STIRING-WENDEL, France – Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader who is making her third bid to become France’s president, already had the support of voters who came to listen to her recently in Stiring-Wendel, a struggling former mining town to reinvent themselves.
But after a 40-minute speech focused on the rising cost of living, Ms Le Pen managed to do what even a few of her supporters would have predicted just months ago: impress them. Voters emerging from an auditorium on the chilly evening said she had become ‘less extreme’, more ‘mature’ and ‘confident’ – even ‘presidential’.
“She has softened, she is more composed, calmer, more serene,” says Yohan Brun, 19, a student who grew up in Stiring-Wendel and had come to listen to Ms. Le Pen because “she cares more about the French “. than the other candidates.
But just as important, she consciously sanded off the rough edges of her personality in an effort to make herself appear more presidential and voter-friendly.
The makeover is part of a long and deliberate strategy by Ms Le Pen to “de-demonize” herself and her party, and ultimately win the French presidency. While the effort remains unconvincing for many who view her as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it has nonetheless managed to give her a last-minute push in the polls ahead of Sunday’s election which has Mr Macron’s camp worried. .
“Marine Le Pen appears more sympathetic than Emmanuel Macron,” said Pierre Person, a national lawmaker from the president’s party, adding that he feared she could win.
Ms Le Pen had learned to speak directly to working-class French people by presenting a simple life not so different from the life led by her own supporters, said Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Radical Politics and an expert in Party of Mrs. Le Pen, National Rally.
“The question is whether it sounds fake or real,” Mr. Camus said. “And to me, she seems real.”
She also won over some voters.
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Preparations for the first round of elections were dominated by issues such as security, immigration and national identity.
“A lot of people are scared when they are told they are going to leave Europe,” said Kurt Mehlinger, a former miner who attended the rally with his wife, Christiane Mehlinger, referring to Ms Le Pen’s past proposals to leave. the euro zone, which it has abandoned. few years ago. “We are more comfortable with its current platform.”
Ms Le Pen’s perception was no doubt helped by the contrast with TV pundit and rival in the race Éric Zemmour, who managed to outflank her to the far right, where few previously thought he was. there was plenty of room for a politician looking to break into the mainstream.
It even acted as a lightning rod for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s far-right past praise, allowing Ms Le Pen to reposition herself by being tough against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sympathetic towards refugees. fleeing the war.
This juxtaposition has left Ms Le Pen emerging as the most presentable and acceptable far-right candidate, though it is not clear that much actually separates them.
Ms Le Pen has dropped her opposition to dual nationality, a long-standing central position of the far right. But she still wants to make access to France more difficult and reserve social services for the French. She wants to reduce taxes for the French by cutting services to immigrants. She wants it illegal for Muslims to wear headscarves or other face coverings in public, even though she recently took a selfie with a teenager wearing one.
“She is seeking to broaden her electoral base while keeping the essence of her program,” said Mr. Camus.
Yet the changes mark a certain evolution for Ms Le Pen and her party, long identified with her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an anti-Semitic arsonist whose politics have been shaped by war and France’s colonial history.
At the time, she was seen as a “war machine”, “a charging bull”, an “ideologue”, “not very human” and acting according to “political logic”, Mr Olivier said. And she had always refused to talk about her private life because she felt that she and her siblings had personally suffered from their father’s political career.
“She was reluctant,” Mr Olivier said, adding that before a recent speech in which she spoke about herself, she said she had “thought about it all day”.
But recently she opened up – about the lasting trauma of the seemingly politically motivated bombing of her childhood home in Paris; to lose friends whose parents were afraid to let them play with a Le Pen; of failing to pursue a legal career because of his radioactive name.
His relationship remains complicated with his father, who last year publicly flirted with the idea of supporting Mr Zemmour rather than his own daughter and even remarried in a religious ceremony which Mrs Le Pen did not have. known only through the media.
Ms Le Pen also raved about her love of cats, which she raises. In the fall, she sat down at home for an Oprah TV interview, accompanied by her cats and her roommate, a childhood friend. Her mother, who she had been estranged from for 15 years, spoke fondly of her daughter.
She received positive reviews last month for her performance on a popular political and entertainment show. She seemed comfortable in her own skin, even revealing that she had been single for three years and that as president she would be living at the Élysée with just her cats.
For voters in Stiring-Wendel, a town of 12,000 on the border with Germany, Ms Le Pen’s proposals to cut energy taxes and crack down on crime sounded sympathetic.
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The campaign begins. French citizens will go to the polls in April to begin electing a president. Here is an overview of the candidates:
The town became a far-right stronghold after the area’s mines closed more than a generation ago. People talk about life before and after the mines – the young people who left, the laid-off miners who drunk themselves to an early death, and the town’s main shopping street, where the last bookstore recently closed.
“You see, every two or three stores, there is a storefront that is closed,” said Olivier Fegel, a 55-year-old truck driver whose father was a minor, in the city center, a few hours before the campaign for Ms Le Pen. . Stop.
At her pet grooming shop, Karine Barth said her business has been struggling lately due to rising fuel prices. “She would put the country in order,” said Ms Barth, 43, as she shaved a Pomeranian. “There are too many foreigners in our country.
Ms Le Pen’s focus on portfolio issues was a gamble that paid off. Robert Ménard, a far-right mayor who supports Ms Le Pen and is a longtime acquaintance of Mr Zemmour, said he had dined with Ms Le Pen this year as her polls plummeted.
“Of course she was worried,” Mr. Ménard recalls, adding that some of his lieutenants urged him to copy Mr. Zemmour’s hard line on immigration and crime.
Ms Ménard said she ignored the calls and decided to stick to wallet issues.
“That’s when it was all on the line,” he said.
Ms Le Pen’s decision to stick to the economy, the rising cost of living and weakening purchasing power of voters proved prescient as fuel prices and other prices rose. increased with the war in Ukraine.
“I will be the president of real life and, above all, of your purchasing power,” launched Ms. Le Pen to loud applause from Stiring-Wendel.
Tellingly, however, the loudest applause came after her attacks on what she described as “anarchic immigration” that “fueled crime and ruined our social services”, while putting France in danger of “secession internal and civil discord”.
“A foreigner who comes to us will not take advantage of our hospitality and will respect the French,” she said.
For Vincent Vullo, a rare Macron supporter who came to listen to Ms Le Pen, those words were “straightforward racism” and further proof that she had not really changed.
“She’s a liar – she wants us to believe she’s settled down and is more moderate and less racist than before,” said Mr Vullo, 62. “It’s just that she’s trying to get into the second round.”
But returning to the cost of living, Ms Le Pen reminded the audience that when she publicly made it her priority in the fall, some treated the subject sarcastically. Mr Macron, she said, was the captive of globalized elites like McKinsey and other highly paid and politically irresponsible consultants.
“The people must rise up against the bloc of elites, against the oligarchy personified by Emmanuel Macron,” she said, adding, “We will win.”