President Le Pen
How Marine might win the French presidency next year and why that would be a disaster.
By Arthur Goldhammer
A year from now, France will go to the polls to elect a president. If early polling is to be believed, the contest will be a repeat of the 2017 election: Emmanuel Macron, now the incumbent, and Marine Le Pen, now the president of the Rassemblement National party, will lead all other first-round candidates by a significant margin and thus advance to the second round, the winner of which will become president. The difference this time is that many observers who gave Le Pen no chance of winning in 2017 are no longer sure about 2022. What has changed?
First, some background. Marine Le Pen, 52 years old, trained as a lawyer but has been a politician all her life. In 2011 she was elected president of what was then called the Front National, inheriting the political dynasty founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Over the next decade, Marine Le Pen sought to transform the party’s image. She eliminated the overt anti-Semitic jibes that had been her father’s trademark and purged party officials who failed to get the message. She softened the party’s xenophobic rhetoric: Instead of attacking Muslims, she portrayed Islam as a religion hostile to the “French republican value” of strict separation of church and state; instead of attacking immigrants, she portrayed herself as an economic nationalist determined to protect French jobs against the ravages of globalization; instead of denouncing government handouts, she championed generous social benefits for the native-born (“welfare chauvinism”).
French commentators describe this re-orientation of the party as dé-diabolisation, or de-demonization. No longer was the Front National directly linked to World War II collaboration and anti-Semitism, opposition to decolonization, and la chasse aux Arabes (Arab-bashing).
In 2012, Le Pen made Florian Philippot the party’s vice president. As a graduate of France’s elite École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), he lent intellectual heft to a party devoid of it. The fact that the elder Le Pen detested him and mocked his homosexuality lent credence to the idea that Marine Le Pen’s party was no longer her father’s.
Philippot became the chief architect of a campaign emphasizing economic nationalism as the remedy for de-industrialization and stagnation. Working-class voters, especially in the declining coal-mining and steel-producing regions of the north and northeast, heeded the appeal, and in the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen’s party drew more working-class votes than any other party.
In 2018, after a public falling-out with her father, Marine Le Pen changed the party’s name to Rassemblement National (RN), or National Rally, to further distance it from its unsavory past. She also made Philippot the scapegoat for her loss and dismissed him. Clearly, the appeal to the working class by way of economic nationalism could carry her only so far: In the second round she finished with just 34 percent of the vote. To make it to 50 percent, she will need to tap new reservoirs of support while holding on to her base among the segments of the population hard-hit by globalization.
Marine Le Pen 2.0 represents a significant updating of the 2017 campaign software. To understand the party’s direction, one has only to look at the three new party spokesmen Le Pen chose to replace Philippot: Jordan Bardella, Sébastien Chenu, and Julien Sanchez. Of these three, perhaps the most striking choice was Bardella. He had everything necessary to appeal to new voters: youth (he was just 23), good looks, a charismatic speaking style, a knack for social media, and a gift for the demagogic turn of phrase, as when he described a crime-ridden Paris suburb as “a theme park for delinquents.”
Now a member of the European Parliament, Bardella is well-placed to exploit widespread discontent among French youth. Despite the liberalizing reforms of the past three presidencies (Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande, and now Macron), older workers lucky enough to have jobs enjoy extensive protections under French labor law. But young people leaving school find it hard to get work.
On May Day, when RN supporters traditionally gather at the statue of Joan of Arc in the Place des Pyramides near the Louvre, Le Pen announced a bold new program to deal with the plight of unemployed youth. With Bardella at her side, she promised to match the investment of any under-30 entrepreneur with state funds. Other pledges included exempting young entrepreneurs’ business and personal income from taxes for five years, alleviating inheritance and gift taxes, subsidizing job training, and offering state aid to young families.
Le Pen’s second new party spokesman is Sébastien Chenu. Like Philippot, Chenu is gay: He founded GayLib, a militant right-wing gay rights organization. Initially an ardent supporter of the center-right Sarkozy and an outspoken opponent of Le Pen, he served as deputy chief of staff to Sarkozy’s finance minister Christine Lagarde.
Unlike Philippot, whose economic knowledge was limited to what he had learned at the ENA, Chenu had actually served in government. The point was not lost on Marine Le Pen, who recognized how her 2017 campaign had suffered from its lack of experienced advisers. When introduced to Chenu at a dinner party, she urged him to abandon the center-right and join her movement.
Chenu wasted no time in seizing the opportunity. He currently heads the RN ticket in the upcoming regional elections in Hauts-de-France, a heavily blue-collar region in the north, where he previously campaigned alongside Le Pen when she headed the same list in 2016. His intimate knowledge of the region and its economic needs could help to shore up support in the RN’s working-class base.
The third constituency Le Pen hopes to win over is disillusioned Macron voters. Many who voted for Macron in 2017 saw him as a “change” candidate who rejected the tired (and often interchangeable) policies of the center-left and center-right, promising to nurture in their place a more dynamic, entrepreneurial, and nimble state. Instead, they got a government that offered mostly the standard-issue “structural reforms” (read: reduced job protections, elimination of the wealth tax, and corporate subsidies) of the center-right together with a top-down governing style that many see as autocratic and arrogant. The so-called Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) uprising, which originated in the left-behind provinces but quickly spread to Paris and other major cities, reflected the potency of this latent anti-Macron sentiment.
Le Pen wisely declined to endorse the Gilets Jaunes, a leaderless and unpredictable movement that could easily have turned on her had she tried to co-opt it. But she has reaped the benefits, as many who wore the yellow jacket in 2019 and 2020 now indicate that they will vote RN in 2022. She now hopes to reel in voters disgusted with the mainstream parties, just as Macron did in 2017.
Julien Sanchez, the 37-year-old mayor of Beaucaire, a small southern town typical of the places where anti-Macron sentiment is festering, is well-placed to help her in this regard. Rounding out the trio of new spokesmen whom Le Pen elevated in preparation for her 2022 run, Sanchez serves as a reminder that the party’s demons have not been banished entirely. He has denounced the “invasion of immigrants” and provoked a lawsuit by business owners alleging discrimination against Muslims (although a court decided that the mayor was acting within his rights).
He also changed the name of a street in Beaucaire commemorating a truce in Algeria’s war for independence to one recalling instead a massacre of European colonizers by Algerian rebels. This move speaks volumes: Partisans of Algérie française are still numerous in the south of France. This was a signature issue of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the old FN, which never made its peace with Charles de Gaulle’s decision to grant independence to Algeria. But Le Pen’s daughter ostensibly put Algeria—and the anti-Muslim, anti-Gaullist sentiment it fueled—behind her when she allowed Philippot to lay a wreath at de Gaulle’s tomb in 2014.
Nevertheless, anti-Gaullists remain a key element of the RN’s base. Recently, a group of retired military men, including a number of generals, issued a statement on the 60th anniversary of the failed “Algiers putsch” against de Gaulle that Macron’s “concessions to Islamism” had put the “survival of the French state” at risk. Le Pen could have ignored the subsequent controversy. Instead, she endorsed the assertion that “Islamism and suburban (read: immigrant) hordes” had literally taken over parts of French territory. “As a citizen and political leader, I subscribe to your analyses and share your distress,” she wrote, in a message clearly aimed at retaining the support of the kinds of voters who had supported her father’s FN in the days when demons were its stock-in-trade rather than something it would rather forget.
Clearly, Marine Le Pen’s 2018 housecleaning reflects a well-thought-out strategy for capturing votes she failed to capture in 2017 while retaining the party’s traditional bases of support, including those who have never reconciled themselves to the Fifth Republic inaugurated by General de Gaulle six decades ago.
Can she make it? The answer is by no means certain. A Harris poll conducted in mid-April shows her again losing to Macron in the second round by 54-46. This is considerably better than she did in 2017, but still short of the mark. It is still early, however. As an outsider, she has some advantages over Macron, whose room for maneuver has been severely limited by the COVID-19 crisis. If she wins, it will mark the culmination of nearly 50 years in pursuit of the presidency by Le Pen père et fille.
Make no mistake: A Le Pen victory would be as much of a disaster for France and for Europe as Donald Trump’s victory was for the United States, for several reasons.
While Le Pen has soft-pedaled her Euroskepticism since her 2017 debate debacle, her whole approach to politics remains staunchly nationalist. Within the EU she has forged ties with other nationalist parties such as Fidesz in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, and Lega in Italy. By putting a far-right party in charge of the EU’s second-largest economy, a Le Pen victory would shift the balance of power to the anti-EU fifth column within the EU itself.
Her election would also encourage racist, xenophobic, and conspiratorial movements to assert themselves more openly. The party’s demonic elements have lately been subdued, replaced by the softer voices of Bardella, Chenu, and Le Pen herself, but they are ready to reassert themselves when the moment is right. “Le grand remplacement”—the idea that “white northern-European civilization” is under threat by invasive foreign elements, vociferously expressed by white supremacist pro-Trump demonstrators in Charlottesville—originated in France with the writer Renaud Camus, a Le Pen supporter. The idea of a “great replacement” conjures up images of a barbarian invasion, a notion reinforced by the allusion to “suburban hordes” in the generals’ statement, which Le Pen endorsed. There is no question that her election would exacerbate racial tensions in France and encourage discrimination against minority populations.
In short, Le Pen’s transformation of the RN is only skin deep. She has done what she had to do to attract the young, the disaffected, and the fearful who did not vote for her in 2017. But the core of her appeal remains the same as her father’s: She represents those who believe that France’s government should govern on behalf of the “authentic” French at the expense of the rest, that the country’s elites have ensconced themselves in power by selling out to Brussels and Washington, and that “democracy” cannot survive without an authoritarian leader to keep the “barbarian hordes” at bay.
Arthur Goldhammer, a senior affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University and the translator of more than 125 books from the French, writes widely on French politics and culture.