French politics in the balance? - the Le Pen Effect

The election of Marine Le Pen as leader of the Front National has provoked a flurry of media activity in France. Articulate, telegenic and a pushing a more liberal agenda than her father, Jean-Marie’s daughter may be a real threat to mainstream political parties.
Matthew Moran
21 January 2011

Last Saturday, Jean Marie Le Pen bid farewell to the Front National (FN). In an emotional speech the charismatic leader stepped down from a position he has held for nearly four decades. And his successor? His daughter Marine. Jean Marie Le Pen has long prepared the youngest of his daughters for this role as the leading figure of the French far-right, claiming that Marine would reinvigorate a party which has seen a steady decrease in popularity in recent years.

There can be no doubt that Marine Le Pen will offer the FN a new lease of life. Winning the internal leadership contest with over two-thirds of the vote, Ms. Le Pen has galvanised support within the party. More importantly, her attacks on economic liberalism – she has criticized the ‘unchecked reign of money’ – seem to have resounded more widely with an electorate that is becoming increasingly disillusioned with mainstream parties. In 2007, the FN suffered a humiliating defeat as Nicolas Sarkozy seduced a large number of FN voters with his security-oriented rhetoric. Three years later, polls reveal a surge in support as the electorate respond to Ms. Le Pen’s claims that she wants to break with the neofascist image associated with her father – Jean-Marie Le Pen famously described the gas chambers at Auschwitz as a ‘detail of history’. A recent poll suggested that she could capture as much as 13% in the presidential elections.

Of course, Ms. Le Pen’s attempt to rebrand the party has made her enemies. The old guard of the FN see her shift towards the centre as a sell-out. Le Pen’s more liberal stance on homosexuality and abortion has alienated the harder element of the far-right who claim that she is sacrificing the party’s soul for political success. As a result, Ms. Le Pen is engaged in a delicate balancing act that seeks to revamp the party’s image and broadening its appeal among the electorate, without losing the support of hard-line members. Not an easy task. However, make no mistake, Marine Le Pen is still her father’s daughter and her policies echo many of the traditional views of the FN: anti-Europe, anti-immigration, national preference. Ms. Le Pen has also reinvigorated the anti-Islamic position shared by her father. Portraying herself as a defender of French secularism, she has voiced her opposition to the ‘Islamisation’ of French society. At a rally in Lyon, she compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation. Worryingly, the results of a poll suggested that 39% of French people approved of her comments.

Before her election as President of the FN, Ms. Le Pen acted as ‘executive vice-president for training, communication and propaganda’, an ironic title given her skilful construction of a new, more centrist party image while attempting to cling on to the party’s hard-line support. Positioning herself as the reluctant heir to her father’s throne, Ms. Le Pen has described her move into French politics as a sort of destiny. Alongside this role as the reluctant saviour of French politics, Ms. Le Pen has also spoken of the difficulties of life as a member of the le Pen family. In interviews, she has described the bomb attack on the family home in 1976, as well as how she was isolated and excluded as a student because of her family name. Paradoxically, this strategy has caused a role reversal of sorts. The FN has long been known for a rhetoric that stigmatises and attacks certain groups. However, Marine le Pen’s approach challenges this image, positioning the new face of the FN as the victim rather than the protagonist.

But beyond the media-friendly image lies a shrewd political tactician who has long been an FN activist. Marine le Pen joined her father’s party at the age of 18 and rapidly became the leader of its youth wing. Later, having graduated with a degree in law, she went on to head the party’s legal department. In 2007, Ms. le Pen managed her father’s presidential campaign. All in all, Marine le Pen has spent a large part of her life at the heart of the FN. More than this, she has been groomed by her father who played an important role in bringing about a generalised shift to the right in French politics during the 1990s. Big shoes to fill, but Marine Le Pen is more than ready.

The mainstream parties have acknowledged the threat posed by the FN under Marine le Pen. The actions of Sarkozy’s UMP, in particular, translate as an attempt to prevent the FN from poaching voters – a reversal of what happened during the 2002 presidential election when Sarkozy attempted to seduce voters on the far-right with his focus on security. Last year, for example, the controversial deportation of Roma gypsies and the law banning the Islamic veil were interpreted by many as attempts by Sarkozy to reassure the more right-wing supporters of his party. And Sarkozy has good reason to worry. A recent poll found that over 40% of his UMP supporters favour electoral alliances with the FN. On the left, Ségolène Royale, a candidate for the Socialist nomination for the 2012 campaign, has said that she regards Marine Le Pen as a ‘more credible and dangerous threat than her father’.

There can be no doubt that the threat from Ms. Le Pen is real. However, the extent of the threat is open for debate. French politics has been in a similar situation before. When Jean-Marie Le Pen and the FN first gained recognition in the early 1980s, the success prompted a long and drawn-out shift to the right. Mainstream political parties were unable to engage Le Pen’s dominant themes – immigration, security and religion – on their own terms. As a result, it was Le Pen who set the parameters of the debate. Nearly thirty years on, the situation is much the same. The mainstream parties must engage with Marine Le Pen on their own terms through clear and decisive policy lines. Yet, mainstream politicians appear to be falling into the same trap as their predecessors. Benoît Hamon, for example, a Socialist deputy, said he agreed with Ms. Le Pen comment regarding the ‘problem’ of Muslims praying in the streets. Ultimately, history is repeating itself and it is up to France’s politicians to learn from past mistakes.

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