Analysis

Le Pen Launches a Guerrilla War Unprecedented in French Politics

But her rival Macron's bumbling paradoxically works in his favor

A protester throws flour at French CRS anti-riot police officers during a demonstration against both presidential candidates,  Nantes, western France, on April 27, 2017
JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP

PARIS - Here’s Emmanuel Macron washing his hands. The photograph, taken after he picked up a swordfish at the Rungis wholesale market in Paris, created no interest at all on social media. And here he is, less than an hour later, in the exact same photo, but this time with the caption: “Emmanuel Macron washes his hands after shaking hands with striking workers in Amiens.” The photo goes viral, with thousands of shares among supporters of the far-right National Front, and bolsters the claim of the party's candidate Marine Le Pen that Macron is the big money candidate who scorns workers and the little guys.

Welcome to round two of the presidential election in France, in which no event is as it appears, nothing happens the way it's expected and no pollster is prepared to commit to a winner. It took Macron’s team three hours to issue a denial that he had washed his hands after they touched the skin of workers – after all, it is necessary to confirm the facts, locate the original photo and select the tone for the response. An average of six to eight false news items about Macron were published each hour this week.

Marine Le Pen miscalculated with her campaign in the first round: The strategy of lulling the race to sleep in order to enable her election to the presidency in the first round crumbled and left her trailing Macron, in second place and without a clear statement or a significant expansion of her electoral base beyond her faithful National Front. However, she bounced back: Just two hours after the results were in, when Macron was celebrating his victory at Brasserie La Rotonde in the fashionable Montparnasse neighborhood, Le Pen had already embarked on a guerilla war unprecedented in French politics.

It wasn't just unheard-of tactics, but also substance: Within hours Le Pen had taken off her mask and abandoned the "I am not an anti-Semite, I love Israel" pose that had characterized her over the past year. She appointed an academic Holocaust denier as the chairman of her movement (“I don’t actually deny the Holocaust, but I am skeptical. A chemist told me that it is impossible to kill a great many people with Zyklon B”) . She dismissed him two days later, but kept on the movement's treasurer even after it turned out he had celebrated Hitler’s birthday on Facebook. She sent her deputy to condemn the United States’ attack on Syria and cast doubt on that it was Assad who had used chemical weapons.

She also thoroughly wiped the respectable democratic expression off her face. In 24 hours she managed to trigger the dismissal of a public radio journalist who signed a feminist petition against the National Front, refused to answer questions she doesn’t like (among others, about suspicions that she has embezzled 5 million euros of European Parliament funds), and sent activists to bust up rallies of Macron supporters.

However, most of Le Pen’s work has been devoted to expanding the number of voters who prefer to stay home on May 7 rather than choose between her and Macron. She is applying massive pressure to supporters of far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon with the aim of persuading them to abstain from voting in the second round. Her activists have initiated demonstrations of high school students with the slogan “Without Marine and without Macron, without a banker and without a patron.”

French presidential election candidate for the En Marche ! movement Emmanuel Macron gestures as he visits a stable while campaigning on April 29, 2017 in Usseau near Poitiers, central France, ahead of the second and final round of the presidential elections which takes place on May 7.
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP

By some miracle, the Parisian demonstration spread like wildfire and on Thursday high schools in 20 different cities across France went out on strike with the same slogan, which supposedly protests the outcome of the first round but is intended to persuade leftists not to vote for Macron only as a means of stopping Le Pen.

Can these tactics succeed? The opinions of the pollsters are divided on this question but the formulation that has won broad agreement is this: If Le Pen convinces 30 percent of the classical right voters to stay home (in order not to support “a leftist who is François Hollande’s representative on earth,” as she defines him in this context), and if she convinces 50 percent of Mélenchon's voters to abstain (in order not to support a “banker who is pretending to be a socialist but is disgusted by contact with ordinary people,” in this context), then her share of the vote will soar from 44 to 51 percent and the lysée Palace is hers.

A 19th century French proverb says: “The majority is always right but what’s right never has a majority.” Will the Republican Front, a coalition from across the political spectrum united against the National Front, work this time, too? Only time will tell. The dynamic was against Macron this week. Perhaps it will only start working for him next week.

That’s how dynamics operate, certainly in France: Had Macron acted wisely this week, people would have formed the impression that his election is a sure thing and would allow themselves to go away for a long weekend without voting to block Le Pen. Paradoxically, it is precisely Macron’s bumbling that is working in his favor because it is arousing the fear that Le Pen could win.

The abstention rate in the recent presidential election in the United States was 46.6 percent. On the very reasonable assumption that in France 90 percent of Le Pen’s supporters will cast ballots, she needs 29 to 31 percent of all eligible voters to abstain in order to ensure her victory. The doctrinaire leftists of Mélenchon's camp have already given Le Pen a boost. So too has the very influential Socialist Mayor of Lille Martine Aubry, who is calling for blocking the National Front but is refusing to support Macron. The Gospel of Matthew says of Pontius Pilate: “He took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person" (Matthew 27:24). Le Pen’s people have proved this week that they understand the symbolic power of hand washing very well.

Youths walk behind a banner which reads'Neither Macron, Nor Le Pen - The Uprising is Now' at a protest in Nantes, France, April 27, 2017.
STEPHANE MAHE/REUTERS