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Don't write Le Pen off yet. But which one?
Marine Le Pen has not had a good few months. A year ago, she was riding high in the polls as favourite to win the first round of France’s presidential election. As predictions stood then, she would go on to a run-off against the conservative François Fillon and would exert an appeal well beyond her far-right base to voters who could not bring themselves to support Fillon’s programme of budgetary rigour. As events turned out, Le Pen faced not Fillon (brought down, fittingly, by allegations of financial impropriety) but the little known independent centrist Emmanuel Macron. Instead of winning the first round and taking 40% or more of the run-off vote, Le Pen was overtaken by Macron on the first ballot then soundly beaten in the run-off by 66% to 34%.
Since that defeat, Le Pen’s Front National (FN) has encountered a series of setbacks: a lacklustre performance in parliamentary elections; internal divisions over responsibility for the electoral downturn; the departure of deputy leader Florian Philippot to form a rival Patriots party; Marine Le Pen’s loss of parliamentary immunity in the face of ongoing judicial investigations; the closure by two banks of FN accounts; and a slump in the first two parliamentary by-elections of the Macron era.
But the most potentially serious problem passed almost unnoticed. On 19 October, Marine Le Pen’s televised interview on France 2’s “L’Emission politique” drew the smallest audience since the programme launched. On the same programme in February 2017, Le Pen, then running favourite to top the presidential poll, attracted the record viewing figure. That steep decline in public interest, following a disastrous televised presidential run-off debate with Macron, may be the most damaging setback of all and may call into question now Le Pen’s continuing value to the party as leader, a question unthinkable before last May.
Hence the process of “renewal” (refondation) to which Le Pen has committed her party in advance of its national congress scheduled for 10-11 March. A key component in that process is a consultation of the entire party membership, reported latterly by the FN at 51,487. This covers everything from strategy and policy to leadership and even the party name and logo. The grassroots consultation is a sign of a party in search of clear direction and looking to revalidate itself in the eyes both of its members and of the wider French public.
This process of existential questioning seems all the stranger when we recall just how strongly Le Pen did perform in the presidential poll. With 34% of the run-off ballot, 10.6 million votes, she doubled her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s score of 2002 (17.8%: 5.5 million votes). Among 11 candidates in the first round, Le Pen topped the poll in 8 of France’s 13 metropolitan regions (to Macron’s 5), in 47 of the 96 departments (to Macron’s 41), and in 19,038 of France’s 35,500 (mostly rural) communes, with Macron coming first in 7,135 and Fillon in 5,753. If territorial dominance in one round of voting determined presidential elections, Marine Le Pen would now occupy the Elysée – and her passage to the presidential run-off caused not the merest shock compared with the “earthquake” of her father reaching the same stage in 2002. The shock would have been had she not got there.
In the parliamentary elections that followed, the FN underperformed against early predictions but still won its second largest haul of seats (8) with a 13% share of the ballot, 3 million votes. So reports of the party’s decline now must be treated with caution. They recall the late 1990s when an acrimonious row between Jean-Marie Le Pen and then deputy leader Bruno Mégret saw the party severely weakened by a split and reduced to single-figure electoral results for a time. That was followed by Le Pen’s breakthrough in 2002 to the presidential run-off and, in the longer term, by Marine Le Pen leading the FN to become the top vote-winning party in a series of nationwide elections in 2014 and 2015.
The FN may once again recover its momentum. Its anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, strong law-and-order, protectionist platform continues to resonate with large sections of French opinion and to influence public discussion and policy. The 10.6 million electors who supported Le Pen against Macron are still out there, as are the 16 million who abstained or spoiled their ballot. And within a wider EU frame, the idea that Macron’s victory halted the rise of populism was soon dispelled by the arrival of 92 Alternative for Germany (AfD) deputies in the Bundestag and of Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) into national coalition government in Austria.
Image: TV Patriotes CC BY-NC-ND
But even if the FN has been pitched into a decline which its current leader cannot reverse, Marine is not the only Le Pen in town. With her 89-year-old father now playing a role of nuisance value only, many eyes in the FN are turned towards his grand-daughter and Marine’s niece, the 28-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who is currently taking time out from politics after a meteoric early rise. From 2012 to 2017, Marion held the only official FN seat in the National Assembly as France’s youngest ever parliamentary deputy; but her right-leaning “liberal-identitarian” orientation clashed with the left-leaning “social-sovereignist” policy line dictated by the influential Florian Philippot. With Philippot now gone, she may see her way clear for a return should Marine decide that she has taken the party as far as she can or wants to, with questions now raised over her continued appetite for the job.
More than anything else, the FN has suffered from its isolation within the French party system. This makes it virtually impossible to prevail in the two-round majoritarian format that applies across most French elections. The FN may outperform other parties in the first round of elections – but look inside France’s elected bodies and it vanishes from view. After 45 years of contesting elections at all levels, the party holds 0.3% of municipal council seats, 1.5% of departmental council seats, 20% of regional council seats (aided here by a mixed voting system), 0.6% of Senate seats and, now, 1.4% of seats in the National Assembly. It is a party with no stake in national, regional or departmental government.
Institutional exclusion may play to the advantage of an anti-system party, but it is a critical impediment for an FN seeking to become a party of government. The key to unlocking the doors to executive power at the above levels lies in ending the FN’s punishing isolation within the French party system. In the presidential election, Marine Le Pen broke new ground by sealing a support deal with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, leader of the small sovereignist Arise France (Debout la France) party. But the sights of some in the FN are set on the bigger prize of a pact with the much more powerful conservative Republicans. For now, they continue to observe a cordon sanitaire around the FN – but for how much longer?
Under their newly elected leader Laurent Wauquiez, the Republicans are tacking to the right in a bid to woo FN voters. This reduces the ideological distance between both parties and sets a context where an eventual deal could be envisaged. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has already called for dialogue with Wauquiez. Were she to return and take the helm, would an FN under new management and with a new name (a likely outcome of the March congress) become a more potentially respectable ally? If President Macron remains as unassailable over the centre ground as he currently is, that scenario will surely come increasingly to exercise the imagination of more hardline Republicans at least. And who knows? A change of name could provide a convenient semantic get-out from Wauquiez’s oft-repeated pledge never to do “a deal with the FN”.
The articles in this blog series draw on presentations given at the What’s Happening in Contemporary Western Politics? PSA event (British Academy, 25 January 2018). The event was chaired by award-winning journalist and broadcaster Michael Crick, with contributions from PSA Specialist Groups’ experts. At the core of the discussion were the following questions: Is this really a 'populist moment'? What do we actually mean by populism? What are the implications of recent events for Western liberal democracies? The main goal was to reach beyond academia and foster a critical and constructive debate open to the civil-society groups, practitioners, journalists, policy-makers and the wider public. You can watch a video of the event here.
Jim Shields is Professor of French Politics and Modern History at Aston University. He currently holds a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (2017-18) to support his research on the Front National and the impact of far-right populist nationalism in France.
Image: Global Panorama CC BY-NC-ND