The only certainty in this highly unpredictable French Presidential election seems to be that Marine Le Pen will be on the ballot of the second round in May. Depending on who she will be facing, whether it is the centrist Emmanuel Macron, the rightist François Fillon or the far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, she is credited with anything between 35-45 per cent of the vote. Indeed if current polls for the first round are to be believed, she has every right to claim that the Front National is the first political party of France. This seems like a far cry from the 2002 election when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was trounced Jacques Chirac, winning just 18 per cent of the vote. So what has changed?
The origins of the FN are to be found in the short-lived Poujadist movement of the 1950s, which was a revolt of small southern Catholic provincial shopkeepers against taxes, the (Jewish) Parisian elite and immigration. If the movement quickly ran out of steam after the foundation of the fifth Republic in 1958 – Pierre Poujade, the leader of the movement, supported the centrist Jean Lecanuet in 1965 and ultimately called to vote for the Socialist Francois Mitterand in 1981 – it marked French political life. And a young firebrand by the name of Jean-Marie Le Pen could be found within its ranks. He went on to found the Front National, whose main electorate at the time were the “pieds-noirs”, the white European settlers who had been forced out of Algeria during its war of independence. But Le Pen senior’s mouth often got ahead of him. Not only did he defend the collaborationist Vichy Regime, he was famous for describing the Holocaust as a “detail” of history, for which he was indicted.
When Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s youngest of three daughters, took over the reins of the party from her father in 2011, she went about “de-demonising” the party. She had already broken with her father over his Holocaust denial, and formally expelled him from the party in 2015. She also expunged skinheads and any other types of extreme groups from party rallies.
The old Poujadist movement within the FN lives on in the south of France, and is incarnated in Le Pen’s young niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Like her aunt she is blonde, as seems befit for populist right-wingers, whether Geert Wilders or Donald Trump. Maréchal retains the libertarian anti-tax economics of her Poujadist predecessors, and she is also strongly Catholic – being pro-life – and anti-immigrant. Interestingly she is not as anti-European as one might assume. Indeed Jean-Marie Le Pen at first supported European integration, which he thought would increase France’s prestige. But for Maréchal the problem isn’t there. For her the most important issue is to defend Christians against Muslims. As she put it recently: “a father is afraid of his daughter wearing a burqa. It doesn’t matter whether she will buy it with francs or euros”.
Unlike her niece, Marine Le Pen is twice-divorced, pro-choice and comfortable around gay people. She also got her political break not in the south, but in the north, where she became a regional council in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the old mining region that have suffered so much from deindustrialisation. Here Le Pen saw an opportunity to expand the FN vote: whilst immigration remains the main platform in the south, in the north she would marry it with economic nationalism. This has been highly successful and the FN now records over 30 per cent of the working-class vote, very much to the detriment of the Socialist Party.
To complete the triumvirate of anti-immigration and economic nationalism, she added being anti-EU. This was a logical step for her to take – in her reasoning it is because of the EU there are no longer borders to keep the immigrants out, and it has been a vehicle for neoliberalism that has led to the deindustrialisation of the north. But she is indebted to Florian Philippot for this shift. Philippot is an openly gay graduate of the elite École nationale d’administration, France’s answer to PPE. He started his political career close to Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a former Socialist minister who resigned over Mitterand’s pro-European stance. And he has been the driving force behind the new souverainiste (pro-French sovereignty) and economic nationalist platform of the FN.
All this doesn’t make for a happy whole. The rise of the Parisian parvenu Philippot has been met with suspicion, if not derision, in the older FN circles, and Jean-Marie Le Pen has openly railed against the “gay lobby” that surrounds his daughter. But Marine Le Pen has remained faithful to her lieutenant, whom she sees as her way of breaking the glass ceiling of votes her father was never able to. And she uses debates between the two factions – Philippot and Maréchal – as a way of appealing to both the left and the right of her party: her own slogan is that she is neither “left nor right”. So when Philippot and Maréchal clashed over abortion, the former being pro and the latter anti, Marine Le Pen let them argue in public for a while before stepping in as the supreme arbitrator to reconcile their views.
The euro has been a source of tension too. Under Philippot, Le Pen has been pushing for a Frexit, but this hasn’t played well with the FN’s older voters, who are concerned about their pensions and savings. So she has fudged it. Taking inspiration from what happened in the UK, her policy now, if she were elected, is to go to Brussels to negotiate, and if she didn’t get what she wanted she would put membership of the euro – not the EU – to a referendum. The contents of her demands remain vague, but include a repudiation of Schengen so as to regain control of France’s borders, and the euro be replaced by a basket of European currencies – what, as many commentators were quick to point out, was the system previously known as the Ecu. It is not at all clear she would win the referendum: a recent poll suggests 60 per cent of the French remain attached to the euro.
Things came to a head last month, when Marine Le Pen declared that her niece would not be offered a ministerial post if she were elected because of her lack of experience, to which Maréchal replied that she would retire from politics after the election. They has since made up, and Marine Le Pen took the opportunity to indulge in her own Holocaust denial by claiming it was not France, but the powers at the time, that were responsible for the deportation of France’s Jews.
If Marine Le Pen fails to win there is a chance Philippot might desert her too. The FN is well anchored in French political life, but if it fails to land a big electoral victory soon it still might go the way of the Poujadists.