ITV News Europe Editor James Mates reports on the French presidential election and how close Marine Le Pen is, as the race enters its final stage.
One last rally, one more push for a prize that she and her father have sought for almost four decades. Marine Le Pen will almost certainly lose on Sunday – the polls have given President Emmanuel Macron a consistent 10-12 point lead – but she will have got closer to the Elysée than many in Europe are finding at all comfortable. Last night’s televised debate was realistically her last chance. She did significantly better than in the same debate against the same opponent five years ago, but slugging out a technical draw was nothing like enough. She needed to win and to win big. Le Pen had a much better target to aim at this time. Macron has been in office for five years and has a record to defend. But Macron wasn’t playing defence – he immediately attacked her party, her connections and her policies, forcing the challenger onto the defensive for much of the two-hour 45 minute encounter. “Madame Le Pen, Madame Le Pen, Madame Le Pen, are you joking or what?” Asked the president at one stage as she spelled out her policies to reform Europe “from the inside”, to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves and to cut VAT on petrol and diesel from 20% to 5.5%.
Many of these policies are quite popular in France, but to be taken seriously one must also be honest about the trade-offs, and it was here that Macron scored points On Ukraine and her relationship with Vladimir Putin, Le Pen was on very weak ground. Yes, she has backpedalled hard on her previous admiration for Putin, but her party took a €9 million loan from a Russian bank close to the Kremlin back in 2015 and is still repaying it. “You depend on Mr Putin,” said Macron early in the debate. “You are not in a position to defend French interests because your interests are linked to people close to the Russian state. You speak to your banker when you speak to Russia." Tonight, in the last big set-piece of the campaign, she is addressing the party faithful in the town of Arras, part of her northern heartland. They know that defeat is probable, but that with each successive election the far-right gets closer to power.
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20 years ago her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned France by making it to the second round run-off against Jacques Chirac, but once there he won barely 18% of the vote. Five years ago Marine almost doubled that to 34%. This time she’s headed for 45% if the polls are right. Clearly the French are getting very close to thinking that a far-right president would be just fine. And in five years time? There will be no Emmanuel Macron because term-limits prevent a third term of office. The traditional Gaullist and Socialist parties are in a state of total collapse, their candidates winning just 7% of the vote between them in the first round. In 2027 Marine Le Pen will be just 58-years-old, and no one would bet against her running again.
The centre ground in French politics is going to have to sort itself out in the next five years, or at least find someone with the electoral appeal of Emmanuel Macron, if a likely defeat for Le Pen and the National Rally on Sunday isn’t to be just another step on the road to eventual victory.