Will Marine Le Pen's Front National provide Europe with its next big political shock?

 
Mark Sands
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French Presidential Elections - The Launch Of The Marine Le Pen Campaign
France will vote in the first round of the presidential election on 23 April (Source: Getty)

With Marine Le Pen’s hard-right Front National leading the polls just over two months away from France’s presidential election, some have already marked May in their calendars as the next political shock in Europe.

Is the result a foregone conclusion and what does it all mean for the UK in any case?

Polling Day

France heads to the polls on 23 April for the first round of the election, which will choose the final two candidates for a face-off on 7 May.

Incumbent Francois Hollande, a socialist, is so unpopular that he has declared he will not seek re-election, with the final two likely to be chosen from three leading candidates: Le Pen, the centre-right Les Republicans candidate Francois Fillon and the relative novice Emmanuel Macron, who heads the centrist En Marche movement.

An OpinionWay poll this weekend had Macron and Fillon tied at 20 per cent, behind Le Pen on 26 per cent.

A separate IFOP poll also had the two Frenchmen tied on 18.5 per cent.

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“[Le Pen] is likely to get the larger share of the vote in the first round,” said Economist Intelligence Unit European analyst Emily Mansfield.

However, she maintains a final victory for Le Pen is not on the cards, forecasting that centrist voters will band together against the far-right candidate.

Stanhope Capital reached similar conclusions in an investment note issued last week: “Our central case is that Marine Le Pen will do well in the first round of the election on the 23 April but will fade in the run-off vote on the 7 May with her deeply divided Front National party losing support against more acceptable, fresh candidates like the independent Macron.”

Known Unknowns

Of Fillon and Macron, it is the latter who represents the greatest unknown.

Although he served as economy minister under Hollande, Macron’s presidential bid represents the first time he will have sought elected office, with the former banker keen to brand En Marche as a movement, rather than a traditional party.

Macron is expected to present a pro-business agenda, although he will not publish a full policy platform until 2 March, meaning he still represents a little-known figure in some eyes.

However, he is likely to have to engage with the two critical policy areas dominating the election debate so far: security and the economy.

And with French unemployment sitting at around 10 per cent, plans to get the country working again will be crucial.

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For the centre-right Republicans, Fillon has taken a tough economic stance, with some comparing his early plans to Margaret Thatcher.

But, Mansfield said: “He has realised that he is not going to get elected saying that he is going to cut half a million public sector jobs, and Fillon is already watering that down.”

As for Le Pen, the Front National launched its manifesto earlier this month, with promises to renegotiate France’s relationship with the EU over six months, before holding a referendum on membership.

“One of the Front National’s aims is for the EU to agree to ditch the euro, a probability of success which we consider to be about as realistic as hell freezing over. Hence the likely result is that an Front National-led French government would campaign for a ‘leave’ vote,” said Investec analyst Philip Shaw.

He added: “We consider it unlikely that the Front National will score a victory that leads Mme Le Pen to the Elysee. And even if that were to happen, the necessary hurdles to leave the EU might well prove insurmountable.”

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Bad for Brexit

With Brexit looming, is there a candidate that would work well with Theresa May’s government? Mansfield suggests not.

“If she did come to power, suddenly the focus in Brussels would shift away from the UK to making sure that that there was no further ruptures,” she said. “Le Pen would encourage the other European countries to close ranks and be even tougher on both France and the UK.”

Separately, Macron has already promised to be “tough” on Britain when it comes to negotiations, while Fillon has promised to “pressure” the UK on its deadline for Brexit, leading some to suspect the Eurosceptic Le Pen could bring positive side-effects.

“There’s a sense that France needs to be firm with the UK. They don’t want the UK to suffer, but they do want the UK to suffer the consequences of leaving the EU because that should help to quell the rise of Euroscepticism both in France and elsewhere,” Mansfield said.

“Unfortunately that means there’s not too much hope of a good outcome for the UK from these elections.”

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