Compared to her defensive position during the final — it was also the only — debate of the French presidential campaign, Marine Le Pen’s last speech, at a rally of her supporters in her northern circonscription (district) in Arras, was a rousing success.
“Peuple de France,” she intoned, “the hour is nigh! Send the bill to those who have despised you and speak to them, ‘You have wronged us and lied to us! You have abandoned us and undermined and ruined us. But now it is our turn: we are sending you packing!’”
Good Lord, pure Huey Long (with a Gallic accent). The woman has it! But why, one cannot help but ask, did she not use these Joan of Arc accents when she faced Emmanuel Macron Wednesday night on TV?
After all, was this not the whole idea? Was this not what her rival on the national Right, Éric Zemmour, was saying before he was beaten in the first round, and the reason she feared his draining her votes?
“People of France,” she continued, “rise up against those who disdain our civilization, who have run down history and our culture, our traditions, and who see an inevitable migratory inundation on our horizon.”
These are the kinds of fighting words for which her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front in the 1970s, was renowned. He never stood a serious chance of coming to power given the grip on French politics of the mainstream parties of center-left and center-right and the hold the communists still had back then on the working class. But he was widely feared — or respected — as the best orator in France, wielding in turn rapier and cannon to get his point across while leaving his opponents shell-shocked.
Neither the prez nor the challenger expressed more than token concern for busting the French budget beyond all hope of repair.
Whether this flight of rhetoric left the incumbent, Emanuel Macron, shell-shocked has not been reported, and it is not clear at press time whether he will avail himself of the last hours of the campaign to reply to her tricolor war cry. And the smart money still says a Le Pen cannot reach the peak of power in France. The consensus following Wednesday’s debate was that he has squashed her on substance, posing with calm seriousness as the best chance for France in difficult times, a European who is by no means interested in jettisoning French sovereignty, a tough-minded executive who made tough-minded choices in impossible situations — virus epidemic, budgetary squeezes, and now war in the Continent’s east.
Neither the prez nor the challenger expressed more than token concern for busting the French budget beyond all hope of repair, as they tossed promises of more free money around as if it were confetti. M. Macron gave the impression he was hewing to the centrist keep-the-ship-afloat while somehow finding ways to make ends meet. Mme. Le Pen said he would do it on the backs of the French people. Then she promised a no-end-in-sight spending (or handouts) spree (families! teachers’ pay! pensions!).
Given that the French are largely inured to these kinds of airy promises, M. Macron played it safe by keeping his tone on an essentially technocratic level. It at least made him appear serious. By making big promises without even the appearance of a solid plan, Mme. Le Pen, by contrast, seemed out of her depth, though not as badly as five years ago when they had the same exchange.
This might have simply blown over an electorate bored by these economic abstractions that are never followed through. Where Mme. Le Pen seems to have slipped, however, and this is what the next day’s big rally showed, was in doing her best to downplay her warnings about a flood of migrants. She tried to do this by attacking the president’s distinction between Islam and Islamism. This is an issue that ought to be debated and discussed, and she could have said more forcefully that his sophistries were inadequate. Instead she let him denounce her as an anti-religious bigot. (READ MORE from Roger Kaplan: French Prepare for Election)
A day can be a long time in politics, and it is impossible to gauge, especially from afar, how persuasive M. Macron was in defining his opponent as a dangerous xenophobe beholden to Vladimir Putin who would turn her back on nearly three-quarters of a century of liberal democratic, centrist, Atlanticist governance. He does not deny this Western trend, undergirded by a welfare safety net, is never able to deliver all it promises. But, he asks, would you trade it for tyrannical statist alternatives?
Many French voters are inclined to take a dim view of liberal democracy. They view it as serving the purposes of technocratic, finance-manipulating elites. The votes of the national Right parties and the radical change parties approach 50 percent of those cast.
If M. Macron holds the line Sunday, he will have his work cut out for him to show that France can be France, herself, while remaining anchored in the patterns followed, broadly, by all Western democracies since World War II. And his close call, if that is what it turns out to be, may be seen as a warning signal that the West needs some blood and sinew, bone and muscle, to keep its peoples’ allegiance.
“Peuple de France, hold the banner of liberty, arise! Keep the faith, defend your past and — especially — your future!” Those were her words, not his.