Analysis

How Le Pen Could Pull Off the Perfect Storm in France

France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen may find herself facing an opponent in the second round whom voters find just as repulsive

Marine Le Pen is framed by fireworks as she attends a political rally in Chateauroux, France, March 11, 2017.
CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS

The virtual tie in the polling results prior to Sunday’s French presidential election eliminated any chance of predicting how the vote will unfold, especially after recent events called into question the use of polling data to forecast actual results at the voting booth. 

Recent developments in the French campaign, however, have increased the prospect of a perfect storm for National Front leader Marine Le Pen and the possibility that the incomprehensible could actually happen: The leader of the extreme right may be on a direct path to the French presidency.  

What mainly paved the way for U.S. President Donald Trump to move into the White House was that he faced an opponent who symbolized everything rotten about the establishment. Before the election, the assumption had been that both Democrats and independents who abhorred Hillary Clinton would hold their noses and turn out at the polls for her to prevent a racist reality show star from taking the presidency. But it turned out that no fewer Republican voters held their noses and turned out to vote against Clinton, who in their view represented all that was wrong with Washington.

The developments of the past several days in France raise concern that the results in Sunday’s first voting round will place Le Pen in the second and final round in another two weeks. That scenario would put her face-to-face with a candidate whose establishment character and corruption make Clinton look as refreshing and innovative as former U.S. President Barack Obama during his campaign in 2008. 

Right winger Francois Fillon began the French campaign as the leading candidate, but got tripped up in allegations of irregularities (to put it mildly) in his handling of public funds and of receiving favors that turned him into a caricature of a corrupt politician. He headed off his campaign’s collapse to a great extent thanks to support from the establishment and from many of the country’s wealthy business figures. One can only imagine what went through the minds of voters who were fed up with corruption when Fillon came out on top in the final debate of the campaign on Thursday, without even having to answer the tough questions about the major suspicions attributed to him.

Despite all of the troubles, Fillon’s campaign has taken on momentum and he began rising above his fourth-place berth along with far-left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The terrorist attack on the Champs Elysees four days before the vote could give Fillon the additional margin to move ahead of centrist Emmanuel Macron and into the second round against Le Pen, for whom the shooting of police officers in the heart of Paris is an electoral asset. If Fillon does move to the second round, Le Pen will be facing a candidate for whom the voters would hold their noses to no less an extent than if they voted for her. 

Fillon’s advantage in the polls over Le Pen (about ten percent, which is less significant than for her two other possible opponents in the second round) could turn out to be another statistical mirage of the current era. While that involves just one possible scenario among six that could result in Sunday’s voting in the first round, the daughter of a Holocaust denier taking up residence in the Elysee Palace looks more plausible than ever in the wake of all the other surprises that have shaken global politics over the past year.

True, it is possible that, like in the Dutch election, the shock over the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the chaotic nature of the Trump administration could stop Le Pen in her tracks and return French voters to the center. But if she, in fact, does make it to the second round, it’s worth remembering that even in the face of her two other possible opponents, who appear to be ahead of her by margins of 20 percent or more one-on-one, a terrorist attack carried out by ISIS sympathizers could boost Le Pen’s hopes sky high.