The rise and fall — and possible rise again — of Marine Le Pen, France’s answer to Donald Trump
Only a few weeks ago, the planets seemed to be aligning exceptionally well for Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate in the French presidential race. Analysts were joking that she didn’t even have to campaign – events like the police investigating front-runner François Fillon were doing it for her.
Now, come polling day Sunday, even though Le Pen is expected to reach her highest vote count ever, there are fewer smiles on her team, and the radical change of tone in her latest speeches leaves the unmistakable impression of a growing nervousness at the end of the campaign.
Initially, her election ambitions were boosted by world events. First came the Brexit vote in the U.K., giving her a first, concrete example of the “Frexit” of her dreams. Then came the Trump surprise in November, when the world’s biggest superpower elected a maverick “anti-system” candidate – just like her.
Donald Trump’s election against all odds gave birth to a “domino theory,” making populist success seem like a growing likelihood in Europe, and this began with hopes for Le Pen’s National Front party in France’s two-round election, due to take place on April 23 and May 7.
Things turned even rosier for 48-year-old Le Pen in early February when the satirical newspaper “Le Canard Enchaîné” revealed that Fillon, a former prime minister and candidate for Les Républicains, the traditional conservative party, had paid his wife and children public money for apparently “fake jobs.”
Fillon had been the comfortable favorite in the polls, but this news immediately lost him a sizable chunk of his potential voters. From that moment, Le Pen came to the top of the opinion polls for the first round of voting, followed by liberal independent candidate Emmanuel Macron.
This was the payoff for years of rebranding by the National Front, the far-right party created by Le Pen’s father some four decades ago, and a recognition of her own attempts to put a respectable face on a political movement that has its roots in the long history of French fascism, and in the Vichy regime, which collaborated with Nazi Germany during WWII.
The French have an expression for this: “dédiabolisation,” literally taking the devil out of you. Or at least, softening its negative image.
And it worked – to a point. Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, built his rise – which took him to a surprise second-place finish in the 2002 presidential election – on a highly provocative anti-immigration and anti-Islam platform, with racist and anti-Semitic overtones and unambiguous references to World War II, which earned him several condemnations in French courts.
Marine Le Pen’s father didn’t think of winning elections – he was happy with his status of a marginal but important troublemaker on the periphery of the political system. But his daughter had loftier dreams: She wanted to break the “glass ceiling” for the far right and reach the top.
Le Pen toned down the outrageous racism and banned neo-Nazi skinheads from her rallies, while also promoting a more managerial team, headed by her right-hand man, Florian Philippot.
Philippot was a new face in the far right: a graduate from ENA, the elite administrative school that produced Jacques Chirac, François Hollande, and Emmanuel Macron; openly gay in a not-very-gay-friendly political party; and a man who likes to pay his respects every year at the tomb of Charles de Gaulle – a marked shift from the time when some of Le Pen senior’s friends tried to assassinate the founder of the fifth republic for giving Algeria its independence in 1962.
Marine Le Pen and Florian Philippot turned the anti-immigration-only movement into a party with an economic and social agenda. This was their brilliant gamble when they took over the National Front in 2011, later ousting its founder for one revisionist comment too many.
They understood the rising anger coming from the losers of globalization, a sizable population that felt alienated by the “system” and its political elite. Marine Le Pen focused on the deindustrialized regions of France, particularly in the north and the east, where closed mines and factories combine with diminishing public services hit by budget constraints.
She offered them easy answers to complex problems: get out of the EU and drop the euro, restore borders, give job priority to French citizens, stop immigration, no more money for asylum seekers – a “national capitalism,” with social overtones taken straight from the Left’s playbook.
This strategy proved a winning combination that rewarded her with unprecedented election results in local and regional contests over the last few years, under the highly unpopular presidency of François Hollande.
With a softer image and a program that seemed in tune with the trends shown by the Brexit vote and the election of Trump, Marine Le Pen looked to be able to achieve unlimited success. Pollsters who once dismissed any notion of a Le Pen victory as “impossible,” shifted to “unlikely” and then later to “possible.”
But something has gone wrong along the way. Her campaign didn’t keep its promises, her economic proposals failed to convince those outside the strong but minority base she’d built, and her attempts to rebrand sometimes backfired.
Tensions rose within her own party, particularly with her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, one of the two MPs the Front National holds in the outgoing Parliament, who sits closer to the Catholic, highly conservative “old” FN ideology.
To keep tensions at bay and galvanize her voters, Marine Le Pen, who also faces intense competition from the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon for the popular vote, radicalized her speech in the final run of the campaign.
She created a stir by reopening the Vichy historical controversy, used provocative words again to appeal to anti-immigration feelings, introducing a last-minute proposal for a total ban on legal immigration when her initial programme was only to reduce it. It was over with “nice Marine,” and a retreat back to safer far-right grounds, a strategy that will keep the National Front united for future battles in the years to come.
Shortly after the terrorist attack on Paris’ famed Champs-Élysées on Thursday, Le Pen was at it again, calling for all foreign nationals on the French terrorist watch list to be immediately deported and accusing the government of deliberately failing to keep the country safe.
This strategy will not harm her chances for the first round, as her voters are devoted to her strong personality and don’t care about outrageous comments. But it will reinforce the “glass ceiling” in the final round, making her move back from “possible” to “unlikely.” At least for now, her rise seems limited.
Pierre Haski is a French journalist and the co-founder of news website Rue89.
Cover: ASSOCIATED PRESS