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23 November 2017

Is Marine Le Pen finished?

Marine Le Pen has survived many political troubles before, but her struggle since the French election is unprecedented.

By Pauline Bock

Marine Le Pen shares more with Theresa May than meets the eye. Not only are both politicians ferociously anti-immigration – although Le Pen never got enough decisionmaking power to print “Go home” on a fleet of buses and send them all over the country – they also both started 2017 with high hopes of success, before running terrible campaigns and, one day, waking up completely powerless.

On 3 May 2017, a few days before the second round of the French presidential election, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen headed to the TV debate in which she was facing centrist rival Emmanuel Macron. Both in her party National Front (FN) and in French politics, she was never so powerful again. 

Le Pen’s terrible debate performance was the turning point: after that, her ratings plummeted, criticism exploded in the FN ranks, and she lost the election. The debate is still referenced by French political commentators and when, on 19 October 2017, she appeared on TV in L’Emission Politique, it brought the show its worst-ever audience figures.

So, is Le Pen finished? If the French people had been given £1 every time this question had come up in her political career, they would all pay the tax on 1M+ incomes that Macron plans to cut down.

She lost, and yet she clings on, the only candidate to her re-election as FN president, which will be held during the party’s conference in March 2018. She lost, and yet she got herself a €2,000 raise in July (which she defended by saying “I just needed €2,000 more monthly”, which, really, sums up so much about her).

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In between every French election – and there isn’t one in France before 2020 – Le Pen and her party go into quiet mode after a loss, debate a bit about whether they hate migrants or the euro more, and every time, they reorganise in time for the next one.

Internally, “Marine”, the FN’s leading figure, doesn’t rally everyone anymore. In October, her coming re-election was challenged by another candidate, the FN representative in Lille, Éric Dillies – but this is the FN after all, and he was quickly told to retreat. There are talks of replacing her for the next presidential election in 2022, and discussions to change the name “National Front” into something less tainted by the Le Pen family (Marine’s father Jean-Marie, the party’s founder, was excluded in 2015). And one of her closest ally, Florian Philippot, defected in September after a very public row, to create his own movement, “The Patriots”, bringing some of Le Pen’s supporters with him.

But this time feels different, because Le Pen’s troubles have extended far beyond FN politics. The party has struggled with the authorities before – in 2011, it sold its old HQ, a €10M building nicknamed “The Liner”, to pay off debts.

Now the troubles are personal. After losing her parliamentary immunity in the European Parliament earlier this year (for tweeting photos of IS victims in 2015), Marine Le Pen was elected MP in the French National Assembly for the first time, which meant she regained an immunity. That was until the National Assembly lifted it too, in August, in the same case. She is also being investigated, like other members of the FN, in a scandal around potential “fake” jobs in the party.

In the latest blow against the struggling FN leader, Marine Le Pen has seen her bank accounts closed, first the FN’s 30-year-old accounts at the French bank Société Générale on 21 November, and then a personal account she has had for 25 years at HSBC, on 22 November. She has called the move a “banking persecution” before threatening to sue both banks. (Société Générale has declared that the closures had nothing to do with politics and were purely banking-related).

Just like Emmanuel Macron’s movement-turned-party La République en Marche, the FN almost exclusively resolves around Marine Le Pen. That since 3 May, each of her trials to come back as the respected and rallying leader “Marine” have failed, show the extent of the deep crises within her party. But FN members know too well that no one else – at least for now – could replace her, and so she stays on, hoping for relevance as she hasn’t managed to impose herself as Macron’s main challenger.

As little an opposition the FN is offering at the moment, Macron’s ruling party has yet to find an answer for far-right voters. It’s unlikely its liberal reforms, said to hit the poor the hardest, will help.

On 7 May 2017, 33.9 per cent of French voters chose Le Pen. Whether or not she is, they will still be there in 2022.