The Road to Paris: Le Pen’s Populism Runs with Two Legs
After Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections, Marine Le Pen argued, “It’s not the end of the world, it’s the end of a world,” and perhaps the start of her world. Expected to be ahead of her French competitors in the first round, Le Pen’s hopes for 2017 are indeed high, if she can handle her party’s internal contradiction.
Le Pen’s father and ex-leader of the Front National (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen, reached the runoff of the 2002 presidential election, which he lost 82 percent to 18 percent. His anti-semitic comments marginalized the FN. When Marine took over the party in 2011, she expelled many controversial figures and recently tried to remove her father from the party after yet another anti-semitic joke.
The past six years, however, were more than a witch-hunt. Building itself on economic distress and migration crises, the FN has reinvented itself, increasing its scores in every local election to reach a solid 28 percent in the 2015 regional elections.
Once a small-government party, the FN integrated some quasi-socialist concepts while keeping its central anti-immigration message under the influence of ex-leftist Florian Philippot, Le Pen’s second-in-command. He vehemently criticizes the EU and unrestrained economic liberalism more so than he defends the Christian heritage of France.
On the other side of Marine Le Pen stands her niece Marion-Maréchal Le Pen, The youngest member of parliament. SHE fought in 2013 against gay marriage and clashed with Philippot, who was outed as gay. She represents the conservative Christian middle-class that remains very strong in the south, while Philippot spearheaded the expansion of the FN to the northern rust belt.
Despite Marion’s huge popularity within the party, it was Philippot’s strategy that increased the FN’s electoral base decisively. The FN added some economic protectionism and Europhobic rhetoric to its traditional anti-immigration and anti-Islam credo, thus attracting much of the working class at the expense of the left. The FN now expects to win around 25 to 27 percent of the vote in May in the first round of the upcoming election.
Against the competition of the socially conservative and economically liberal François Fillon, Marine had the choice between getting closer to Marion to cut losses from FN’s traditional conservative base, or working with Philippot to expand her new working-class base. Marine decided to side with Philippot and publicly rebuked her niece after the proposal to partially cut abortion funding. Marine also joined the left on an attack against Fillon, calling the spending reduction plans that he promised a social regression, despite a fair amount of her supporters also wanting to reduce the size of government.
Le Pen still has a lot of work to do. Her very hard stance on immigration and Islam, coupled with the EU referendum she dreams of, still scares a lot of voters. While she is likely to reach the second round, pollsters expect her to lose by 20 points in the second round against either Fillon or Macron. Le Pen presents herself as the defender of the French welfare state against the pro-business elite, which Fillon and the rising centrist Emmanuel Macron represent, and she hopes to create confusion in the minds of leftists. If she manages to point out her economic similarities with the left, she could at least stop a massive left-wing support for Fillon or Macron during the second round. She knows that the FN’s national congress will be a bloody fight between her niece and her “protégé” Phillipot, and she needs to earn a decent score in the election to keep her uncontested leadership. Until then, she must trust her capacities to hide these internal contradictions.