France after Macron: can anything stop Marine Le Pen?

Analysts believe the far-right leader may be the biggest political beneficiary of popular fury over President Macron’s pension reforms

Marine Le Pen
Le Pen has been in a ‘cheerful mood’ recently and speaking confidently about her electoral chances
(Image credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

Major cities across France have erupted in protest and riots in recent weeks after President Emmanuel Macron pushed a highly controversial reform of the pension system through parliament, leaving many political analysts speculating that France may be about to lurch dramatically right or left come the next election.

Barred by the French constitution from campaigning for a third term, Macron will bow out in 2027, creating “a power vacuum” that leaders from across the political spectrum will be “itching to fill”, said Politico, among them the three-time presidential contender Marine Le Pen.

Certainly the 54-year-old leader of the right-wing populist Rassemblement National (RN) has been in a “cheerful mood” recently, said Spiegel International, speaking confidently about her electoral chances.

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Addressing journalists this week, Le Pen said: “And when I become president of the republic, I will replace this reform with our pension reform. And it will be a fair reform.”

What did the papers say?

Campaigning for re-election to the presidency last year, Macron pledged to address the major criticism levelled at him throughout his first term that he was “an authoritarian president who acted alone”, said French journalist Marion Van Renterghem in the New European. His slogans at the second outing were “Nous tous” (“We all”) and “Avec vous” (“With you”).

Yet less than a year into his new term, Macron has pushed through hugely unpopular pension reforms via the “ultimate political sin”, according to Van Renterghem, of utilising Article 49.3 of the constitution, which allows the president to act without parliamentary approval.

The upshot, said Van Renterghem, is that French democracy “has run out of steam” and it is the far right and the far left who are “benefiting the most from the shambles.”

“Chillingly, the party that is staying calm and waiting for a wave of disaffected militants to join them is Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella’s Rassemblement National,” she added.

Despite having been beaten twice in run-offs for the Élysée Palace, Le Pen “has enhanced her stature as France’s president-in-waiting”, agreed The Times.

The key to her success has been her work in detoxifying her party’s image, said Politico, primarily by “ditching the ‘National Front’ party name that was associated with her Holocaust-minimising father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, but also by “placing [herself] at the centre of the action against the pension reform”.

And while she hasn’t yet announced her candidacy, Édouard Philippe, who served as Macron’s first prime minister, said Le Pen is now the clear favourite to win the next presidential election in 2027. Since losing to Macron last year, “she has pulled ahead with her normalisation”, Philippe said.

What next?

What happens next “is hard to predict”, said Sky News. Macron “will be hoping the wave of protests fades but it’s also possible the chaos of protests and strikes gains even greater momentum and carries on for months”.

Electorally speaking, Macron’s pension reforms are doing harm not only to his own party, but to all centrists in France, said Foreign Policy.

“By potentially turbocharging more extremist views – far-right leader Marine Le Pen is the biggest political beneficiary of the popular fury at Macron – the pension fight might also undermine centrist parties like Macron’s in the European Parliament, which is due to hold elections next year,” the magazine said.

According to the latest polls, Le Pen is the figure that best embodies the opposition to Macron’s reforms, closely followed by leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. More than 60% of those surveyed believe Le Pen is emerging from this crisis stronger than before.

With his unpopular reforms, Macron has “lit a fire and blocked all the exits”, quipped Mélenchon this week.

Some have speculated that Le Pen’s previous failed presidential bids may have damaged her future electoral chances, but this analysis is flawed, said The Times.

Le Pen has “no rivals of her political stature” and so is in “a strong position to follow in the footsteps of France’s two most popular presidents since Charles de Gaulle: François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac”, the paper said.

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.