Marine Le Pen can be excused for thinking her time has come. With six months to go until France’s presidential election, the left-wing government of François Hollande has produced only one winner, and it is her. She’s providing the Gallic contribution to the insurgent charge epitomised elsewhere by Brexit and Donald Trump.
France, the home of joie de vivre, has become an introverted place whose citizens fear their nation has lost its way. It is an existential challenge, in the birthplace of existentialism, that the mainstream right is failing to answer.
Le Pen, on the other hand, says she has all the answers — and, despite the questionable nature of many of her remedies, up to a third of the electorate appears to agree. Her message on the need to protect France’s borders resonates, especially as the Hollande government sets about dispersing the famous ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais, a move which has provoked protests in the towns to which the refugees are being bused. And her calls to step up the fight against Islamic fundamentalism, erect protectionist trade barriers and hold a referendum on France’s membership of the European Union also chime with the mood of the times.
Agnes Poirier and Gavin Mortimer discuss Marine Le Pen's prospects
Security, in all its forms, dominates popular thinking in France these days after the string of terrorist attacks over the past 20 months, which have been accompanied by a flatlining economy and growing social unrest. Indeed, polls show la sécurité is becoming more important in the public mind than the long record of high unemployment. The governing class has lost its sheen; Hollande’s ‘war on terror’ has not convinced the nation, which awaits the next attack.
In business terms, too, France has lost its self-confidence. The country houses the headquarters of many well-run companies, but they increasingly outsource work to poorer countries and belong to a global elite rather than epitomising a ‘French model’. Upwardly mobile young people seek employment in the UK and the United States. Even national symbols and values have lost their allure, supplanted by factory-made baguettes, the challenge of New World wines and British winners of the Tour de France.
As the Hollande administration dodged unconvincingly for the past four years between bolstering its traditional left-wing support and moving cautiously towards the market and social democracy, room should have been available for a strong response from the centre-right. All the more so given the president’s abysmal opinion polls — one survey this week gave him a satisfaction rating of just 4 per cent.
Hollande has been determined in foreign policy, notably in Africa and the Middle East, but voters in the first round of the election next April will care most about his performance at home. Nobody gives him a chance of being among the top two candidates who go on to the second round the following month. A year ago, it was possible to envisage that divisions in the mainstream right might open a window to re-election; his continuing fumbling performance has shut that off.
The best some Socialists hope for is that he will finally see the light and not run in his party’s primary in January, making way for the more popular prime minister, Manuel Valls. Some polls even show the president in danger of losing the primary to his challenger from the left, Arnaud Montebourg. Valls is tarred with the brush of the Hollande years while the other potential runner, the maverick former economics minister Emmanuel Macron, is a neophyte who has never contested an election, is hated by much of the left and lacks a big political machine.
In theory, the stage should have been set for the mainstream right in Les Républicains, the party created by former president Nicolas Sarkozy to get himself re-elected. Given the left’s problems, its candidate is likely to win the Élysée. But the difficulties the movement has created for itself are an object lesson in the self-destructive nature of French politics, which has enabled Le Pen to watch happily as events unfurl in her favour.
‘Le petit Nicolas’, or ‘Sarko’ as he is generally known, has never got over being beaten by Hollande in 2012. He had won the presidency five years earlier — against Hollande’s former partner, Ségolène Royal — on a promise of sweeping reform to make France strong again. He fell well short, not helped by the 2008 global financial crisis but also undermined by cutting deals with vested interest groups and failing to win public confidence.
Then there was the personal factor. ‘President Bling’ and his new-rich, showbusiness friends were widely seen as clashing with the quasi-monarchical position of the president, while his messy, highly publicised break-up with his wife and his subsequent remarriage to the model-singer Carla Bruni were fodder for the gossip magazines. That apart, a lot of people simply cannot stand his domineering, pitbull style. His role in a failed government means he could play the part of Hillary Clinton to Le Pen’s Donald Trump.
But the former president is not a man who knows how to give up. Over the summer, the other main figure in Les Républicains’ leadership, Alain Juppé, moved ahead of him in the polls, both among voters at large and among party ranks. In contrast to Sarkozy, Juppé radiated calm confidence. He had held top ministerial jobs and was a successful mayor of Bordeaux.
Sarkozy’s reaction was typical. He became even more strident on what he identified as the main concerns of the French — security, terrorism and immigration. In speeches this autumn he proposed locking up anybody merely suspected of Islamic radicalisation and played heavily to nativism. In short, he tried to out-Le Pen Le Pen,
Juppé has remained calm. That is in character, but therein may lie his problem. He fails to reflect widespread anger about immigration and terrorism — though he did strike a firm note by saying the Calais ‘Jungle’ should be moved across the Channel. His age, 71, ten years older than Sarkozy, may also present difficulties. The economic and social reforms he promises are sensible but similar to those he pursued as prime minister in the 1990s, before suffering a crushing electoral defeat. Most seriously, he is the embodiment of the elite establishment which has run France for four decades — a self-serving political class which the country no longer trusts.
In short, while Sarkozy’s only tactic has been to outbid the far right, his main rival hardly cuts a convincing figure for the troubled nation of today. The same goes for the other challengers in Les Républicains.
Which leaves a huge vacuum for Le Pen. She is credited with 28–30 per cent support for the first round of the presidential poll — ten points more than she won last time, and ahead of any mainstream candidate. That would qualify her for the two-person runoff, which nobody thinks she would win. But, at 48, she can take her time; she said four years ago that the 2022 election was her real goal. She would have shown that almost a third of voters were ready to cast their initial ballots her way and cemented the Front’s claim to be France’s biggest political movement.
That would be evidence of her success in detoxifying the Front of its wayward bully--boy image under her father, Jean-Marie, who has been expelled from its ranks for repeating his dismissal of the Holocaust as ‘a detail’ of history. Marine, twice divorced and now the partner of the Front’s vice--president, knows how to play to the gallery; she paraded at the last party conference with a tame eagle on her arm (Donald Trump, eat your heart out). But she also comes over as somebody who understands the difficulties of ordinary life, in contrast to the elite university graduates who waft between the civil service and the mainstream parties. She is an adroit tactician and a highly polished performer. Under her, the Front has been recruiting young militants and reaching out into the civil service and the professions to form a far more solid base than it had in her father’s day. She can even sound a moderate note. Responding to Sarkozy’s proposal to lock up suspected radicals without trial, for instance, she insisted on the importance of the rule of law, and she largely stayed out of the culture-wars battle that was fought over Hollande’s gay marriage legislation.
Her core appeal, however, is to claim to be able to remedy the nation’s woes with Jean-Marie’s old mixture of national revival, immigration and law and order. She can also now ask why voters would choose ‘Le Pen lite’ by backing Sarkozy when they could have the real thing.
By the standards of progressive, enlightened France and its elite, Le Pen’s medicine is retrograde, including as it does second-class status for immigrants in welfare, tougher sentencing, protectionism and more state economic intervention. She celebrates the fact that ‘the nation state is back’ and, naturally, favours a move towards ‘Frexit’. But whatever the elite thinks, like the leaders of anti-EU movements elsewhere, she strikes a resonant chord in places they do not.
The Front now has more support from industrial workers than any other party and took 6.8 million votes, nearly 30 per cent, in the first round of regional elections last year. That was enough to frighten the mainstream parties into forming anti-Front coalitions, and the party duly lost out in the second round. Many commentators saw that failure as evidence that the Front’s progress could be halted by the guardians of the republic. On the contrary, the need for those coalitions demonstrated that the Front is now a central element in French politics in the face of a mainstream right riven by personal wars, policy weaknesses and a growing separation from issues that concern the bulk of the French. Tellingly, during the regional polls, middle-class people were ready to tell television reporters they had voted for the Front in a way that they would not have done in Jean-Marie’s day.
This is part of a much wider pattern stretching across Europe and beyond. That it should have been allowed to develop in a country which takes its enlightenment values so seriously and sees itself as a beacon for humanity is a condemnation of the leaders France has been saddled with for-decades.