Author: NICHOLAS VINOCUR
PARIS — Marine Le Pen needs a perfect political storm to help her win the French presidency on Sunday.
She aims to provoke it by kicking up rage at her centrist rival, discouraging leftists from voting and winning over millions of disappointed conservatives by convincing them that her plans for the European Union are less worrying than they might think.
Le Pen knows that victory remains a long shot. Six days before the final vote, polls show her trailing rival Macron by 15 to 20 percentage points, a wider gap than the one separating Donald Trump from Hillary Clinton at this stage in the U.S. race. Le Pen needs to win over millions of new votes to win, a tough sell for a lifetime outsider. Most of the French don’t see it happening: just 15 percent see Le Pen as “la présidente,” according to an Ifop poll last week.
Whatever the odds, Le Pen will fight hard until the last minute. But she is also hoping for a nod from fate. One major chance for Le Pen to change the race’s dynamic is a live debate Wednesday when she plans to “expose” her rival as a banker working against France.
Here is a guide to Le Pen’s strategy for the final days.
1. A final sprint with a clearer message
Le Pen campaigned ahead of the election’s first round on the idea that she was offering voters a binary choice between “economic patriotism” over unbridled globalization.
The problem was that the message was lost on many of her core voters. Le Pen bled support for the first three months of the year. Her first-round score of around 21 percent came in several percentage points below what polls were predicting for her last January.
The analysis by her party’s own experts reportedly showed that the choice between globalization and economic patriotism — free trade and open borders versus Le Pen’s plans for withdrawal from trade agreements and more border restrictions — presented a too-abstract choice and one significantly misinterpreted by the party’s core supporters, made up of working class voters, party officials told POLITICO. Some missed the precise meaning of globalization and misunderstood “economic patriotism” as meaning that Le Pen meant rolling back checks and balances in the French Republic.
Enter a much simpler message: Le Pen is the candidate who will protect the French.
Devised by Le Pen’s strategic campaign committee and chief polling analyst Damien Philippot (the brother of influential party VP Florian Philippot), it’s an ultra-simple idea that can appeal to both right- and left-wing voters.
“We needed something that got to everyone,” said Bertrand Dutheil de la Rochère, a senior campaign aide. “She has to talk to the left and the right at the same time. But she can’t ask left-wingers to switch off the TV while she talks to the right, so we came up with protection.”
“It’s the same message as before — but simpler. And it speaks to everyone because first and foremost the French want to be protected by the state against competition, against terrorism, against mass immigration.”
Addressing supporters in Villepinte near Paris Sunday, Le Pen vowed to be the “president who protects” French citizens, “notably women,” but also the environment, national borders and “the solidarity that exists between all French people.” The message, tailored for mass appeal, is a departure from earlier speeches that emphasized a clash with Brussels and targeted Macron — whom she called “the candidate of finance.”
2. Convince conservatives to stop worrying
The protection message is similar to the argument that former President Nicolas Sarkozy made during his failed 2012 bid for reelection — and that may not be a coincidence.
Sarkozy remains popular among conservatives, particularly in the south where Le Pen has room to grow. She knows that many conservatives who backed François Fillon in the first round miss Sarkozy. So Le Pen is giving them Sarkozy with a side of nationalism by co-opting his message. She is also emphasizing campaign proposals that “Sarko” fans will remember: arming municipal cops and changing engagement rules so police can shoot first at perceived threats.
The Sarkozy-signalling is part of a broader plan to sweep up undecided conservatives. Le Pen is set to inherit about 30 percent of votes for Fillon versus 41 percent of Fillon votes going to Macron. Thirty percent of Fillon voters remain undecided.
To win them over, Le Pen is trying to address — very late in the game — their biggest fear about her program: the fact that she wants to hold a referendum on French membership of the EU and revert to the French currency in the event of a Leave result. It’s a turnoff for anyone who has assets and doesn’t want to see them devalued by currency depreciation.
Le Pen knows this. “Some conservatives are anxious about leaving the eurozone,” Jérome Rivière, a former conservative MP who switched over to Le Pen’s camp and now sits on her strategic campaign committee, told POLITICO in Nice. So Le Pen is dialing back her anti-EU rhetoric as fast as she can and even named a man who never fully embraced the idea of a “Frexit,” the defeated conservative independent Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, as her potential prime minister.
Bringing Dupont-Aignan on board in exchange for the PM post (in addition to who knows what enticements — he owes millions of euros in campaign costs that will not be reimbursed by the state) was a major gesture of openness for the leader of a party renowned for its insularity and family leadership.
It could make her seem less radioactive to regular conservatives, but it’s also a recipe for confusion. Dupont-Aignan said when asked about the euro that France would take a year to leave, versus six months in the party literature. Popular Le Pen niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen sees a departure from the eurozone even further out — not before three years.
Marine Le Pen aides promise further endorsements. “There will be more, I can’t give names,” said Dutheil de la Rochère. But endorsements don’t mean huge injections of voting intentions necessarily. Only 38 percent of Dupont-Aignan’s backers are joining Le Pen versus 30 percent heading over to Macron.
Le Pen needs to keep scouring the electorate for votes.
3. Persuade far-left voters to sit out the next round
Le Pen styles herself as the “people’s candidate” but she knows she has more to gain from conservatives than left-wingers.
Only 15 percent of people who voted for the far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon plan to back Le Pen in the final round. Any hope of growing that share got doused when Mélenchon told his backers last Sunday to steer clear of Le Pen. “I tell all those who are listening to me: Do not make the terrible mistake of putting a vote for the National Front into the ballot box because you will be pushing the country toward a general blaze that could lead anywhere,” he said after days of sitting on the fence.
So Le Pen’s campaign team is focusing on getting millions of Mélenchon supporters, similar to Bernie Sanders’ people in the U.S., to abstain in the final election round.
She is already getting plenty of help from the so-called “neither-nor” movement that sprung up in the wake of Mélenchon’s defeat. It’s based on the 36 percent of Mélenchon backers who are undecided and oppose both Le Pen and Macron for president.
Le Pen wants to fuel their hatred of Macron, regardless of whether they back her. As a result, she is turning up the heat on her rival, slamming him as a “narcissistic” banker, a product of unpopular President François Hollande and a nasty capitalist bent on waging “lightning war” on workers’ rights.
Her campaign is also circulating a leaflet that aims to suppress potential support for Macron. Listing points of agreement between Le Pen and Mélenchon especially on social issues, it concludes with the following message: “Don’t vote for Macron.”
The suppression tactic echoes Trump’s campaign strategy. By targeting potential Hillary Clinton supporters with negative material in crucial states, the Republican candidate swung the vote in his direction. Le Pen wants to do the same.
French physicist Serge Galam — who predicted Trump’s victory and argues that a Le Pen victory is more likely than the polls suggest — says the technique can be effective. Le Pen would need a turnout rate among her potential supporters of 90 percent versus 70 percent for Macron in order to win, regardless of his advance in the polls. But Macron’s voters are getting more committed, not less — bad news for Le Pen.
4. Bet on more Macron mistakes. Win live TV debate
Neophyte campaigner Macron flubbed the start of his second-round campaign.
After delivering a tonally-challenged speech, he sped off to a celebrity-packed dinner, giving off an air of inappropriate triumphalism. He then waltzed into a Le Pen trap at a Whirlpool factory set for closure in northern France, where she snapped smiling selfies with workers in the parking lot while he sweated through tense exchanges with officials by the exit.
Le Pen’s campaign is hoping for more such easy wins in the final days of the campaign.
“These errors are better than a lot of speeches to show that, on one side, you have a candidate who is close to workers and, on the other, a banker who has nothing to offer but more de-industrialization,” said Jean-Lin Lacapelle, who is in charge of Le Pen’s ground operation. “I think the best thing for Macron to do between rounds is nothing at all because every time he makes a move he makes a mistake.”
The ground operation to defeat Macron is ongoing. But senior aides say the big showdown will be a live debate on Wednesday. “The door-to-door stuff is great for local elections but this is about big TV moments,” said Dutheil de la Rochère. “That’s when people are going to make up their minds.”
The one-on-one is a first for both candidates — and it’s unpredictable. Macron can be boring on policy, but nasty on the attack. Le Pen is a born slugger, but she sometimes wobbles when attacked frontally.
The rivals are likely to try to inflict knockout blows by depicting each other as evil agendas incarnate. Le Pen will go after Macron as a ruthless capitalist bent on exploiting workers. Macron may remind French voters that Le Pen’s National Front party (she has stepped down temporarily from its leadership) counts Holocaust revisionists among its senior members and traces its roots back to Vichy France and French Algeria champions.
The party is not giving up any details about how Le Pen is preparing. “That’s a [company] secret,” said Dutheil de la Rochère.
5. Cross fingers — and hope for a ‘Black Swan’ event
Le Pen started to believe she could win the presidential election around the time Fillon started to collapse under the weight of repeated scandals, party officials said.
But senior aides aren’t necessarily convinced. “I’m like you. I see the polls. It’s going to be difficult,” said one.
Absent a clear path to victory, there is still a chance that a “Black Swan” event could tilt the election in her favor.
One possibility is a dump of compromising documents on Macron as a result of a hack of his campaign communications not unlike what befell Clinton’s campaign just before the November election. His staffers’ email accounts are under constant “phishing” attacks and the group reportedly responsible for most of the attacks is the same Russian outfit that went after Clinton’s emails, according to web analytics firm Trend Micro.
Macron’s cyber security chief says no hack has been successful. The campaign took extraordinary measures to secure its communications, including a protocol to change all passwords simultaneously at the suggestion of a breach.
But 100 percent security is, of course, an illusion. An undetected breach could still yield documents in the final stretch. Anything to show collusion between Macron and the deeply unpopular Hollande would be damaging as would financial ties to Wall Street.
A terrorist attack could also shift the electoral mood.
Pollsters said the shooting of an on-duty cop on the Champs Elysées four days before the first round barely influenced voter behavior. However, a more “unprecedented attack” could “make the French people reconsider their vote,” said Nicolas Lebourg, a historian specializing in the far right.
With the second round vote so close, no campaign official wanted to talk about terror attacks. A year and a half ago, however, the situation was different. When POLITICO asked a senior party aide what he thought it would take for her to prevail, he speculated “Ten more terrorist attacks would probably put her in the Elysée.”
France has suffered a series of horrific incidents since then, including an attack in Nice that killed 86 people. On Sunday, the ballots will reveal if Le Pen’s message of “protection” resonates with French voters.