Marine Le Pen, Kicking Off Her Campaign, Tries to Embody Credibility

PARIS — Marine Le Pen has long used fiery rhetoric and hard-hitting proposals to fight her way to power in France. But for her third presidential bid, she has struck an unusual tone: serenity.

On Saturday, Ms. Le Pen, a far-right leader, used social media to kick off the final stretch of her campaign with a 3.5-minute video speech intended to portray her as a credible and composed stateswoman. A large white scarf tied around her neck, she is pictured in the video strolling around the Louvre’s glass pyramid and speaking in a reassuring tone, her words accompanied by soft piano music.

“Faced with the dangers that await us and the challenges that lie ahead,” Ms. Le Pen said, “I call on you to follow the path of reason and of the heart.”

Her speech’s peaceful overtones were a direct response to the violent messaging put forth by Éric Zemmour, another far-right candidate, whose campaign launch video was riddled with clips of crumbling churches, burning cars and violent clashes with the police that projected an image of a chaotic France.

Mr. Zemmour has said he is running for president to “save” his country, which he portrays as assailed by Islam, immigration and leftist identity politics. By contrast, Ms. Le Pen’s video showed her surrounded by smiling people as she toured France, visiting businesses and port cities.

The stakes are high for Ms. Le Pen less than 100 days before the presidential election. After finishing in third place in the 2012 campaign and being defeated in the 2017 runoff by Emmanuel Macron, she hopes her third bid will be the winning one. To try to make that happen, she has bet on dropping the populist messaging that once characterized her, and has instead redoubled efforts to “un-demonize” her party, the National Rally, which has often been associated with flashes of antisemitism and xenophobia.

But fierce competition among right-wing candidates has eroded Ms. Le Pen’s early lead in the polls and has led many to wonder if she will always remain a long shot.

Ms. Le Pen’s video — set at the world-renowned Louvre museum, which was once the main residence of France’s kings — was also a way for her to revive a confrontation with Mr. Macron, who is widely expected to seek another term. In 2017, when he was president-elect, Mr. Macron delivered his victory speech in front of the same glass pyramid at the Louvre.

“Macron is the opponent,” said Philippe Olivier, a close aide to Ms. Le Pen and a member of the European Parliament. “That’s what the symbolic act of being at the Louvre is about.”

Until a few months ago, Ms. Le Pen was expected to be Mr. Macron’s main challenger, in a rematch of the 2017 vote. She has spent the past four years trying to foster her credibility and has worked to rebrand the National Rally’s extremist ideas as respectable.

Éric Zemmour, at his first campaign rally, last month in Villepinte, near Paris.Credit…Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA, via Shutterstock

Even as she has hewed to her party’s harsh nationalist, anti-immigrant vision, Ms. Le Pen has softened her longtime populist economic agenda by dropping a proposal to exit the eurozone and advocating more orthodox debt policies. She has also broadened her platform to include more day-to-day issues like energy prices, the theme of her campaign stop on Friday in Saint-Malo, in western France.

But two dark-horse candidates have emerged and have made the prospect of reaching a runoff with Mr. Macron more uncertain: Mr. Zemmour, a polarizing far-right polemicist who has seen a meteoric rise in the polls, and Valérie Pécresse, a center-right politician whose hard-line messaging on national security and immigration issues step on some of Ms. Le Pen’s own favorite campaign themes.

Recent polls show Ms. Le Pen and Ms. Pécresse running neck and neck in the first round of April’s election, with each expected to get about 17 percent of the vote. But that still puts them about 10 points behind the incumbent, Mr. Macron.

The biggest threat to Ms. Le Pen’s ambitions is Mr. Zemmour. Studies have shown that his full-throated promotion of reactionary ideas has cost her many potential voters, and some have said that the two far-right candidates could sabotage each other’s chances.

But Mr. Zemmour seems to have lost momentum in recent weeks — he now stands at 13 percent in the polls — and Ms. Pécresse has found herself cornered between Mr. Macron’s right-leaning policies and competitors who lean further right than she does.

Meanwhile, party divisions have made competition from the left, which in total accounts for barely a quarter of the vote, almost nonexistent. On Saturday, Christiane Taubira, a charismatic former Socialist justice minister, officially announced her bid and became the eighth left-wing candidate. She said she would participate in a citizens’ primary that has desperately tried to create unity on the left.

Valérie Pécresse, a center-right presidential candidate, this week in Argenteuil, a Paris suburb.Credit…Alain Jocard/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“In the end, it’s likely that both Pécresse and Zemmour have already reached the peak of their campaigns,” said Antoine Bristielle, the head of the polling department at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès research institute. He added that Ms. Le Pen had weathered competition fairly well by focusing her campaign on the working class, a segment of the electorate that Mr. Zemmour has failed to attract.

Mr. Bristielle and Mr. Olivier, Ms. Le Pen’s aide, also said that Mr. Zemmour’s radical messaging has had the unexpected effect of normalizing Ms. Le Pen’s ideas, indirectly fueling her longstanding strategy to sanitize the National Rally’s image.

Mr. Bristielle said recent polls showed that many right-wing voters, who in total represent about 50 percent of the electorate, would ultimately choose the candidate on the right most likely to win.

That is what Ms. Le Pen, should she pull ahead in the polls, is betting on.

Mr. Zemmour, by appealing to a conservative bourgeois electorate that has long balked at voting for a populist candidate, is building up “a reserve of votes for the second round” that could ultimately turn to Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Olivier said.

“In the end, I think Zemmour is positive for us,” he added.

For Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Bristielle said, “having Zemmour by her side to provide her with a pool of votes, and on top of that, to make her a normal, less transgressive candidate — that can be beneficial.”

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