Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Telegraph, April 10, 2022
Emmanuel Macron did everything within his power to engineer a run-off election against Marine Le Pen. He should have been careful what he wished for.
Le Pen has a fair chance of scooping up the neglected constituency of the old left, and that could swing the final outcome on April 24. Her economic agenda is a celebration of the welfare state and the French social model.
She backed the protest of trade unions against the reform of the pension system in 2019, and again last year over the weakening of unemployment protection, describing President Macron’s policies as “shameful, economically stupid, inhumane, and unjust”.
Her plan is a mix of Keynesian big spending and redistribution towards the working poor and young families, those suffering an erosion of real living standards long before commodity inflation hit them with a hammer blow.
She has married left-wing economics with law-and-order nationalism to make a very potent political brew.
“She is a woman of the left. All her reflexes are of the left,” said rival Eric Zemmour, who pushed a radically different form of populist capitalism, aiming his fire at the suffocating tyranny of the French tax system. To lump them together misunderstands the political topography of France.
Le Pen’s plan includes an income tax exemption for the under-30s and low-interest loans of up to €100,000 for couples starting a family, with debt wiped clean if they have three children. She proposes free public transport for young workers and tax-free overtime pay for the proletariat.
She wants to keep the retirement age at 60 for the less privileged who left school early and have put in 40 years of hard labour. She wants to reindex pensions to rising inflation, raise the minimum to €1,000 a month.
She is targeting that large segment of society damaged by global wage arbitrage and by the wealth inequalities of quantitative easing. These are the little people neglected by Mr Macron, an Enarque and Rothschild banker, who kicked off his term in office by abolishing the wealth tax.
Gilles Ivaldi from the National Centre of Scientific Research says she bet early and hard on social populism and the cost of living crisis, speaking to a forgotten “fragile France”. The gamble has paid off.
Macron thought he could coast through this election, deeming himself too busy with the affairs of the world to bother with the hustings. He seems to have assumed that it was enough to keep painting Le Pen and her Rassemblement National as the unreconstructed face of the xenophobic extremism, taking it for granted that voters on the left would have to back him again come what may.
Many will, of course. But this description of Le Pen has lost traction in deep France. The Élysée has been strangely slow to see the danger of her pastoral style of campaigning, and her new, carefully cultivated image as the matron of the nation, photographed with her six cats (she has just got her breeding licence).
What you pick up loudly on the street is the unforgiving hatred for Macron among that large, amorphous social strata loosely known as the gilets jaunes, or among those who wince at his cockiness and grandstanding self-importance.
A chunk of the 20pc Corbynista vote for Jean-Luc Melenchon will gravitate to Le Pen in the run-off on April 24. Less clear is how much of the intellectual bourgeois left or the green youth movement will abstain rather than vote again for the man who fooled them in 2017 with a false prospectus.
They thought he was at least leftish. But as made ferociously clear in The Traitor and the Abyss by two Le Monde journalists, the Socialist Party was just his stepping stone to power.
Le Pen has been turning her party into a statist, anti-globalist, defender of the Modèle Français ever since taking charge in 2011. It had to “walk on two legs”, she said. It could never gain power on an anti-immigration ticket alone.
This was her way to detoxify (dédiaboliser) the brand, accompanied by a purge of anti-Semites and Vichy nostalgics left from the original Front National.
Broadcaster Eric Zemmour made this task easier for her by taking over the ideological fringes of the far-right, even to the point of rehabilitating Marshal Pétain, an odd button to press for an Algerian-born Jew. Zemmour has made her look respectable.
Le Pen has stuck doggedly to her bread-and-butter script, resisting the urge to fight the culture war even when part of her base seemed to be drifting away, and when the press was writing her off.
The Institut Montaigne thinks her economic plan would cost a net €105bn a year. It is obviously untenable for a country that already has Club Med levels of public debt and almost the highest structural budget deficit in the OECD. But austerity is out of fashion. The pandemic reflex of “whatever it costs” has made it hard to close the floodgates again.
Macron himself has been prime-pumping the economy with €50bn or more of electoral hand-outs. He has capped the rise in electricity prices to 4pc, for rich and poor alike, at a high cost for the French state. It is an energy consumption subsidy, obliterating the price signal when the imperative is to curb the wastage of power.
Yet it is Le Pen who is making most of the cost-of-living shock. It is paradoxical that she should be the beneficiary of an upset caused in part by the invasion of Ukraine, given her ties to Vladimir Putin. But unlike Zemmour, or Donald Trump, she has been quick to see the perils of that association. She has backed the open-door policy for Ukrainian refugees.
The issue is in any case blurred by Macron’s own dealings with Putin, both the decision to host him at presidential summer retreat at Fort Bregancon, and by continuing to legitimise the Russian dictator with biweekly chats even as war crimes accumulate. If Macron tries to play the Kremlin card in the forthcoming televised debate, she will hurl the card straight back at him.
Le Pen has not abandoned her right-wing policies on immigration, nor her defence of France’s cultural terroir. She remains a nationalist to the core, and an implacable foe of Jean Monnet’s European project. She will endeavour to undermine the primacy of EU law and the hegemony of the Commission from within.
One might argue that her agenda smacks of national socialism, but there is no mileage in trying to evoke loose parallels with the 1930s. Le Pen is competing at the ballot box and under the rule of law. Nobody suggests that she plans a 1933 Enabling Act or a French police state once inside the Élysée Palace.
Her ideological enemies are Anglo-Saxon globalist capitalism and the EU superstate in equal measure. It is a Gallic view of the world, through and through. That is why it is so tricky for Macron to counter.