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17 August 2023

Can Marine Le Pen win without the elites?

The French far-right politician has cast herself as the candidate of the people. That might be a mistake.

By Wolfgang Münchau

Can Marine Le Pen win any presidential election in France without the upper bourgeoisie class? This is an interesting question the French newspaper l’Opinion had a closer look at.

In her 2017 and 2022 election campaigns, the far-right politician was running as the candidate of the people against the candidate of the elites. Le Pen is never seen with industrialists or one of those rich French patriarchs. She was always defending the low-income earners but unlike politicians on the left she did not attack the rich. In 2022 she focused her campaigning in small towns and villages, more out of financial necessity than by design.

This was in stark contrast to the other candidate on the far right, Éric Zemmour, who performed at mega-rallies, backed and financed by rich donors from the right. Those oligarchs saw in him the saviour of a Catholic France, a segment of the electorate Le Pen stayed far away from. Zemmour was eliminated in the first round of the presidential election, while Le Pen also succeeded in the subsequent legislative elections.

Will 2027 be any different? Le Pen believes that she can win the next election without relying on the rich and powerful. Her strategy for capturing the Élysée Palace is bottom-up.

But to win the presidency, she cannot completely ignore the rich and the bourgeoisie. It does not seem to be a class conflict for her. Le Pen and her party are not anti-rich like the left. They do, however, take issue with some of the powerful elites, such as multinational companies she accuses of not paying enough in taxes and contributing to French society. And in her rhetoric she has targeted Medef, the employers organisation, for what she claims is their advocacy of immigration to the detriment of French employees.

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To be seen as a president for all, it may well be enough for her to do what François Mitterrand did in 1981, lining up one or two allies who represent wealth and the bourgeoisie, who then make the case for Le Pen in the media.

How much is this image of being a candidate of the people worth without Emmanuel Macron as the counterpart? Le Pen’s rise is also the result of a rejection of Macron and what the elites stand for. A different presidential candidate who comes across less elitist may well succeed next time. Economic circumstances may change. Macron may achieve full employment by 2027. There would be less reason for people to be scornful of elites. Geopolitics may be such that people only trust a candidate who is at home with the powerful in the world, rather than one who is focused on small-town politics.

What role the powerful are to play in society is an eternal theme at least since Aristotle. Le Pen is at least clear about where she stands. It’s a bet. But the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

This piece originally ran on Eurointelligence.

[See also: France’s forces of law and disorder]

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