How Marine Le Pen Threatens to Upend French Elections

How Marine Le Pen Threatens to Upend French Elections

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

But after a 40-minute speech focusing on the rising cost of living, Ms. Le Pen succeeded in doing what even few of her supporters would have predicted just months ago: impressing them. Voters trickling out of an auditorium into the cold evening said she had become “less extreme,” more “mature” and “self-assured” — even “presidential.”

“She has softened, she is more composed, calmer, more serene,” 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 people than the other candidates.”

But as important, she has self-consciously sanded the rough edges off her persona in an effort to make herself appear more presidential and voter-friendly.

The makeover is part of a long and deliberate strategy by Ms. Le Pen to “undemonize” herself and her party, and ultimately gain the French presidency. While the effort remains unconvincing to many who consider her a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it has nonetheless succeeded in giving her a last-minute surge in the polls before Sunday’s election that is worrying Mr. Macron’s camp.

“Marine Le Pen appears more sympathetic than Emmanuel Macron,” said Pierre Person, a national lawmaker of the president’s party, adding that he was worried that she could win.

Ms. Le Pen had learned how to talk directly to working-class French people by showcasing a simple life not that different from the lives led by her own supporters, said Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Radical Politics and an expert on Ms. Le Pen’s party, National Rally.

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

She has convinced some voters, too.

“Many people are afraid 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 Ms. Le Pen’s past proposals to quit the eurozone, which she dropped a few years ago. “We’re more comfortable with her current platform.”

The perception of Ms. Le Pen has no doubt been helped by the contrast with Éric Zemmour, a television pundit and rival in the race, who managed to outflank her on the far right, where previously few had thought there was much room left for a politician seeking to enter the mainstream.

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

That juxtaposition has left Ms. Le Pen appearing as the more presentable and acceptable far-right candidate, though it is not clear that much actually separates them.

Ms. Le Pen has dropped her opposition to dual citizenship, a longstanding core position of the far right. But she still wants to make it harder to become French and to reserve social services for the French. She wants to cut taxes for the French by cutting services to immigrants. She wants to make it illegal for Muslims to wear head scarves or other face coverings in public, even though she recently took a selfie with a teenager who was wearing one.

“She’s looking to widen her electoral base while keeping the core of her program,” Mr. 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 antisemitic firebrand whose politics were shaped by France’s wartime and colonial history.

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

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

But recently she has opened up — about the lasting trauma of the apparently politically motivated bombing of her childhood home in Paris; of losing friends whose parents feared letting them play with a Le Pen; of failing to keep up a legal career because of her radioactive name.

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

Ms. Le Pen has also rhapsodized about her love of cats, which she breeds. In the fall, she sat for an Oprah-like television interview at her home, accompanied by her cats and her roommate, a childhood friend. Her mother, with whom she had been estranged for 15 years, spoke emotionally about her daughter.

She earned positive reviews last month for her performance on a popular political and entertainment show. She appeared comfortable in her own skin, even disclosing that she had been romantically unattached for the past three years and, as president, would live in the Élysée Palace with just her cats.

For voters in Stiring-Wendel, a town of 12,000 people on the border with Germany, Ms. Le Pen’s proposals to cut energy taxes and get tough on crime rang sympathetic.

The town 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 who left, the laid-off miners who drank themselves to premature deaths, and about the town’s main commercial street, where the last bookstore shut down recently.

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

At her pet grooming store, Karine Barth said that her business had been struggling lately because of a rise in 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 gambit that has paid off. Robert Ménard, a hard-right mayor who supports Ms. Le Pen and is a longtime acquaintance of Mr. Zemmour, said he had dinner this year with Ms. Le Pen as her poll numbers were plummeting.

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

Mr. Ménard said she ignored the calls and decided to stick to pocketbook issues.

“It’s at that moment when everything hung in the balance,” he said.

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

“I’ll be the president of real life and, above all, of your purchasing power,” Ms. Le Pen said to loud applause in Stiring-Wendel.

Tellingly, though, the loudest applause came after her attacks on what she described as an “anarchic immigration” that was “feeding crime and ruining our social services,” as well as putting France at risk of “internal secession and civil discord.”

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

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

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

But pivoting 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 topic sarcastically. Mr. Macron, she said, was the captive of globalized elites like McKinsey and other highly paid, politically unaccountable consultants.

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

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