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Macron vs. Le Pen, Round Two

France’s far-right presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, performed much better in her debate with the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, than she did five years ago. Win or lose, it seems certain that she and her party are not going away anytime soon.

PARIS – Five years ago, when Marine Le Pen faced Emmanuel Macron in the televised debate ahead of the second round of the French presidential election, she flunked the test. Taking an overly aggressive tone from the start, she was clearly out of her depth on economic issues, fecklessly flipping through her notes. In front of over 16 million viewers, she lost 30,000 votes a minute over the course of the 2.5-hour debate, ceding 6% of the support she had when the day began. A few days later, Macron won the election in a landslide, 66% to 34%.

Le Pen was back for a rematch on Wednesday, in a much stronger position than she was five years ago, with polls giving her 45% support – although the dynamic seems to be in Macron’s favor. She has learned from her mistakes by “de-demonizing” her party. She had already kicked out her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, for Holocaust denial, and in 2018 she renamed the confrontational-sounding National Front (Front National) the National Rally (Rassemblement National), which has a more inclusive air and gives a nod to Le Rassemblement du peuple français, the movement Charles de Gaulle led after World War II.

Le Pen softened her image, too, notably by appearing with her cats on Instagram, and even taking selfies with teenagers – some of them veiled. She has spoken about how difficult it was growing up in the Le Pen household and the fractious relations she has with her father and her niece, Marion Maréchal, who backed the far-right neophyte Éric Zemmour’s campaign in the first round. Le Pen also touted her experiences as a single mother. She even managed to use her humiliation during the 2017 debate to her advantage, connecting it to the everyday slights people suffer and spinning her rebound in this year’s campaign as an inspiring tale of hope prevailing over despair.

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