Blonde ambition waiting in wings...

... as Marine Le Pen rolls the electoral dice one last time.

25 September 2019
By Simon Heffer

A main feature of the rentrée in France has been the launch of a campaign by Marine Le Pen and the Rassemblement National to re-pitch themselves as the party of the ordinary French man and woman – what Mme Le Pen has called “démetropolisation”.

In her view, France – in common with much of the western world – has a ruling urban elite that fails to understand or even heed the needs and fears of those outside their class, and who make up the majority of the population.

The campaign is leading to next year’s local elections, in which the party has high hopes of doing well: but everything, in reality, is aimed at the 2022 presidential elections, in which Mme Le Pen will be aiming – perhaps for the last time – to become France’s head of state.

It is often said, with some justification, that she had a poor contest against Mr Macron in 2017, performing badly in media appearances especially, and lacklustre on the stump.

To me, it seemed she suffered from a combination of thwarted expectations and sheer shock.

Her expectations thwarted in the sense that she expected the policy overhaul her party had undergone since the era of her father to have accomplished much more in terms of bringing people round to her point of view, and the shock of discovering that mildly-ridiculed centrist Mr Macron, with a party that had to be started from scratch, could have done so phenomenally well as it did.

By the end of the 2017 Presidential campaign, she gave the impression of having gone several rounds with a heavyweight boxing champion, such was her disorientation.

Since then, there has been a slow period of recovery for Mme Le Pen, which has not been assisted by the steady progress of her niece, Marion Maréchal, in building up her own power base in the party.

Mme Maréchal is shrewd enough also not to embrace the blatantly racist politics of her grandfather, the apple of whose eye she is; but in all other respects she has kept close to the old man, even while docking the ‘Le Pen’ from her surname.

She embraces his social conservatism, championing the family as the bedrock of French society (though she is herself divorced).

She has also argued Muslims can have a place in French society only if they respect and conform to its Christian heritage (in a country that has had a loi de laïcité since 1905).

Her aunt’s views are more nuanced, but that did not stop Mme Le Pen from claiming a triumph when the EU announced a commissioner to champion the European way of life.

In 2017, Mme Maréchal did not stand in elections to the Assemblée Nationale, and says she is concentrating on education policy.

Her intentions in the immediate future are unclear, but some presume an attempt at the presidency herself in 2022.

Younger, more photogenic and more charismatic than her aunt, she has much going for her, but does not yet have her aunt’s machine or, crucially, her experience.

Her continuing presence in French politics and her barely-restrained ambition do, however, make her a formidable long-term prospect, and the reason why one more failure by her aunt may prove to be her last.

Mme Maréchal will be 32 at the time of the next presidential election. By the time of the one after that, she will be almost exactly the age Mr Macron was when he made his run for office.

Her aunt, though, has a relatively fair wind behind her.

The 21st-century rebranding of what was the Front National has largely been a success; and so has her distancing from her father, now in his 92nd year and no longer a force in French politics.

The traditional mainstream party of the right, Les Républicains, remains in turmoil.

Having polled under 9% in the European elections last summer they lost their leader, Laurent Wauquiez; and his interim replacement, septuagenarian Jean Leonetti, appears to have little name recognition outside his own family.

Mr Leonetti’s plea at September’s party conference at Le Touquet for what was left of his party not to be afraid to “turn a page” was hardly inspirational.

The fact is that the political giants now in France are Mr Macron’s En Marche and Mme Le Pen’s RN. Only an earthquake is going to change that between now and 2022 – which means Mme Le Pen will never have a better chance to get herself in the Elysée palace.

And her démetropolisation programme seems aimed squarely at the gilets jaunes, and especially at the large agricultural and small business sector in France that have been one of the main motivations of that movement.

The old FN seemed to have been born out of the 1950s movement of Poujadisme, named after the irate shopkeeper who started it, and one of whose sympathisers was the young Jean-Marie Le Pen.

In subtly embracing the ideals of the gilets jaunes, the RN seems to have gone full circle.

But, even with more attractive policies, and the apparent disillusion with M Macron, could the RN ever win a presidential election?

It seems highly unlikely under the present system, where there is a run-off in the final round: it seems to be the role of the Le Pen family candidate’s opponent always to receive the votes transferred from every eliminated candidate in that round, even though Jean-Marie Le Pen’s losing by 4 to 1 in 2002 turned into his daughter’s losing by just 2 to 1 in 2017.

Had her campaign not been so inadequate she might have polled over 40%, which would have given her real momentum.

We are only halfway through this presidential term, and a lot can change: but Mr Macron (who has now taken up the RN’s cause of limiting immigration) must fail very badly yet not to benefit, once more, from France’s electoral system.

 

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics. Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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