Will Marine Le Pen pull a 'Trump-like' surprise in French election?
In less than 24 hours, French voters will go to the polls to choose a new president. All campaigning was suspended on Friday both because of the terror attack in Paris on Thursday and election law which prevents any campaigning 48 hours before the vote.
The latest polls strongly suggest that anti-immigrant, anti-terrorism candidate Marine Le Pen has benefitted slightly from the attack in Paris that killed a policeman and wounded two others. Newsweek reports that she received about a 1 point boost while the 3 other major candidates fell back a bit. She seems to have cemented her position as one of the top two candidates who will move on to the second round of presidential voting on May 7.
But with a third of French voters undecided, might Le Pen experience the kind of surge of support that Donald Trump got in the last few days of the American presidential election campaign?
Newsweek found many voters saying in the run-up to Sunday's election that they were leaning towards Le Pen -- which would parallel the surge for Trump last year among undecided voters and supporters who chose to lay low.
André Robert, 56, said her tough stance on terror convinced him. “I’m voting for the candidate who’ll keep us safe.”
“Marine gets me shaking,” 65-year-old Monique Zaouchkevitch said, adding that she'd stayed out of politics until she heard Le Pen speak. “Marine, she’s close to the people.”
In another parallel to the U.S., some voters seemed to suffer from election fatigue and weren't blown away by any of the candidates. Gabriel Roberoir, a 61-year-old former public servant, called the election a “circus,” adding, “I don’t even know why any of them are running.”
Sunday's vote is the first round in the French elections, with the top two candidates advancing to a winner-take-all runoff on May 7. The high-stakes contest is viewed as something of a vote on the future of the European Union, with Le Pen calling for a referendum on France's membership in the bloc.
Conservative former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, whose campaign was initially derailed by corruption allegations that his wife was paid as his parliamentary aide, also appeared to be closing the gap, as was far-leftist, Jean-Luc Melenchon. Campaigning by the 11 presidential candidates got off to a slow start, bogged down by corruption charges around once-top candidate Fillon before belatedly switching focus to France's biggest fear: a new attack.
Le Pen has also echoed some of Trump's hard-line rhetoric on immigration, calling for hardening French borders to stanch what she describes as an out-of-control flow of immigrants.
She has spoken of radical Muslims trying to supplant France's Judeo-Christian heritage and, among other measures, has called for foreigners suspected of extremism to be expelled from the country.
Le Pen, a 48-year-old mother of three, has distanced herself from her father, National Front party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been convicted of crimes related to anti-Semitism and mocked the Holocaust as a "detail" of history.
The stink of anti-Semitism on the National Front is still prevalant thanks to a media who never lets the voter forget who Le Pen's father was. But Le Pen has condemned her father's positions and most voters see her as her own candidate, unencumbered by her father's fringe past. But Le Pen committed a gaffe last month when she claimed that France had no part in rounding up Jews for Nazi Germany. In fact, Vichy France was very helpful to the Nazis in sending Jews to the death camps.
The worry for her supporters today is that she is overplaying her hand when it comes to terrorism:
But French political expert Bruno Cautres from the Cevipof think tank says the impact on voters will be minimal.
“I don’t think it will change much at this late stage,” Cautres told The Local. “The campaign has been running for months now and most voters know the candidates they will vote for.”
Cautres accepted however it could reinforce those undecided voters who were tempted to vote for either Marine Le Pen or François Fillon.
The danger for Marine Le Pen is that she could face a backlash if, as she has done in the past, she tries to make political gain so soon after the distressing killing of a French policeman.
“She cannot give the impression she is trying to profit from this,” Cautres said. “Candidates would have to show they are the ones who can unite French people and bring them together.”
All the polls show Macron winning a runoff with Le Pen with ease. But it's still possible that Le Pen could square off against the Communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in which case the polls show the contest too close to call. Both are anti-EU candidates, which appeals to a large swath of younger, working class voters. In fact, the anti-EU vote could very well add up to a strong plurality on Sunday.
The bottom line: Don't be surprised if Le Pen shocks the establishment with a bigger win in the first round of voting than expected.