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21st of October 2018

Economy



Marine Le Pen struggles to restore lustre before EU elections

Once, Marine Le Pen hoped to lead the way for Europe’s far-right populist revolution. Today, the best she hopes for is to follow others’ example.

“Matteo Salvini proves it’s possible,” said Ms Le Pen of Italy’s deputy prime minister, whom the French politician met in Rome this week and whose political success stands in stark contrast to her own fortunes.

Ms Le Pen has had a rollercoaster year that saw her abilities as a leader called into question and her party attempt to “de-demonise” itself by shedding its old name, the National Front, and rebranding as the National Rally, or RN. Jean-Marie Le Pen, her ailing and controversial father, had his connections to the party cut.

Ms Le Pen made it through to the second round of the French presidential election last summer, attracting record numbers of voters and worrying investors with threats of leaving the EU.

But after a disastrous debate performance against Emmanuel Macron, the centrist fighting his first election, her party was riven by turmoil and financial difficulties.

Now Ms Le Pen hopes for a second chance, in European elections next May that will act as a fresh referendum on the French president. Her reputation is also on the line as she attempts to rebound personally and the RN tries to cement itself as France’s main opposition party.

Recent polls of voting intentions for the European elections put the RN and Mr Macron’s En Marche party neck and neck — 21 per cent of those polled by Odoxa sided with the RN, versus 21.5 per cent for En Marche. Support for the RN remained stable, while Mr Macron suffered under a series of scandals and ministerial resignations that underlined popular discontent with his top-down, sometimes aloof way of wielding power. 

The RN’s platform is very simple . . . It opposes the EU, immigration and multiculturalism. It opposes the establishment

Recent polls from IFOP show just 33 per cent of French people approving of the French president’s performance, down from 53 per cent at the start of the year.

“Since the election of Macron we had to wait,” said Nicolas Bay, a senior member of the RN and an MEP. “We had to give Macron a chance to govern and not just attack him. But now . . . we have started to make gains again.”

The RN believes that Mr Macron’s weakness offers it the chance of further gains in a European landscape where issues of immigration and identity loom large. 

“The RN’s platform is very simple in Europe and in France,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist. “It opposes the EU, immigration and multiculturalism. It opposes the establishment.”

Mr Bay agreed: “There are three big European themes for us. First, the Europe of nations versus Macron’s federalism. Second, the gathering of the right in French politics into our party . . . And third to bring together our allies in Europe.”

The French far-right party is the largest member of a pan-EU Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group in the European Parliament, with 14 MEPs. The Eurosceptic family includes Italy’s League and Austria’s Freedom party. 

EU parliament officials say Mr Salvini — whose party is expected to gain seats next May — is courting Ms Le Pen to consolidate its presence in the chamber and bring political parties such as Germany's Germany’s AfD into the ENF after the vote.

“Salvini is leading the pack and he has made it clear that he wants to take Le Pen with him,” said one official.

The RN has also flirted with Steve Bannon’s nascent pan-European populist movement without yet committing itself to a firm relationship. While on Monday Ms Le Pen seemed keen to distance herself, saying Mr Bannon “does not come from Europe” and ."the political force that will emerge from the EU elections is us, and it us alone who will structure it”, the RN said the two met this week in Paris and could work together, with Mr Bannon offering advice and technical expertise.

Matteo Salvini looks on as Marine Le Pen speaks after their meeting in Rome: political success in Italy stands in stark contrast to her own fortunes © AP

Success in Europe will be key for the party. Ms Le Pen remains vulnerable in France, politically, legally and financially.

Banks have pulled back funding and closed accounts in what Ms Le Pen called a “banking fatwa”, and the RN’s finances were hit recently by a partial blocking of state subsidies because of an investigation into misused EU funds.

That investigation escalated on Friday with Ms Le Pen put under formal investigation for misappropriation of public funds, according to judicial sources. The allegations, which Ms Le Pen denies and can still be dropped, carry a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in jail and a €1m fine.

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Analysts say the RN is facing a dilemma: unable to gain allies with Ms Le Pen at its head and identity politics at its core and yet unable to soften its image too much without losing its base.

“The RN is too isolated,” said Sylvain Crepon, senior lecturer at the University of Tours, who added the RN needed to make alliances with other parties nearer the political centre if it wanted to govern. “Now it’s not about taking power but about participating in power, so you reach out for allies,” he said.

But “every time they try to look more reasonable, they realise their core constituency wants a party that speaks ‘the truth on identity and immigration’”, said Mr Camus. “That’s why Le Pen’s speeches are anti-Macron and anti-immigration.”

Analysts say there are few options in the RN to take Ms Le Pen’s place. Marion Maréchal — Ms Le Pen’s niece and a rising star until she quit politics last year — remains at arm’s length. 

Ms Le Pen “doesn’t have many challengers . . . but, anyway, if she succeeds in disrupting Europe she will be able to say that momentum is on her side”, said Mr Camus.

The niece who remains heir apparent for many 

For some political analysts, Marion Maréchal Le Pen represents the future of the RN. For others experts, she is just another Le Pen. What is unclear is what the niece of Marine Le Pen — who dropped the famous surname this year — wants herself. 

Having once been the youngest member of the French parliament, Ms Maréchal stepped back from her aunt’s party and the front line of politics last year.

Now she has opened a private school for the far-right in Lyon, a low-key affair with just 60 students enrolled so far, according to press reports. 

But the Institut de Sciences Sociales Economiques et Politiques boasts Steve Bannon as an informal adviser and Marion Maréchal has grand plans, saying she is seeking to “transform a disoriented elite which knows little about French history and French diplomatic heritage”, according to a recent interview with Politico.

While she has yet to reveal if she will return to politics, she remains the RN’s heir apparent for many on the right. Some see her name change not as an indication that she wants to leave politics behind but as a preparation to broaden her support — a mirror to the party’s new title.

Marion Maréchal, an avowed Catholic with pro-business leanings, was a valuable asset to her aunt, galvanising the RN’s traditional base and more mainstream conservatives just as Marine Le Pen adopted a leftwing economic agenda and more liberal social message.

That also meant the pair differed on core issues. Before stepping back from the party, Ms Maréchal repeatedly spoke out against her aunt’s strategy to broaden the party’s appeal.

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