Le Pen lies in wait as Macron's pension reforms roil France

Le Pen lies in wait as Macron's pension reforms roil France


President Emmanuel Macron's proposal to raise minimum retirement age to 64 triggered demonstrations

Paris (AFP) – As violent protests sweep crisis-hit France, the prospect of far-right leader Marine Le Pen coming to power is being taken more seriously than ever -- to her evident delight. 

"At least I've succeeded in winning over my political opponents," she told AFP with a smile during an interview last week. "They seem to spend their lives telling everyone that I will be the next president.

"Now it's up to me to convince a majority of the country."

President Emmanuel Macron's proposal to raise the minimum retirement age to 64 has triggered the biggest demonstrations in a generation and a fierce backlash against the government and politicians in general.

Le Pen has condemned the change but has kept a low profile since January, seeking to project an image of sobriety compared with the government's raucous and outraged opponents on the hard-left.

While MPs from the France Unbowed (LFI) party have repeatedly broken parliamentary rules and backed protesters during the violent clashes, Le Pen's National Rally lawmakers have appeared disciplined in comparison.

The leader of Macron's party in parliament, Aurore Berge, complained last month that all Le Pen's MPs needed to do was "stay quiet and they look respectable".

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Thursday accused LFI leader Jean-Luc Melenchon "of making the election of Madame Le Pen possible".

While researching a new politics book entitled "We will have tried everything...", author and pollster Chloe Morin noted that "almost all" French politicians she spoke to said they feared Le Pen coming to power.

- Macron's nightmare? -

The prospect of the far-right leader succeeding Macron at the next election in 2027 is said by allies to keep the 45-year-old president awake at night.

He will be ineligible to run in 2027 after completing two terms.

"It's the issue that haunts Emmanuel," a senior lawmaker who knows the president well told AFP recently on condition of anonymity. "He doesn't talk about it, but he thinks about it."

Macron positioned himself as a bulwark against populism and far-right nationalism when he first ran for office in 2017, promising voters he would address the anti-elite anger that has fed support for the political extremes in France for decades.

Seeking a second term in April last year, the former investment banker used the same arguments again, but he defeated Le Pen by a much smaller margin of 58.5 percent to 41.45 percent, while abstentionism hit its highest level since 1969.

Le Pen welcomes the idea of disturbing Macron's dreams.

"I'm sorry if I feature like this in his nightmares," she told AFP with a laugh. "He's right to be worried. The way he is ruling will enable political forces with the exact opposite approach to his to gain power."

France 'governed against its wishes'
The twice-divorced former lawyer has run for president three times since taking over her father's National Front party in 2011.

Although always positioned as anti-immigration, tough on Islam and eurosceptic, she has moderated her message over the years and looked to banish overtly racist party figures from the public eye.

In last year's elections, she focused on the rising cost of living -- and was rewarded with her highest ever score in the presidential election and a 10-fold increase in MPs in the National Assembly.

Macron's decision to ram the pensions reform through parliament without a vote on March 16 -- a lawful but contested move -- has also given Le Pen the chance to revive other parts of her long-standing pitch to voters.

She has proposed a referendum to settle the pension reform argument and, if elected, promises to organise other votes on issues ranging from immigration to electoral law.

"France is not an ungovernable country. It's a country that has been governed against its wishes," Le Pen said in the interview.

Big winner?

Opinion polls underscore the pro-Le Pen dynamics underway in French politics -- but need to be interpreted with care, experts say.

She is currently slightly more popular than Macron, but the margin is small.

Thirty percent of respondents had a positive view of the president, according to a poll this week from Odoxa, while 32 percent viewed Le Pen favourably.

She also lags behind Macron's first prime minister, Edouard Philippe, a conservative from northern France who is the country's most popular politician and is likely to run for president in 2027.

Other polls show that if Macron were to dissolve the hung parliament, Le Pen's party would be the biggest winner.

Some experts warn against jumping to conclusions about her prospects, however, given that she still unsettles many people and is perceived as weak on the economy as well as inconsistent on foreign policy.

"Everyone has lost (over the pensions reform), except for Marine Le Pen," concluded Stephane Zumsteeg, head of polling in France for the Ipsos group.

"She's continuing her work to improve her respectability, to institutionalise her party, to make it a constructive opposition. She's working on her policies," he told AFP.

"But we don't have a tangible sign at this point that she is the big winner from what's happening."