It was hardly the speech one would expect from one of the most prominent right-wing extremist leaders in Europe, known for his crusade against globalism and immigration, whose potential to win the French presidency in a re-election on April 24 has rattled capitals over the whole continent. .
Macron finishes ahead of Le Pen in the first round of the French election
The decision to hold one of her most important rallies in a left-wing stronghold, located in The Vaucluse region, which tends to favor right-wing extremist candidates, encapsulates the strategy it follows in the days leading up to the election. Her narrow path to victory against centrist Macron will depend on her ability to fight abstinence among her most likely supporters in Vaucluse and other right-wing extremist bastions, but also to make inroads in cities like Avignon.
Left-wing voters in Avignon and across the country hold “the key to the second round,” said Emmanuel Rivière, director of international polling at Kantar Public, a data analytics firm. The notion that Le Pen has a chance to attract significant support on the left shows how far she has come from the last presidential election five years ago, when Macron united a “Republican front” against her and beat her by more than 30 points in a runoff.
Le Pen operates a platform that is in many ways as radical as it was five years ago and in some cases even more extreme. The candidate, who refused to wear a headscarf in Lebanon in 2017, doubled her position last week by saying her government would fine women for wearing a headscarf in public in France.
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But unlike 2017, she has adopted a milder rhetoric, emphasized economic issues over concerns about radical Islam, and suggested she wants to change the French political system from within instead of blowing it up.
While calling for a massive reduction in immigration to France five years ago, she now wants to hold a referendum on immigration, making her proposal less vulnerable to a wave of legal challenges, but leaving no doubt as to what result Le Pen would campaign.
She has also stopped talking about abandoning the euro or leaving the EU. But she still wants to put an end to the primacy of EU law, for example by introducing preferential treatment for French citizens seeking jobs, even though EU law requires all EU citizens to be treated equally.
The key question when voters go to the polls on April 24 will be how many people will find the new variant of Le Pen a more acceptable choice than in 2017.
Opinion polls suggest the answer is quite few. The number of French people who say they would never vote for Le Pen has fallen by 10 percent over the past five years. And while Macron has accused Le Pen of continuing to promote “racist” ideas, voters do not associate her with xenophobia as much as they used to, according to a Kantar Public poll earlier this year.
Marine Valette, 23, said she would never have considered voting for Le Pen five years ago when she considered her “rude” and strongly disagreed with her immigration proposal. Instead, Valette said she left her voice blank.
But she had come to the event in Avignon on Thursday to reconsider that stance. Le Pen “has taken a step back and realized that there were things people did not agree on,” Valette said, citing the proposal for a referendum on migration rather than a direct ban.
On stage Thursday, dressed in a red blazer with a white blouse in front of a blue screen, Le Pen seamlessly switched between references to “diversity” or national unity and her nationalist proposals. “Let’s be pragmatic,” she said before speaking out against the EU institutions, saying they had their chance and missed it.
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She mentioned only a little about immigrants. The enemy she kept returning to again and again, raising her voice and changing her tone, was Macron. His name was greeted with loud mockery from the crowd of around 4,000, a response that at times seemed more emotional than the applause of Le Pen.
Bruno Décoret, 74, said: “Macron is in the process of murdering France, he locked us up for two months, will force us to be vaccinated and will take possession of our bodies. For now Marine Le Pen is our only means. “
Décoret said he noticed that Le Pen was relatively reticent in her public comments on immigration, but he trusted that it was part of her election strategy and that she would limit immigration when she was in office. “She’s much closer to the people these days,” he said.
Le Pen has tried to varying degrees to moderate her image since she took over her party from her father. Jean Marie Le Pen is a polarizing figure who called Nazi gas chambers just a “detail” of World War II. His daughter changed the name of the party, from National Front to National Rally, and transformed it from a toxic fringe movement.
Her strategy seems to be most successful in attracting sections of the electorate, “who are in great difficulty and where anti-elite sentiments are flourishing,” said Christèle Lagier, a political scientist at Avignon University.
Around the circular auditorium in Avignon, Le Pen’s face was pasted on posters with the slogan “give the French their money back.” Avignon attracts tourists from all over the world to the city squares and the palace that once served as the papal residence.
But behind the facades, the city is also one of the poorest places in the South of France, with a poverty rate exceeding 60 percent in some parts of the city. Voters’ primary concerns here in recent weeks have centered on the economy and a perception that Macron has failed to deal with rising inequalities.
In the first round of elections, far-left candidate Jean Luc Mélenchon won the city with 37 percent of the vote in Avignon. Macron came in second with 20 percent. But the overall right-wing extremist vote, split between Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, came in at 27 percent.
At the national level, Macron remains a leader in the drain. But his advantage has shrunk to about six points, far closer than in the weeks leading up to the end of 2017.
Submit questions for discussion on the French election on Monday
Frustration with the established power is typical in French politics. But his narrow lead also reflects that an increasing number of Frenchmen, including some on the left, appear willing to give Le Pen the benefit of the doubt.
In Avignon, Kim Caritoux, 24, said she has been split between Mélenchon and Le Pen. “I really struggled between the two,” she said. “They are both for an equal distribution of wealth.”
Outside the Le Pen rally on Thursday, a small group of protesters observed the crowd from a distance. “It’s horrible to come here and see how many people showed up for her,” said Mohammed, a 25-year-old student who declined to disclose her last name because protests near the venue had been banned in advance.
He said he feared Le Pen could establish a “segregationist system and a system that would destroy freedom.” But he would not say whether he would vote for Macron.