PARIS — France’s presidential campaign is not over yet but followers of Marine Le Pen’s populist movement already have a bad case of political hangover.
Two days before Le Pen faces off against centrist Emmanuel Macron in a runoff, the far-right leader is still nominally working the campaign trail. In her last big event on Friday before a media blackout on political coverage kicks in, Le Pen urged a crowd of rural supporters in eastern France to vote for her on Sunday.
But even as Le Pen fires off her parting shots, morale in her camp is sinking. Polls show Macron beating Le Pen by at least 20 percentage points, an even wider gap than at the start of the second-round campaign.
For rank-and-file supporters, it’s increasingly clear that the dream of seeing French elites brought low and their champion hoisted into power is not going to come true. For staffers who devoted years to helping Le Pen reach power, frustration about how the campaign was led is starting to show.
It’s not yet the big settling of scores that is likely to start Monday, and gather steam after a June parliamentary election in which the National Front party is predicted by polls to win a handful of seats. Senior campaign aides are still spinning out the party line on radio and TV, namely that Le Pen has a chance of winning.
But off the record, on the sidelines and in far-right chatrooms, the pro-Le Pen camp is starting to let its disappointment show.
“Clearly, the job was not done properly,” said a National Front cadre who will be running for a parliament seat and agreed to talk about the campaign on the condition that he would not be named. “Some people ran the first 30 kilometers of the marathon and stopped running … We did not work enough, clearly.”
The deflated mood is in sharp contrast with the expansiveness of National Front aides 10 days ago, when their champion broke through into the presidential election’s final round.
Le Pen was going to ride a wave of popular outrage into the Elysée presidential palace by scooping up millions of disappointed right- and left-wing voters. Anyone who was not already convinced that Macron was a heartless investment banker would be convinced after a presidential debate that aides said was going to be the campaign’s real deciding factor, much more so than any fieldwork to convince new voters.
But then the debate happened and it was, according to polls conducted immediately afterward, a disaster for Le Pen. On the attack against Macron from the first minute, she failed to give the impression that the National Front had a serious plan to govern France and that she had the cool demeanor required for such a big job.
Vice President Florian Philippot went on TV to defend his boss, saying Le Pen had “dominated” the debate and “told the truth” about Macron.
But rank-and-file activists disagreed.
“The debate was fatal for her,” said the operator of a popular pro-Le Pen Twitter account. “Clearly we are disappointed and hoped for better.”
The tone was similar in the comment section of Fdesouche, a popular right-wing website that is often described as the National Front’s unofficial media wing.
“Anyone who was hesitating on the Marine vote was waiting for her to detail her program, when she wasted time on attacks on what had been done or not,” user Martelod posted.
Another user, Vive la France, added: “The showing was catastrophic from every point of view. … I am flabbergasted by the way Le Pen approached this debate. “I say that despite the fact that I will vote for her on Sunday.”
Quizzed about problems that might have affected Le Pen’s campaign, aides blamed media coverage they said had unfairly benefitted Macron. But, asking to speak off the record, two of them said the campaign had not been conducted as effectively as it could have been, especially due to a lack of sincere efforts to reach out to non-National Front voters between the two rounds.
Come Monday, the process of analyzing why Le Pen lost to a 39-year-old first-time campaigner will, in all likelihood, start to be addressed. When the blame game starts, it’s unlikely to spare some of the party’s top personnel, particularly those who, like Philippot, stuck to an unpopular position on exiting the European Union.
Asked if the euro position had been problematic for Le Pen, said the cadre cited above: “Clearly. I can tell you now there is going to be a great deal of developments and changes, both in terms of strategy and personnel.”