Like most French voters over the age of 40, I will never forget the shock result of the first round of the presidential election in 2002. The two candidates to qualify for the second round were the right-wing Jacques Chirac and the extreme right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the ‘Front National’. French voters of most political hues, some wearing a clothes-peg on their nose on their way to the polling station to signal their distaste for the choice they were forced to make, formed a ‘front républicain’ to block Le Pen and allowed Chirac to win the presidency by a whopping 82 per cent of votes. Such tactics, coupled with the two-round voting system, have since kept the Front National out of national government, if not local or regional government.
Fast forward 20 years and Marine Le Pen, dismissively known as ‘la fille du père’, is now the leader of the rebranded ‘Rassemblement National’ (national rally). She is poised not only to make it to the second round of the 2022 presidential, but to pose a real threat to the re-election of the more moderate incumbent and fierce pro-European, Emmanuel Macron.
Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ‘Front National’: a protest vote
Where did it all start? From the mid-1980s, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National (FN), home to varied extreme-right groups and ideologues, scored its first electoral successes. From a very modest start, it leapt to around 15 per cent of the popular vote in the 1988 and 1995 presidential elections.
Analysts agree this was a case of voter alienation, with many feeling ‘left behind’ and ‘forgotten’ by traditional political parties. It isn’t surprising, for example, that the FN scored particularly well in the north and the east of the country, old industrial heartlands in the grip of stubborn unemployment. The south-east also provided fertile ground for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s party, for different reasons. This is a region with a high level of immigration coupled with marked social inequalities. According to Christèle Marchand-Lagier, a researcher from Avignon and Aix-en-Provence universities, “here, Le Pen supporters are generally middle class and are tired of paying taxes to provide for the poor, who they believe to be immigrants.”
Marine Le Pen’s charm offensive
Jean-Marie Le Pen was a caricature of a populist. His stock in trade was nationalism and identity politics, most obviously seen in his anti-immigration stance. Sporting a roguish eye patch till the early 1980s, leaving provocative comments (‘gas chambers are a mere footnote in history’) and financial scandals in his wake, he loved playing agent provocateur but that wasn’t enough to get close to real power.
Marine Le Pen, while also fundamentally a demagogue, is a more polished act. Since 2011 when she took over as leader, her aim has been to normalise the party in order to widen its appeal. This strategy of ‘dédiabolisation’ (detoxification) has included distancing it from her father’s more extreme views on antisemitism, immigration and abortion, as well as excluding more radical members. Electorally, this approach has led to mixed results but the Front National is by and large better established at local and regional levels, and in 2020 it won Perpignan, the first large city since 1995 (that was Toulon, which it subsequently lost). Those local footholds serve as practice runs for a party which hasn’t had much experience of government and is hoping to seduce wider sections of the electorate by being seen to enforce austerity, law and order as well as anti-immigrant policies, well received by many at a time of increased Islamist attacks.
Madame la présidente?
The big prize, of course, would be the presidency. In the 2017 contest, Marine Le Pen qualified for the two-horse second round but with less than 34 per cent of the popular vote she was easily swept aside by Emmanuel Macron. And yet, with the next election barely a year away, she now appears to have the wind in her sails. According to an Ifop-Fiducial poll published by Bloomberg in April 2021, she would have been more likely than not to come first in the first round if it had taken place that month. She would then be beaten in the second round, polling 46 per cent of the votes against 54 per cent for Macron, only eight points behind.
Marine Le Pen has certainly been adept at becoming the acceptable face of the extreme right, and at tapping into the bafflement, grievances and uncertainties of a country where unemployment has remained stubbornly high and immigrants have become an easy scapegoat. We in the UK are only too familiar with how seductive a populist narrative can be.
But what are her actual chances of beating Macron in 2022? In these exceptional times, she is certainly benefiting from the country’s disenchantment with his poor handling of the health crisis. She has also managed to rise above a number of potential scandals. In 2014, our own Nigel Farage refused an alliance with the Front National in the European Parliament because of the persistent whiff of antisemitism. By 2020, he was happy to welcome her to his LBC radio show. Allegations of Russian funding do not appear to have dented her followers’ faith either.
A skilful operator, Le Pen can also be observed trying to garner votes in all segments of the electorate to reduce the gap with her opponent, but she is treading a fine line and even risks contradicting herself. For example, she appears to be courting traditional Catholics whom she had once kept at arms’ length in the name of ‘laïcité’ (strict separation between state and religion) – up to now her pretext for limiting Muslim religious practices. These overtures towards the devout, though, might alienate the many voters who still believe in ‘laïcité’ as a corner stone of the French Republic. She has pedalled back on her threats to leave the eurozone and even the EU. However, she will still need to provide reassurance to those impoverished groups who fear globalisation and would prefer protectionist policies to an EU-wide job market seen to threaten their livelihoods.
An incident in May 2021 is also a reminder that leopards cannot change their spots that easily: a group of retired generals threatened a military coup against a regime considered too lax in dealing with ‘islamism and baying mobs from inner cities’. Marine Le Pen, who has always insisted she only believed in democracy and peaceful action, nevertheless promptly let it be known that she ‘shared [the generals’] analysis’. No doubt she was hoping to bring on board those voters still pining for a France whiter than white, but this might be alarming to the great majority of the population who wouldn’t condone a violent coup.
The 2022 presidential election
A year is a very long time in politics. If the anxieties caused by the pandemic have receded by 2022, Marine Le Pen might find that she cannot close the gap with Emmanuel Macron after all. However, even if she did and was elected, she could only carry out her policies if she also had a parliamentary majority. This is what Emmanuel Macron spectacularly achieved in 2017 with his newly-created ‘La République en marche’ party, but it seems unlikely that voters would return enough Rassemblement National MPs to hold the balance of power. What would ensue would be a ‘cohabitation’, a series of uneasy compromises between an extreme-right wing president and a right-wing or centrist majority in Parliament. The way French institutions work would likely prevent a wholesale takeover like the one effected by the Johnson government in the UK and for that we must be grateful.