Why things aren’t looking good for Marine Le Pen

Leo Paillard is in his second year at King’s reading HSPS. He is also president of the Cambridge University French Society and is a keen follower of French and European political debate. Below he discusses the issues facing the Front National, which despite its status as poll favourite for the first round of the election, will have greater difficulties transforming this success into long-lasting victory.

For the first time in a French presidential election, the Front National’s candidate is topping all polls only months away from the vote. Marine Le Pen is enjoying her position as the most likely leader of the first round of the election, even though her campaign, which the FN has been preparing for months, has not reached its full pace yet. Whilst mainstream parties are running primaries to designate their legitimate candidate, Mrs Le Pen displays a stable popularity rating and maintains her place as the polls favourite for the first round. Yet she is not in the lead of any of these polls for the second round. Recently, Mrs Le Pen unveiled her campaign logo: a blue thornless rose, meant to embody the party’s will to bridge the right-left cleavage, and to outrace both the right’s candidate François Fillon’s Thatcherite turn, pose as a protector of the welfare state and attack the left’s leniency on immigration and identity.

However, the French newspaper headlines have been less occupied recently by Mrs Le Pen’s campaign launch than by the fratricidal war waged by her lieutenants against each other on several media platforms. Most notably Florian Philippot opposition to Marine Le Pen’s niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen over a debate on abortion and the stance the FN should take. The skirmishes exemplify the conflict between two strands of the Front National, getting to grips with each other chiefly over matters of priority and ideology, pitting the more forward-looking Eurosceptic right wing of Philippot, influenced by the rising populist European parties and targeting questions of sovereignty, against the hard-line right of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who is closer to the FN’s historical values.

The dédiabolisation policy led by Marine Le Pen, following her accession to the head of the party, to make it a more approachable political force able to convince mainstream voters, have only been partially successful. If the party’s progression in election results has been undeniable, such facts as Marion Maréchal-Le Pen’s success tend to set limits to the party’s efforts to be a more inclusive and acceptable solution to new voters and remind us that part of the Front National’s forces comes from its old guard, showing that it cannot afford to fully exorcise its old demons. Marine Le Pen’s campaign, in its early stages, currently benefits from this ideological duplicity, but the issues she will chose to prioritise will most certainly not play at her campaign’s advantage, as she tries to conciliate her own party’s precarious unity with an opening to untraditional potential voters.

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The Front National’s structure does not play in Mrs Le Pen’s advantage; it unfolds in a complicated network of conflicting influences and priorities making it difficult to come up with a definite programme. The FN is at the heart of an archipelago of more or less disparate far-right parishes with their own agendas, and their own financing (often diverted towards the mother campaign). It was never a perfectly unified front, but rather a circumstantial coalition and a synthesis of many different micro-parties. Likewise, its programme and priorities were never evident.

The party’s unity exists because of universal themes – such as the belief that politics is based on a dichotomy between “patriots” and “globalists,” a certain vision of protectionism and sovereignty as an alternative to globalisation, a hard stance on immigration, and a commitment to “Christian values” against Islam. If all parts accept a radical position on immigration, Europe, national sovereignty, crime, the dichotomy between “patriots” and “globalists”, as well as Mrs Le Pen’s leadership, they are more divided on specific issues such as women’s rights or the death penalty.

If Marine Le Pen, remains the uncontested and natural leader of the party, just like her predecessor and father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party, let alone her campaign, does not have a similar unity regarding its values and policy. The rejuvenation of the party never succeeded in obliterating its nostalgic core, and the tensions that undermine the contemporary Front National tend to highlight the fragility of the federating causes that have held the party together so far.

Mrs Le Pen’s decision not to include FN’s logo on her campaign posters might have come as a surprise, but it is certainly not a shock considering the aspiration of her bleu Marine movement, a separate entity, to transcend the party’s supporting base. The Front National used be an opposition party, historically conceived to voice the complaints of its member groups, with no concrete electoral ambitions, as illustrated by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s surprised reaction to his qualification to the second round of the presidential election on April 21st 2002. If vagueness in certain areas, especially economic, which were under-addressed in the party’s previous policy programmes, has been (and still is to some extent) of some advantage to the party, these will be under close scrutiny by the media and voters alike during this election.

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If Marine Le Pen’s campaign has been enjoying the opportunity not to side with either of the camps, the imminence of the election and the release of a programme presents difficulties for the Front National. The party seems to be trapped in a deadlock between extending its popular appeal and ensuring the survival of the party’s traditional basis. Events such as the legal battle between a FN city council and the poverty alleviation charity Secours Populaire, deemed to be “pro-migrant” or a gay FN militant’s rant on Twitter about the insults and structural discrimination he faced within the party highlight the fact that the “mainstreamisation” of the party has not permeated some of its layers. By emphasizing Eurosceptism and immigration Florian Philippot and Marine Le Pen’s hope to appeal to a working-class electorate suffering from high levels of unemployment and a feeling of abandonment vis-à-vis welfare spending on migrants. These groups constitute the principal target of the “new Front National.” On the social level, the vision is resolutely a more liberal and populist one, shown by Mrs Le Pen’s change in her opinion on abortion, from a project to limit access to “comfort abortion” in 2012 to unconditional support in 2016, as she tries to champion women’s rights against “Islamo-fascism” (a favourite portmanteau of the FN). Their defence of the unemployed and the welfare state shows a greater influence from the left. The segmentation is geographical as well, with Mr Philippot and Mrs Le Pen’s line being characteristic of the formerly industrial North of France, with high rates of unemployment.

On the other hand, the Front National’s harder line is mostly successful in the South–whence the FN’s only two MPs come—and with the party’s historic membership. This position is inherited from its founder’s leadership—famous for his polemic declarations on the Holocaust, racism, ambiguity about his actions in the Algerian war of independence, and a string of ad hominem attacks on his opponents. Although it shares some of its counterpart’s concerns over sovereignty, its focus leans a lot more towards the defence of a certain conception of French identity and traditional Catholic family values, justifying a more or less open xenophobia, opposition to abortion and state funding of planned parenthood, and gives a clear priority to the fight against communitarianism, radical Islam, and “leftism.” Contrary to the other, more “social,” branch of the FN, the party’s core clearly sits at the right of the right of the political spectrum on social issues. It is not as embarrassed with being presented in this way as its “politically correct” counterpart, as illustrated by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen’s presence at meetings of the Action Française (a fiercely conservative marginal monarchist group) and her association with Philippe de Villiers (French Catholic pro-Russian conservative politician and promoter of a romantic vision of France’s national history).

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen’s or Gilbert Collard’s interventions act as a reminder that if Marine Le Pen may have been tempted to embrace the ideological line of a mainstream Eurosceptic party, she would not receive universal support by doing so. It is also clear that her father’s style and legacy still impregnate part of the party despite attempts at “mainstreamisation.” Whilst both sides of the party neither agree with the right’s cuts in the welfare state (as long as they don’t concern immigrants) nor with the left’s social liberalism, banking on her opposition to orthodox party elites will likely not be enough for Mrs Le Pen to sustain hopes for electoral success.

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Mrs Le Pen’s favourite argument that politics pit the political élite against the people, and that the same parties, policies and names keep coming back at each election, may well suffice for local elections or even the first round of the election (despite her own party being represented by members of the same family since its creation). But if the FN is expecting more than a protest vote, media and voters alike will expect a consistent programme. The vagueness which currently plays at her advantage will likely not be sufficient to answer people’s questions, whilst her campaign’s priorities and some of her concrete proposals might alienate new voters or even the party’s historical membership.

So far, few polling institutes doubt that Mrs Le Pen will make it to the second round of the presidential election. A time for choice and decision will have to come, and it is understandable that the Front National continues to delay this moment. The release of the programme will undoubtedly alienate either its “eternal” ideological pillars or its chance to drag voters from broader horizons, both of which it cannot entertain hope for success without. The only alternative being to avoid taking a clear stance on several issues, which could appear faint-hearted, and would with no doubt be pointed out by Mrs Le Pen’s opponents, if not her own supporters.

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