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19 September 2016
'The nation state is back': Front National's Marine Le Pen rides on global mood
In an aircraft hangar on the French Riviera, as thousands of supporters waved French tricolour flags, France’s far-right Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, boomed proudly from the stage: “The time of the nation state is back!”
She praised Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and said plans to build walls across the world – including one to keep out migrants and refugees at Calais — showed a return to “the time of borders”.
Complaining of the dangers of mass immigration and multiculturalism that she said the EU was forcing on France, she vowed to defend French identity and restore national sovereignty. The crowd chanted “Marine President” and “This is our home”.
With only seven months until the French presidential election, the question of who will lead France remains tantalisingly open. While France’s mainstream parties on the left and right are yet to choose their candidates, Le Pen, who will stand for the FN, calmly claims to have the upper hand.
A glitterball lit up the hangar on Saturday night as she hosted a gala dinner at the party conference to mark the preparations for her 2017 French presidential bid, at one point parading with a trained eagle on her arm.
All polls show that she will easily make it into the final round run-off in May. The tense mood in French society is seen as favourable: more than 230 people have been killed in Islamist terror attacks since January 2015; mass unemployment and economic stagnation hang over daily life; and parties on both the right and left have anxiously appropriated Le Pen’s key preoccupations of immigration, national identity and the place of Islam in France.
Crucially, Le Pen believes the international mood will work in her favour – specifically the campaign by the US Republican candidate Donald Trump and the UK’s Brexit vote, which she sees as patriotic people rising up against ruling elites. Le Pen has been alone among French political leaders in loudly backing both Brexit and Trump.
The nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-European Union FN, which wants to leave the euro and favours French people over immigrants in giving out state benefits, remains the most significant far-right party in western Europe and has made big electoral gains in recent years. In the past five years, it has gone from from no presence in parliament to seats in both the lower house and the senate, 11 mayors and hundreds of local councillors at different levels. It has expanded its traditional voter base to new groups, including senior public sector workers in the police, hospitals and schools.
And yet it was clear Le Pen faces major difficulties in the presidential race as party members and supporters gathered in the traditional heartlands of the Côte d’Azur for her party conference this weekend, where many sat in straw hats and boaters bearing ribbons marked “Marine 2017”.
Even if Le Pen does reach the final round, all polls show she would be defeated. Despite Le Pen’s sidelining of her father and party co-founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and her long quest to “detoxify” her party of the racist, jack-booted, antisemitic imagery of the past, a majority of French voters still question whether the party is capable of governing France.
Outside Le Pen’s heartlands there is a widespread fear of the party, which many continue to associate with the old tags of demagoguery, xenophobia or racism. The party still faces a barrage of tactical voting by the right and left to stop it winning final-round votes – described by one Lille party worker as “the onslaught of an armada”. This clubbing together of right and left parties against the FN prevented it from winning any constituencies in last year’s regional elections despite taking a historic 6.8m votes.
Smiling, Le Pen chatted to journalists backstage at her party conference, saying she was confident she could expand her electorate far enough to win. Her aim in this pre-campaign period is to present herself as credible, to move away from divisive positions and to re-position herself as a kind of calm, unifying authority. She said she would run a “joyous” campaign. Her aides said she felt her chances were better than ever. “With the designation of Trump in the US, and Brexit, analysts should be a bit more modest, there’s a global awakening,” Le Pen said.
Above all, if Le Pen makes it through to the second round, she wants to avoid the fate that befell her father when he shocked France by reaching the final round in 2002.More than a million angry demonstrators took to the streets in protest against Le Pen senior who was subsequently squarely beaten when 82% of voters from all parties opted for Jacques Chirac, in order to keep the FN at bay.
This time, if Marine Le Pen makes the second round, she is likely to seriously narrow the gap. The parliamentary elections that will follow the presidential vote could also see the FN make historic gains in the national assembly.
Le Pen feels she has already won what has been called “the battle of ideas”. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former rightwing president who is seeking his party’s nomination to run again in 2017, has lurched so far right that he has appropriated, or outdone, certain of Le Pen’s ideas on immigration, security and Islam. This serves to legitimise FN ideas, party members argue.
While Sarkozy has controversially called for the locking up of anyone suspected of radicalisation even if they have committed no crime, Le Pen has sat back and argued for protecting the rule of law, aiming to show she is less divisive than him.
David Rachline, the young FN mayor of Fréjus who will serve as Le Pen’s campaign director, said her ideas were now “majority-held views in France”.
Gilbert Collard, one of Le Pen’s MPs, said: “Who in France can say that everything’s going well, that the economy’s good, that there’s security, that terrorism has been controlled, the nation preserved? If you look at our whole diagnosis of society’s ills – you can hate us, but everyone knows that our ideas are being taken up and reproduced by everyone else.”
Nicolas Bay, the party’s secretary general, said Trump and Brexit helped Le Pen’s cause. “It shows French people that there’s a patriotic dynamic that goes well beyond France. There’s a springtime of the people.”