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Gavin Mortimer

How Marine Le Pen silenced her critics

Le Pen's success shows she was right to ‘de-demonise’ the party founded by her father

How Marine Le Pen silenced her critics
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‘Stillborn’ is how Le Figaro describes Emmanuel Macron’s presidency after his Renaissance party failed to win an absolute majority in the National Assembly. On a wretched day for Macron, his coalition party won 245 seats in the lower house, dozens short of the number needed to secure the majority that would have allowed him to push through his reforms in his second term.

Jean-Luc Melenchon’s left-wing NUPEs took 131 seats. But the biggest surprise of the night was the success of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. They won 89 seats, a result beyond the wildest dreams of Le Pen, whose party had only eight MPs in the last parliament.

‘We have achieved our three objectives,’ declared a triumphant Le Pen, who had been predicted to win around 25 to 50 seats. ‘That of making Emmanuel Macron a minority president, without control of power and that of pursuing the political recomposition essential to democratic renewal.’

From being a fringe movement the National Rally has become a major political force in French politics. For Le Pen, it is a validation of her strategy over the years to ‘de-demonise’ the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie in 1972.

He has been one of her detractors in recent years, accusing his daughter of moving too far to the centre socially and too far to the left economically. But Marine never wavered from her belief that the key demographic to her chances of electoral success were blue-collar workers, ‘the ‘Somewheres’ of France, pushed to the periphery of society by globalisation.

In 2018, Le Pen changed the name of the party from the National Front to the National Rally. She consciously sought to soften her image by styling herself as a typical single mum who relaxed from the hurly-burly of political life by gardening and rearing cats.

Few expected her to make much of a mark in 2022 but she has benefited from the emergence of two divisive political figures, who in their separate ways have further ‘de-demonised’ her party’s image.

The first was the journalist Eric Zemmour, who launched his bid for the presidency last autumn with a manifesto that was genuinely right-wing. Few escaped his ire, be they Muslims, Americans or Ukrainians refugees. Le Pen kept her head down, delighted that the media had a new bogeyman to attack.

Zemmour’s run at the presidency ended in embarrassing failure. He suggested his Reconquest party should team up with the National Rally for the parliamentary elections but Le Pen spurned his advances. She was right to. Zemmour is not a popular figure among National Rally voters: too intellectual, too bourgeois, too bigoted.

Contrary to how they’re often portrayed in the media, the vast majority of Le Pen’s supporters are neither fascists nor racists: they are hard-working men and women in low-paid jobs who feel, with some justification, that no one in Paris gives two hoots about their struggles to make ends meet.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon knows this, which is why last week, he made a crass attempt to lure Le Pen’s voters to his camp, appealing to those who are ‘angry’ with the way France has been run this century. But while many of Le Pen’s supporters share Mélenchon’s economic outlook, they abhor his accommodation of radical elements within his coalition, particularly the environmentalists, the American-inspired progressives and the Islamists who run down France at every opportunity.

Macron also made a clumsy appeal last week, from the tarmac of an airport with the presidential jet behind him. He was about to board the aircraft to visit French Nato troops stationed in Romania, but first Macron wanted to tell the people that a vote for him in the second round of the election would be in the 'higher national interest'. A failure of his party to secure a majority in parliament, he said, would lead to ‘French disorder’.

But France is already rife with disorder, a rampant lawlessness that Macron’s government has singularly failed to address. Worse, they now try and cover up their impotency. When the story of this historic parliamentary election is written, one of the key dates will be 28 May 2022: the day of the Champions League final. The chaotic scenes that unfolded outside the Stade de France in northern Paris were, in the words of Le Pen, a ‘national humiliation’; the subsequent attempt by the government to blame Liverpool fans for the trouble was a scandal that angered millions of French.

The attempt to scapegoat Liverpool fans failed and it appears that a similar long-standing strategy to demonise Le Pen has also proved ultimately unsuccessful. As one French broadcaster put it, the ‘Republican Front is Dead’.

Written byGavin Mortimer

Gavin Mortimer is a British author who has lived in Paris for 12 years. He writes about French politics, terrorism and sport.

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