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21 September 2016

An embarrassing admirer: no one wants to see Theresa May succeed more than Marine Le Pen

The Prime Minister’s far-right cheerleader.

By Philip Kyle

“In the UK, a woman has agreed to take on the task of carrying out Brexit. Theresa May does not take her position as Prime Minister lightly. She has undertaken great reforms to reindustrialise her country, to improve the education system, to make the social system fairer.”

As she will undoubtedly face difficult times negotiating Brexit, receiving praise from a prominent European politician should give Theresa May some comfort.

The problem is that the endorsement comes from France’s far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

When prompted on Le Pen’s new-found admiration for the Prime Minister, Downing Street unsurprisingly declined to comment.

Marine Le Pen is running to be French President in next year’s May election. Polls are consistently showing that she should qualify in first position for the second round of the election.

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Republican (conservative) and Socialist candidates are now campaigning on who is best equipped to beat her. The National Front leader is today very much at the centre of the game in French politics.

Le Pen had been quite quiet over the summer, but at the beginning of September in Brachay (a village in the east of France), she delivered what was considered to be the first speech of her presidential campaign. As is usually the case with Le Pen, she focused on identity, immigration, security issues but also on the European Union – when she delivered those kind words about Theresa May.

For years, she has been advocating for France to leave the EU, and Brexit has given her new ammunition. Frexit will be at the heart of her presidential campaign, and it is likely that she will want to continue to identify with the British Prime Minister.

May is not only leading the UK out of the European Union, she is also pushing a new industrial policy and says she is keen to promote social mobility for the working classes. These priorities align with some of Le Pen’s narrative, and are music to the ears of her electoral base.

Ten days ago, Le Pen reiterated her flattering comments on French television. And last week, speaking in the European Parliament chamber, she added: “The Brits have shown us that you can leave the European Union and you can come out better.”

Gilles Lebreton, another National Front Member of the European Parliament, echoes that sentiment: “I feel close to the Conservative party as it was brave enough to organise a referendum on Brexit and it has been honest in respecting its result,” he tells me. “Theresa May has great qualities: she is brave and she is respectful of the people’s vote.”

Being put on a pedestal by a far-right party is the last thing Britain needs as it seeks to redefine its place in the world.

Key Conservative MPs are keen to stress that they are not impressed with how Le Pen is exploiting Brexit to suit her political agenda. Crispin Blunt MP, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, says: “The Prime Minister has made it clear to our European partners and beyond that Britain will be an outward-looking nation forging a new global role.

“Others may put their own spin on Brexit to serve their own political interests but there is simply no comparison between the UK’s positive vision for Brexit and illiberal, intolerant movements in France or elsewhere.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory MP who campaigned to leave the EU, minimised the role Brexit is playing in giving far-right movements momentum. He argues: “Far-right parties in Europe have far more complex origins than dissatisfaction with the European Union and their rise predates the Brexit vote by many years.”

While Rees Mogg may have a point from a historical point of view, the timing of Brexit for Le Pen could not be better. It is an issue of legitimacy. She has campaigned to leave the EU for years against both the Socialist and the Republican parties. In her eyes, what the UK is achieving with Brexit is proof that she is right.

As she embarks on her presidential bid, there is no one who will want to see Theresa May succeed more than Marine Le Pen.

Philip Kyle is a French and British freelance journalist. He used to work in French politics and is now reporting on the French presidential campaign. He tweets @philipjkyle.

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