bring order to the country,” said Ms. Barth, 43, as she shaved a Pomeranian. “There are too many foreigners in our country.”

Ms. Le Pen’s emphasis on pocketbook issues was a tactic that has paid off. Robert Ménard, a far-right mayor who supports Le Pen and is a longtime acquaintance of Zemmour, said he dined with Le Pen this year when his poll numbers were plummeting.

“Of course she was worried,” Ménard recalled, adding that some of her lieutenants were urging her to imitate Zemmour’s hard line on immigration and crime.

Ménard said he ignored the calls and decided to stick to pocket matters.

“That’s when everything was hanging by a thread,” he said.

Ms. Le Pen’s decision to stick to the economy, rising cost of living and weakening voters’ purchasing power proved prophetic as fuel and other prices soared with the war in Ukraine.

“I will be the president of real life and, above all, of her purchasing power,” Ms. Le Pen said to loud applause at Stiring-Wendel.

Tellingly, however, the loudest applause came after his attacks on what he described as “anarchic immigration” that was “fueling crime and ruining our social services,” as well as putting France at risk of “secession.” internal and civil discord.

“A stranger who comes to our house will not take advantage of our hospitality and will respect the French,” he said.

For Vincent Vullo, a rare Macron supporter who had come to listen to Ms Le Pen, those words were “hard-core racism” and further proof that she really hadn’t changed.

“She is a liar, she wants us to believe that she has settled down and is more moderate and less racist than before,” said Vullo, 62. “It’s just her trying to get into the second round.”

But getting back to the cost of living, Ms. Le Pen reminded the audience that when she publicly made it her priority in the fall, some treated the subject sarcastically. Macron, she said, was held captive by globalized elites like McKinsey and other well-paid, politically irresponsible consultants.

“The people must rise up against the elite bloc, against the oligarchy personified by Emmanuel Macron,” he said, adding: “We will win.”

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