Will Europe ironically turn out to be Le Pen’s key to the presidency?

The increasingly bizarre, failing nature of the Fifth French Republic is demonstrated by her potential rise, says commentator Nabila Ramdani

Marine Le Pen, pictured here in 2019, faces charges for using EU funds to pay RN assistants

The corrupt, hypocritical and often unhinged nature of far-right politics is always a key feature of European parliamentary elections in France.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, a Holocaust denier who frequently invoked Nazi nostalgia to rally his supporters, despised the concept of a continent-wide political institution based in Strasbourg and Brussels, yet used it to build up the infamy of his party, the Front National (FN), as an MEP.

When not snoozing after long lunches covered by taxpayer-funded expenses, Mr Le Pen and his cronies could be heard in the chamber pouring hate on everyone and anyone, and especially immigrants.

Charges for both Le Pen

Even now, at age 96, he is facing trial for allegedly embezzling huge sums of EU money during almost 15 deeply cynical years in the parliament.

More than that, his daughter, Marine Le Pen, a reluctant MEP for almost 13 years, is also on the charge sheet, accused of using EU funds to pay for assistants who in fact worked on her party activities in France.

This is despite her claims to have softened the image of their dynastic party, including by renaming it the Rassemblement National (RN, or National Rally).

There will be a high-profile Paris trial next year, with both Le Pens denying any wrongdoing.

Yet in spite of compelling evidence that could see both imprisoned for a decade and losing their right to stand for public office, the RN triumphed in European elections in June, winning 30 of the 81 seats available to France.

'Plenty of negatives in her favour' 

The result saw President Emmanuel Macron gift his opponents snap parliamentary elections, and a chance for them to build their domestic power base in the National Assembly.

The RN’s nominal leader is now Jordan Bardella, but Marine Le Pen remains its top player, and likely candidate to become President of France in 2027. Macron can no longer stand having completed two terms as head of state, and Ms Le Pen is convinced she is on the road to victory, at the fourth time of trying.

There are plenty of negatives in her favour. Extremism is on the rise across France, on Right and Left, as the country’s chronically high budget deficit and mounting debt leave millions in severe financial difficulty.

Youth unemployment is escalating, together with the cost of living, and Mr Macron – the so-called ‘President of the Rich’ – is perceived to be focused on helping a small group of billionaire industrialists.

This has been reflected in widespread rioting – 2023 was one of the worst for civil uprisings in decades, which is saying something for France, a country built on revolution.

A 'highly reckless election system'

The country’s quirky, and indeed highly reckless, presidential election system concludes with two candidates seeking a majority.

Jean-Marie Le Pen was himself a finalist in 2002, and it was only thanks to a ‘Republican Pact’ – everyone voting against the extremist no matter what their political affiliations – that he failed.

Marine Le Pen was runner-up in the last two presidential elections against Mr Macron, with 41% of the vote in 2022, and arguably lost because of this pact too.

If it fails in 2027 – something that is quite possible given the sense of crisis in France – then she could certainly squeeze in as head of state.

Such a monumental result simply requires a rise of a few percentage points and this is entirely feasible. Thus, if she can stay out of prison, an alleged criminal and arch-Eurosceptic will have channelled her party’s long-term success in Europe into getting into the Elysée Palace.

It is an astonishing prospect, but one that perfectly illustrates the increasingly bizarre, failing nature of the Fifth French Republic.

On June 19, France’s top court rejected an appeal by the RN for charges of defrauding the state during the 2012 parliamentary elections. RN had been accused of selling ‘electoral kits’ including manifestos and posters at €16,650 a piece to its own candidates. It was ordered to repay €250,000.