What a difference a year makes in politics. Ten months ago, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right party the National Front, reached the second round of the French presidential election, garnered a record-breaking 10 million votes in the final battle against E. Macron, and wowed to become the main opponent to his presidency. A week ago, after months in the doldrums, she aimed to relaunch both herself and her party at the NF’s Congress. What could possibly have gone wrong?
It would be easy to point out an understandable post-electoral hangover, what with the disappointment of getting so near to power, but the roots of the current malaise are much deeper. At its heart, lie the three existential questions that have dogged the party ever since it burst onto the electoral scene in the mid-80s: how to reach beyond its ceiling of likely voters? How to reach those million of voters who agree with its ideas but not its solutions and certainly not its image and history? How to break the cordon sanitaire all the other parties put around it?
Marine Le Pen, who took over in 2011, had her own solutions to this quandary. She decided to “normalise” her party through a “de-demonisation” strategy, aiming to convince the wider electorate that the NF was not only as respectable as any other party but also that it too was capable of one day running the country. This strategy involved distancing her party more and more from its founder, her father Jean-Marie and his nefarious image of racism and antisemitism, to the point of expelling him from the party. It involved softening the NF’s language and overall rhetoric to appeal more widely, and moving beyond its core anti-immigration theme to include economic and social issues that tapped into the fear of the future in a country blighted by unemployment. It also involved making traditional Republican themes, like laïcité, her own, thereby bringing her party into the respectable fold of the Republic. And it worked, with an exceptional period of gains between 2012 and 2015, culminating in the NF winning an election for the first time during the 2014 European election. And yet, the traditional problem did not go away, with the party hitting time and time again an intractable ceiling in any types of two-round elections. It might have reached exceptional scores in both the 2015 departmental and regional elections but, without any alliances, only managed to gain a handful of seats in the second round in each.
The presidential election was supposed to change this curse. The first round saw a very calm leader with a polished language and a stress put on economic and social issues rather than immigration, as well as a specific appeal to low-paid casualised workers. She then qualified without a fuss to the second round to face the new kid on the block, Macron. And the good news kept coming, with, for the first time, another party, the small anti-EU Debout la France, rallying behind her. And yet, all the work she had put in since becoming leader in 2011 was shattered to smithereens during the second-round debate. Le Pen’s TV debate performance was aggressive, erratic and completely at odds with her initial aim to appear “presidential”, responsible and reassuring in the campaign. That highly criticised TV performance cost her second-round voters who might otherwise have given their support. And then, there was the whole prevarication over her central manifesto pledge to leave the Euro. She did not only lose voters who were attached to the currency but by going from a definite “yes” to abandoning the Euro to an ill-defined “maybe” she lost the image of responsibility she had worked so hard to acquire.
The fallout from this utterly awful performance was all-plain to see in the yearly survey “public opinion and the National Front” published in February this year. It shows very clearly that all the gains she made through the de-demonisation strategy have been erased, as the table below illustrates:
|Questions||February 17||February 18|
|She is dynamic||80%||66%|
|She is capable of making decisions||69%||49%|
|She understands the problems faced by the French||49%||40%|
|She can appeal beyond her party||42%||30%|
|She can be a good president||24%||16%|
|She is honest||28%||19%|
|I agree with her ideas||33%||24%|
|I agree with her ideas and her solutions||16%||7% (same as in 2011)|
|She is dangerous for democracy||47%||56% (same as in 2011)|
|The NF is a nationalist and xenophobic party||43%||51%|
|She can be part of a government||38%||28%|
|I am prepared to vote for her||29%||22%|
She might have retained a very good image amongst her core followers, with 93% of her party’s members seeing her as decisive, 90% as understanding the problems of the French, and 80% as a good president, but it is back to the drawing board as far as the wider electorate is concerned.
She not only lost a lot of ground with voters but her party was thrown into turmoil by internal divisions, with her right hand man, Florian Philippot, leaving to found his own party, Les Patriotes, as well as deep rumblings over what to do with the Euro. To make matters worse, she remained embroiled in scandals over accusations of fraud with her MEPs and had to contend with her father’s scathing memoires, and her niece being welcomed as a star in a big far-right rally in the USA. And she certainly did not become Macron’s main opponent, being barely audible in both Parliament and the media.
Hence a congress to relaunch herself and her party. The key aim was to complete the de-demonisation strategy by giving her party a new name. Changing the name of a party in order to appeal more widely makes sense considering how the current name, with its aggressive, racist and anti-Semitic connotations, acts as a psychological barrier. The new name, “National Rally”, is indeed far more inclusive and does not have the aggressive war-like quality of “Front”. In doing so, Marine Le Pen aimed to distance her party further away from its history, to appear respectable and responsible, and to pave the way for alliances with other parties, who have always balked at forging links with the NF.
It was supposed to be a new start, the opening of a new chapter on the road to power and yet the contrast between the stated aim and what this Congress delivered is striking. When a party wants to appeal beyond its core electorate, it can’t just adopt a new name, it also needs to appeal to new voters and when it is a far-right party it needs to give them a reason to overcome their long-standing reluctance and take the plunge. In Le Pen’s case, she needed to soften her policies and language further, and to appear inclusive. And yet, she delivered an aggressive and strident hard-line speech that went back to the core tenets of the NF, with national preference, immigration and security at the forefront, and a Congress hall chanting a rather threatening “this is our home”. And yet, she invited an extremely controversial figure in Steve Bannon, which divided members and led one key figure, the MP Gilbert Collard, to say, “we might try to avoid giving ammunition to our enemies that they can use dishonestly against us.” She could have appealed to those disappointed in Macron or the new leader of the Republican Right, Wauquiez, and yet she didn’t. She could have appealed to voters on the left, as she did rather successfully during the presidential election, and yet she didn’t. The same goes with alliances. If a party wants alliance it needs to give a reason for other parties to join forces. And yet, she spent barely 15 minutes talking about the need for alliances and didn’t offer anything, didn’t offer a basis for discussion, didn’t outline where and what the convergence could be. She may have changed the name but she kept the same line, the same nationalist and identity-based policies and the same logo. Even the new name is rooted in the history of the Far Right, with her father using it in 1986, and its history goes all the way back to a collaborationist party during the Second World War, which negates all idea of inclusiveness.
She did fill two aims, coming back under the media limelight, and showing her base that a new name does not mean a new line. However, unless she softens her language, clarifies her stance on the Euro and put forward more consensual policies, it is hard to see, right now, how she can fulfil her ambition to appeal beyond her core electorate and forge alliances. It is even harder to see, when a survey about voters of the mainstream Right showed that 49% against 32% were against any alliances, only 11% thought that their party should consider the NF as an ally and only 25% deemed the NF capable of appealing beyond its core voters.
This doesn’t mean, far from it, that she and her party are finished. After all, she does possess 10.6 million voters, she is currently second in the polls for the 2019 European elections, and the reasons why she fared so well last year have not disappeared. The issues she focused on, such as terrorism, the refugee crisis, immigration, or mass unemployment, are not going away. As Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Radical Politics, said, “we have no reason to believe that the job market will change for the better in the next few years. We have no reason to believe that the negative impact of globalisation will stop during the years to come. So there might be a drop in the Front National vote, but if the situation is bad in 2022 [at the time of the next presidential election], they could rise again.” And the border between the NF voters and those from the mainstream Right is porous. Voters of Les Républicains (LR) do share some of the key NF themes. When 50% of the electorate responded yes to the statement “there are too many immigrants in France”, this figure rose to 82% for LR and 92% for NF voters. When 48% of the electorate responded yes to the statement “the Muslim community has too many rights”, the figure also rose to 69% for LR voters and 91% for NF voters.
Despite the post-electoral gloom, the future is therefore far from being doomed for Marine Le Pen and her party. However, she will have to do far more than just changing the name of her party to convince the electorate that it is just like any other other and, more importantly, that it is now ready to run the country. And after years of capitalising on the social consequences of the combination of low growth and high unemployment she will also have to hope that the current marked improvement in both doesn’t last. Otherwise she might look at 2017 as the high point of her career before being confined to an eternal protest party.