Marine Le Pen: Madame Présidente?
The far-right candidate leads in French polls, but her challenges may prove insurmountable.
Marine Le Pen is hoping the wave of populism sweeping the Western world carries her to the Élysée Palace.
“The wind of history has turned,” Le Pen, who heads the far-right National Front (FN), told a crowd of supporters at the kickoff of her presidential bid earlier this month in Lyon, the industrial city in southeastern France. “It will carry us to the summit.”
Opinion polls have shown Le Pen winning the first round of France’s presidential election in April, only to lose to whomever she faces in the second round of voting in May. That candidate will likely be François Fillon, the center-right candidate, or Emmanuel Macron, the independent; polls show the two men seesawing between second and third place in the first round. If no candidate achieves a majority in the first round, the top-two vote getters advance to a second round run-off. Although it’s still early, and polling can be wrong, the likelihood of Le Pen beating either Fillon or Macron in the second round is slim. Still, with the Western establishment reeling from Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union, and growing anger at political elites throughout Europe, Le Pen and other far-right, populist leaders in Europe fancy their chances.
Le Pen envisions a France with closed borders, its own currency, and tough immigration controls; a country that is independent of international bodies like NATO, and one that ultimately puts itself first. This inward thinking, Le Pen reminded supporters, would not be unique to France.
“Other people have shown the way,” she said, alluding to the Brexit vote last summer and Trump’s election last November.
Although such sentiments might be experiencing a resurgence, many of Le Pen’s policies are not new. Indeed, her 144-point manifesto outlining her vision for France reflects many of the policies the FN has put forward since it was founded more than four decades ago by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. From the onset, the party has opposed the European Union, economic protectionism, and same-sex marriage. It has also been characterized by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic sentiment (Jean-Marie Le Pen has repeatedly dismissed the Holocaust as a minor “detail” of history and defended collaborators of the Vichy government, which deported tens of thousands of French Jews to death camps during World War II).
Those views haven’t earned the FN much electoral success. The party didn’t win a single local election in 2015, and claims only two seats in French parliament. The FN’s previous best performance in the presidential election was in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the second round for the first time in the FN’s history; voters handed then-incumbent President Jacques Chirac 82 percent of the vote—an unprecedented victory that was widely regarded more as a rebuke of the FN than approval of Chirac. By the time Marine Le Pen took over as the leader of the FN in 2011, the party began a period of transformative rebranding—one which retained its far-right values with less emphasis on the homophobic, anti-Semitic elements. This ultimately resulted in the expulsion of the elder Le Pen from the party in 2015 in a family battle played out in the media.
“Voluntarily or not, he gave ammunition to our adversaries,” Le Pen said of her father in November, adding: “Today our adversaries no longer have that ammunition.”
Still, the younger Le Pen’s rebranding efforts alone may not be enough. Dr. David Lees, a researcher on French politics at Warwick University, told me last November that though Le Pen’s outsider status has certainly helped her anti-establishment image, it could also pose a challenge.
“The FN has only got two members of the National Assembly in France … so if she does win, she wouldn’t be able to form a government,” Lees said. “She would find it very hard to govern without having any sense of support in Parliament. She just wouldn’t get anything through because the options of ruling by decree in France are very small for a president.”
Indeed, finding common ground with other members of the government would prove difficult for Le Pen—especially in comparison to competitors like Macron, whose centrist, business-orientated agenda could be more appealing to swing votes on the left and right than the FN’s populist agenda. Still, Le Pen’s rebranding has proven effective in communities previously marginalized by the FN. The party has actively pursued more progressive causes such as promoting women’s rights and gay rights, as well as protecting France’s Jewish community from anti-Semitism—often by presenting Muslim immigration as a threat to all three.
“We do not want to live under the rule or threat of Islamic fundamentalism,” she told supporters in Lyon, and accused Muslim immigrants of “looking to impose on us gender discrimination in public places, full body veils or not, prayer rooms in the workplace, prayers in the streets, huge mosques.”
The FN has found common cause with far-right parties throughout Europe who share its anti-Islam and anti-globalist agenda, as well as other governments. Le Pen has praised both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, noting that if she were elected, the three leaders “would be good for world peace.” Le Pen has been a vocal proponent of rapprochement with Russia. In addition to rejecting the notion of Russia’s actions in Ukraine’s Crimea as an invasion, she also condemned U.S. and EU sanctions on Moscow as “completely stupid.” The FN received an 11-million euro (about $11.6 million) loan from the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank in 2014, and Le Pen has reportedly asked Russia for another loan to finance her current presidential bid, citing French banks’ refusal to lend.
Fredrik Wesslau, the director of the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me in January that Moscow’s ideological affinity with the FN is what attracts it to most of Europe’s far-right populist parties.
“They see a country that’s willing to stick up for socially conservative rights, that’s embraced authoritarian populism, that’s also xenophobic, in particular anti-Islam, which is something that many of these parties can relate to,” Wesslau said. “There’s a lot of overlap.”
And while the FN leader isn’t the only French presidential candidate to support better relations with Russia (Fillon, the center-right candidate, has also supported reconciliation), reports of Russian media coverage favoring Le Pen against other contenders has sparked concerns Moscow might try to interfere in France’s elections similar to the way it did in the U.S. elections.
But for all the challenges Le Pen faces as an untested leader of historically fringe party, one that is often overlooked is her role as France’s sole female candidate. Women have historically been underrepresented in French politics, with female lawmakers making up 25 percent of the National Assembly and 27 percent of the Senate. Édith Cresson became the first and only woman to serve as prime minister in 1991 under President François Mitterrand, but suffered low approval ratings and lost the post after less than a year—a loss some attribute to misogynist attitudes among the Socialist party elites. Socialist party member Ségolène Royal made French history in 2007 when she became the first woman to be nominated as a presidential candidate by a major party. She lost to Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round.
If Le Pen advances to the second round as polls suggest she could, she’ll only be the second female candidate to have done so since Royal. It’s a glass ceiling Lees said she may have a difficult time shattering.
“We’ve never had a female president, we’ve never had a female leader really in France,” Lees said. “So there really isn’t precedent there.”
With the first round of voting less than two months away, Le Pen has the task of maintaining the lead polls have given her since the start of the election. But it will also involve not being derailed by recent allegations she misused 300,000 euros of EU funds to pay her parliamentary assistants. It’s a charge Le Pen denies, and one that has resulted in the arrest of her chief of staff, Catherine Griset, who has been charged with breach of trust. Le Pen’s lawyers say the investigation is an attempt to harm the presidential hopeful “at the very moment when her candidacy is making a major breakthrough.”