How Marine Le Pen has backed away from Frexit

Rather than leaving the EU, the Front National leader wants to "renegotiate" France's membership.

NS

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The near-certainty that Marine Le Pen will make the second round of the French presidential election, and potentially win the contest, has long raised the spectre of "Frexit": French withdrawal from the EU. After the UK voted to leave, Le Pen declared: "Brexit has really broken a taboo. The Brits have shown us that you can leave the European Union and you can come out better."

But faced with the task of winning over centrist voters, the Front National leader is now striking a more concilitatory tone. Asked in a new year interview whether she would pursue EU withdrawal, Le Pen replied: "No, I think we need to renegotiate with the EU to bring back sovereignty to France, backed by a referendum." Rather than staging an In/Out vote, Le Pen will seek to reform the country's membership and put the outcome to voters. A poll published last year found only 33 per cent in favour of Frexit.

Le Pen aims to withdraw France from the border-free Schengen Area (mirroring the UK's opt-out) and replace the euro with a national currency. But she has now stated that she believes the EU should retain a "common currency" system along the lines of the pre-Euro ECU.

Though victory for Le Pen on 7 May is far from unthinkable, it remains unlikely. The most recent opinion polls showed her trailing Republican candidate François Fillon by 65-35 and the centrist Emmanuel Macron by 62-38. Le Pen is seeking to appeal to the left by pledging to retain the 35-hour week and denouncing the pro-market Fillon (she described his pledge to cut 500,000 public sector jobs as a "folly" that would "make France sick").

But as in 2002, when Jacques Chirac defeated Jean Marie Le Pen by a lanslide, the traditional anti-fascist pact between the main parties is likely to hold. In 2015, tactical voting denied the Front National a single regional presidency. In 2017, it is likely to deny it the national one.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.