(Bloomberg) -- Emmanuel Macron has handed his far-right rival Marine Le Pen her best shot yet to cement a position in the center of French politics and she’s struggling to take advantage.
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Le Pen’s advisers identified the wave of anger unleashed by Macron’s pension reform as a moment when the 54-year-old could consolidate a reputation as a serious alternative to the president’s technocratic elitism.
They drafted plans to showcase her party’s ideas on policy in the National Assembly and reassure left-wing voters who could hold the key to another presidential bid. But the old problems that have dogged her career won’t go away.
In recent weeks, she’s had to explain yet again her links to violent extremists and faced fresh questions about her past endorsements of Vladimir Putin, she’s been snubbed by the international allies who might lend her credibility and seen a new rival on the left emerge to capture the attention of disenchanted voters — all culminating in a renewed assault on her policies.
“This party hasn’t proposed a single solution to people’s concerns,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, a potential presidential successor to Macron, told France Inter radio. “They wanted to exit the euro: The euro saved us from the Covid crisis. They wanted an alliance with Russia: Russia attacked Ukraine. They proposed cutting VAT: It’s completely ineffective.”
Le Pen’s popularity, meanwhile, has stalled at 37%, according to an Ifop poll for Paris Match and Sud Radio, showing no progress from the level she was at in December before Macron laid out the details of his plan to rein in French voters’ pension entitlements.
Le Pen’s latest set of problems came into sharp focus last week.
She had opted to appear before a parliamentary committee looking into foreign interference in politics and business in an attempt to reset the narrative on her past ties to Russia. Le Pen started out combative, insisting that the whole French establishment has been sympathetic to Putin’s arguments even after he seized the Crimea in 2014.
But after three hours of questioning, she grew increasingly rattled. She couldn’t give details of a National Rally lawmaker’s trip to Russia in 2020, she couldn’t account for allegations that her election funding was linked to the Kremlin, and she couldn’t explain why her party had been given a generous timetable to repay a 2014 loan from a Czech-Russian bank.
The supposed reset was becoming more of a familiar story. And to compound the problem, an investigation by Le Monde showed her party still has contractual ties in Brussels to a violent ultra-right student group.
That report revived memories of the openly racist incarnation of the French nationalist movement that was founded by her father in the 1970s. She also faced accusations that her associates had joined a neo-Nazi march in Paris.
Le Pen has strongly denied being close to the ultra-right, arguing she has cut ties to some of her former associates and saying Macron’s government should have banned the march, which she called intolerable.
Elsewhere in Europe, Giorgia Meloni has successfully executed the pivot that Le Pen is trying to pull off.
Meloni won election in Italy last year after repackaging her far-right movement to combine hardline conservative views on social issues like LGBTQ families and immigration with a more orthodox economic policy. One European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said her approach to the European Union had made the far-right look increasingly responsible and acceptable.
But Meloni isn’t ready to endorse Le Pen — despite her own beef with Macron.
The new president of Le Pen’s party, Jordan Bardella, traveled to Rome in April and didn’t meet with anyone from Meloni’s team. His spokesperson said this was planned as the National Rally’s partner in Italy is a smaller nationalist group, the League.
To be sure, Le Pen has established a bridgehead in French politics after twice reaching the presidential runoff against Macron, and there are signs that the anger at the president is making some people more receptive to the nationalist and others less likely to vote simply to block her.
During an anti-Macron Labor Day protest in Montbard in eastern France on May 1, retired social security worker Françoise Lassalle said she’d had enough of the president after backing him twice to keep Le Pen out.
“He’s treating us like we’re filth,” she said. “I can’t do it anymore. If they want the blond lady to win power, then so be it.”
Since taking the helm of her father’s party in 2011, Le Pen has insisted more on social welfare and the need to woo modest voters disappointed by the left after the Socialists were all but wiped out by Macron’s rise.
“Macron said that if his government doesn’t respond to the concerns of the French, they won’t be able to block the RN,” Le Pen said in a recent interview on Sud Radio. “That seems obvious to me: If there was no insecurity in our country, if wages were high enough to live on, if public services were working, if our industry was booming, yes, of course, even I would go fishing.”
To capitalize on the pensions controversy, she’s promising to allow people who started work early to retire at 60 if they’ve worked for 40 years, a measure that will capture more blue-collar workers than white-collar.
“I consider her to be an intelligent political adversary,” far-left France Unbowed lawmaker Francois Ruffin told Bloomberg. “She now belongs to a party of people who think. That’s a force to reckon with.”
But potential 2027 election rivals like Ruffin are also cherry-picking elements of her rhetoric to make their own case to voters. Echoing Le Pen’s claims to have moderated her position, Ruffin brands himself a “social-democrat” and a force of “order and stability” in contrast to the months of pension unrest. An Ifop poll of 1,020 people this week for Paris Match showed he’s well-liked across the left, including 73% of Socialists and two-thirds of Greens.
Ruffin acknowledged some overlap between the electorate he’s targeting and Le Pen’s, but he argues that she will fall down when confronted with a more comprehensive pitch to blue-collar voters.
“If you scrutinize her program, she doesn’t provide answers on labor, short-term contracts, internships, fair wages, ecology or democracy,” he said. “It’s quite empty.”
--With assistance from Ainhoa Goyeneche.
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