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Marine Le Pen: a populist who will never win the popular vote

Credit: Getty

October 11, 2018   7 mins

Marine Le Pen recently turned 50. She should be flying high: an important figure in French and European politics for years to come. The traditional centre-Right in France has all but collapsed and President Emmanuel Macron is unpopular. She has sand-blasted her father’s party (nationalist but no longer overtly racist) and should be Hoovering up the nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-Islam, Eurosceptic vote.

Her imitator and friend, Matteo Salvini, has taken his once marginal far-Right party, La Lega, to a share of power and increasing popularity in Italy. The populists are in government in Hungary, Poland, and Austria. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is increasingly infirm and no longer embarrasses her with his thoughts on the Holocaust or the “correct behaviour” of German troops in France during World War Two.

This is surely her moment.

And yet she has had a disastrous time in the 20 months since she was crushed by Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the presidential elections. She has failed to establish herself as the de facto ‘leader of the opposition’. If anything, that role has been seized by her populist rival on the hard Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

She is, according to one of her most senior economic advisors, who recently quit the party, economically illiterate and incapable of understanding even the most basic fiscal questions.

Euro or no Euro? Low-taxation or big-state interventionism? It was these same confusions that Macron gleefully tore apart during Marine’s calamitous performance in a television debate just before the second round vote last year. Since when, little has changed, save the name of the party – and her popularity.

Marine’s poll rating as ‘potential future President’ has fallen to around 16% . Her party remains more resilient than its leader electorally, but financially it is in a mess. The Rassemblement National, formerly the Front National, is struggling to keep afloat after being denied €2 million of government election funds, for defrauding the European Parliament.

It also faces an embarrassing trial of two of its former campaign finance officials. They are accused of defrauding both the French state and the party’s own grassroots candidates, with Marine Le Pen’s blessing. They, and she, deny all wrong-doing.

Florian Philippot, her estranged former number two and the man who masterminded the de-toxification of the FN, has painted a chaotic picture of the party in his book Frexit, published last month, Few party officials are capable of writing a speech or preparing a candidate for a TV interview, he claims. Those who are capable rarely bother. The Front National under Marine, he wrote, became a “universe of laziness”.

His old boss, he concluded, knew after her defeat in May 2017 that she had failed and would continue to fail. She knew that she would never be elected to high office.

And yet Marine Le Pen shows no sign of giving up. The RN/FN is a family business as well as a political party. Some disgruntled ex-Frontistes say that it is a family business before it is a political party. No serious challenger has emerged, or probably can emerge, to the hegemony of the Le Pens over the ex-FN.

Marine’s niece, Marion Maréchal, only 28, but “retired” from politics, may eventually become a new kind of leader for the party, but not for many years and certainly not before the next presidential election in 2022. This family “ownership” structure is one of the principlal factors preventing the RN, name change or not, from emerging seriously as a potential party of government.

Philippot, defenestrated by more traditional-minded LePennists in March, has now launched a rival party, Les Patriotes, which pursues his Nigel Farage-like conviction that “sovereignty” and confrontation with the European Union are the proper route to power for nationalists – not the FN/RN’s traditional fixation with racial and cultural “identity” and immigration.

He is almost certainly wrong about that. There is a latent, grumbling euro-scepticism in France but no widespread desire to challenge the country’s membership of  the single market, the Euro or the Brussels institutions.

Without Philippot’s influence, the Rassemblement National has moved back closer to the identity politics of Le Pen père – though without Jean Marie’s vulgarity, his anti-Semitism or his obsession with the Second World War. Marine Le Pen has returned to the themes of allegedly uncontrolled immigration and the internal threat from militant Islam. Unlike her father, she tries to put these issues into a “Republican” rather than “racial” context. Like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, she portrays Islam as a threat to western traditions of tolerance and democracy.

She has however failed to clarify her economic policies. French membership of the EU and the Euro are still in theory up for debate, but scarcely mentioned. It would be difficult to see how the RN could run on such a programme in next May’s European elections – if it were not for the fact that voters care little about European election manifestos. The same will not be true in the next presidential campaign in 2022.

To understand the schizophrenic nature of the FN/RN, to understand why it has been tearing itself apart since Marine became president in 2011, you have to consider geography as well as ideology. The old FN had many tribes – ex-Vichy sentimentalists, expatriate Algerian white settlers (pied noirs), Catholic fundamentalists, pagan believers in white supremacy and former members, like Jean-Marie Le Pen himself, of Pierre Poujade’s anti-elite, anti-tax and anti-regulation party of the mid-1950s.

Somehow, give or take the odd split or revolt, Jean-Marie kept this collection of mutually distrustful clans together. He was helped by the fact that the FN of the 1980s and 1990s was mostly implanted in the South, in Alsace and the hard-scrabble, lower-middle-class suburbs of big cities. Marine, encouraged by Philippot, conquered new territories in the post-industrial North and East, recruiting many blue-collar voters who once supported the Communists or Socialists. She has also built a big following in rural France, especially among older people and the unemployed young.

In the first round of last year’s election, Marine racked up votes of between 30 and 70% in villages in Normandy or on the remote eastern steppes of France, which know no crime or immigration but feel ignored and disfranchised by the multi-racial, global-minded, Europhile, broadly successful France of the cities and big towns.

To appeal to these new electorates, Marine and Philippot bolted on to the old Frontiste, anti-Socialist, small-government doctrine a statist devotion to early retirement, high pensions, industrial intervention and agricultural protectionism. No attempt was made to rationalise the conflicting programmes or explain how they would be funded.

Thus the Marine Le Pen FN/RN became two parties – a nationalist-socialist party in the North and East and a Poujadiste-fundamentalist Christian and white “identity” party in the South. Philippot’s ejection has brought the party back closer to its Southern, Poujadiste, pied-noir roots – but not entirely. Marine Le Pen’s parliamentary constituency, Hénin-Beaumont, is near Lille in the ex-industral North. She is unwilling to surrender her fiefdom or her ex-Leftist voters to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise. Result: confusion and continuing tension and suspicion between the “northern” and “southern” wings of the party.

In any case, economic political coherence and abstract political theory are not Marine’s strengths. Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen is doubtless a sincere racist – not a fascist but a pre-fascist, someone who drew his political beliefs from an ancient French strand of anti-semitism and a mystical belief in “patrie”, “race”, “blood” and “soil”. Marine Le Pen gives the impression – both in public and in interviews and private conversations – of being a rather pleasant saleswoman and TV host. It is difficult to dislike her. It is also difficult finally to take her seriously.

She is a good public speaker. She usually performs well on TV. She has had some success in her campaign to “de-demonise” the FN/RN.  Her defeat last year should not disguise the fact that she managed to persuade over 30 per cent of French voters to cast a ballot for a hard-right candidate – far more than her father ever achieved.

But she is also responsible for two big failures. The first is the incoherence of her economic programme, which Macron joyfully exploded live on TV. The second, more surprisingly to non-French readers perhaps, is her failure to turn the FN/RN into a genuine grass-roots party.

In travelling all over France covering politics over the last 20 years, I have repeatedly stumbled across this paradox. The ex-FN is a populist party and, in some areas, a popular party. But it has great difficulty in recruiting local candidates or even local, political operatives. Its candidates are often people from head office. In one campaign that I visited in Lorraine, the party’s standard-bearer was Le Pen senior’s chauffeur, who rarely visited the constituency. For a party which claims to represent “the people” against “the elite”, this is embarrassing.

Those candidates that are recruited locally often turn out to be more extreme on racial questions than the detoxified Mariniste version of the FN officially allows. Just as awkward is the fact that they don’t stay in office for long: of the 54 Front National regional councillors elected in 2015, only 42 remain. The rest have resigned over petty quarrels or switched parties.

Marine Le Pen will not go away easily or soon. She is stubborn and, in any case, the family business is the family business.

Some things are going her way. Macron is less popular than the unpopular François Hollande was at the same stage of his presidency. The new leader of the main centre-right party, Les Républicains, Laurent Wauquiez has set out to steal the ex-FN’s clothes and voters. He has failed. His poll ratings are disastrous. Her clever niece Marion, who was emerging strongly as rival to her aunt, has given up politics, for the time being at least.

The RN will probably perform well in the European elections in May. The low turn-out always favours parties outside the mainstream.  But this is unlikely to be the “game-changer” that Marine Le Pen pretends. She will have to do very well indeed to match her stunning performance in the last European elections, when she took 25 per cent of the French seats. The fact that she is not leading the RN list herself will be a handicap. She has chosen to keep her seat in the National Assembly rather than try again for a seat in Strasbourg. Under a new French law, she cannot have both. The RN European campaign will probably be led by her romantic partner, Louis Aliot, the party’s vice President. He is a poor campaigner and a poor public speaker but in the RN/FN family comes first.

Marine Le Pen, barring an unforeseeable development, will be the RN presidential candidate in four years’ time. She will, once again, be one of the top three or four candidates jostling to reach the two candidate second round. Her best chance of ultimate victory – would be a Mélenchon v Le Pen run off in May 2022. This is highly unlikely since the hard left and hard right electorates overlap, especially in post-industrial and rural France.

In any case, the French two round system permits insurgent candidates in the first round but stacks the odds against them in the second. Unless you are an insurgent of the centre like Emmanuel Macron, the rest of the electorate tends to combine against you.

Macron’s absurdly charmed life has come to an abrupt halt this year. All the same, he remains lucky in his likely principal opponents in 2022. Florian Philippot may be sour and parti pris but he is probably right. Marine Le Pen’s moment has come and gone.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.


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