The Hungarian Premier's meeting with the French populist is self-interested
Marine Le Pen’s meeting with Viktor Orbán in Budapest today comes at a desperate moment for the National Rally (RN) leader. Now trailing behind Right-wing insurgent Éric Zemmour in the polls, she has flown abroad to gain some international credibility with foreign leaders.
Meeting with foreign heads of government is helpful to any Presidential hopeful, but for France’s radical Right, there is a particular prestige attached to meeting Europe’s pre-eminent national populist.
But even here Le Pen is playing catch up. Last month, Mr. Zemmour met Viktor Orbán while headlining the Budapest ‘Demography Summit’ as an invited guest of the Hungarian government. The meeting, which Zemmour was at pains to publicise, gave a big boost to the radio host’s domestic profile.
Le Pen’s conversation with Orbán today will thus recover ground lost to her opponent. Although the meeting was at her request, it still represents a coup for RN’s leader who repeatedly sought such an encounter and has been repeatedly rebuffed.
Orbán has always showed a reticence about meeting Le Pen. Questioned on the possibility of an alliance with the RN leader in 2019 (in a published conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévy) the Hungarian PM responded robustly: “Absolutely not! I have nothing at all to do with Madame Le Pen”. Mr. Orbán went on to describe her as “a red line”, explaining that “when political leaders are out of power, they can slip out of control. I don’t want to get mixed up with any of that.”
This reluctance underscored his own party’s anxieties about protecting Fidesz’s credentials internationally as a bulwark against the rise of Jobbik, Hungary’s own far-Right party. Latterly, it also reflected the deepening ties between Orbán and French president Emmanuel Macron — a link which has partially offset the Hungarian premier’s diplomatic isolation within the EU.
The difference now is that Le Pen finally has something to offer Orbán. Fidesz’s ignominious exit from the European People’s Party (the bloc’s grouping of moderate conservatives) this Spring placed Orbán’s MEPs on the ‘naughty step’ of the European Parliament. Now his party is confined to the ‘non-inscrit’ back row reserved for parties like Hungary’s Jobbik, considered too extreme to be received by the legislature’s major groupings. The position carries significant procedural disabilities too.
Given Orbán’s failure, to date, to forge a new pan-European alliance of Eurosceptics, Le Pen — a leading light in the Identity and Democracy Euro-Party — may hold the key to overcoming Fidesz’s parliamentary isolation. This, combined with the new threat posed by Hungary’s ‘United Opposition’ (with the two now neck and neck in polling for next spring’s general election) has clearly caused Viktor Orbán to rethink his position: politicians “out of power” may no longer be a red line.