After Trump and Brexit, could Marine Le Pen provide the world's next political earthquake?

Marine Le Pen: After the events of 2016, could she be elected?

Marine Le Pen

Thursday, November 17, 2016

2016 has seen the global political establishment turned well and truly upside down.

In June, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in a historic referendum which confounded the pollsters. A couple of months later, Donald Trump pulled off an even more shocking triumph by winning the US presidential election, beating US political royalty in Hillary Clinton. These two political earthquakes have created aftershocks around the world, with commentators feverishly speculating as to which will be the first country to feel the ripple effect.

The commentators' sights are trained on France, and in particular on Marine Le Pen, a woman whose policies make Mr Trump look moderate by comparison, and who is likely to stand as a candidate in France's presidential elections next year.

Le Pen's far-right Front National party has caused widespread revulsion with its rampant islamophobia, but its blend of fear, pride and suspicion has also proved hugely successful, tapping into France's simmering racial tension. The string of high-profile attacks from Islamic State – in Paris, twice, in 2015 and in Nice earlier this year – have horrified the country and played into the hands of FN's dog-whistle politics.

With the Jungle in Calais providing a harrowing visual symbol of France's struggle with mass immigration, Le Pen has been able to suggest her homeland is "full to capacity" and condemn the EU, an organisation she has described as being on the brink of collapse. The Brexit result in June only strengthened her hand in this regard and increased her credibility in the eyes of France's eurosceptics.

But FN's core issues aren't restricted to Muslims, immigrants, and the EU. With unemployment in France remaining higher than in many other European countries - indeed the rate is more than double that of Germany or the United Kingdom - Le Pen has been able to portray herself as a people's champion by demanding more rights for workers - while also condemning the violent labour protests which have occurred across France, boosting her profile with the country's moderate voters.

Events of recent months could have been scripted by Le Pen, so often have they played out to her advantage. Little wonder that people see her as the epicentre of the world's next political earthquake.

The family business

Madame Le Pen has been the leader of the National Front Party since 2011 – taking over from her father Jean-Marie, the party’s founder.

Jean-Marie was an unrefined and unrepentant politician, who did little to persuade anyone that FN was anything but a rabble of vicious racists. The party used reheated fascist slogans from the 1980s while its leader played down the gravity of the Holocaust, calling the Nazi gas chambers in death camps like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen "a point of detail of the history of the Second World War” – comments which he has repeated and which have drawn no end of criticism.

But his daughter has worked to soften this image, presenting a favourable picture of both herself and the party, even expelling her father from FN when he repeated his comments about the Nazi death camps.

The rebrand has worked up to a point, as Dr. Bruno Cautres, a political expert based in Paris, told talkRADIO.

Marine Le Pen "has stood in for the populist classes and she has the working-class support," Cautres told us.

‘She constantly presents herself like that, that she’s talking for the unheard people, the victims of the economy.”

Under Marine Le Pen's leadership the party has grown to a level of unprecedented electoral success. In the municipal elections of 2014, the party earned mayoralties in 12 cities and also won 24 seats in the European Parliament elections.

2015 saw the party grow further, after it came out top in the first round of France's regional elections by earning 28% of the vote. While FN lost in the second round, it served as a stark display of how much the party has grown – and how popular its leader is.

Breaking the status quo has been the running theme of 2016, and the fact that voters in the UK and America didn’t choose the options that were considered safe casts a reflection on how potentially electable Madame Le Pen could be – she has said herself that the election of Donald Trump is a “sign of hope for those who cannot bear wild globalisation.”

Ben McPartland, the editor of The Local France in Paris, said Le Pen could indeed be a viable electoral proposition.

“I think there appears to be a stronger chance [in light of Trump and Brexit],” he told talkRADIO. “Trump and Brexit came out of nowhere and the polls were saying they wouldn’t. I think both of those events have changed people's view on it. She’s on the same battleground as Trump and she wants the same voters – the white, middle-class voters.”

Donald Trump has shown that being divisive is no barrier to political success

The dark, nasty past

However, for all Le Pen has worked to soften her party, the rebrand has not been completely successful - for there remains a shadow over her and the party she leads.

McPartland said that, while Marine Le Pen has “tried to tone it down and avoid any kind of controversy” this is simply infeasible given the weight of her party's history.

“The National Front has been anti-Jewish, anti-gay marriage, and now they-re anti-Europe," McPartland told talkRADIO. "She’s [Marine Le Pen] a lot more electable in terms of her persona – she’s cleared all of the dross out of the party, but it is still tainted.

"The French people realise that despite her efforts to clear it, the party is still the party.”

Furthermore, McPartland said that a number of the party's bad old policies remain intact, vestigial reminders of its dark past. It continues to dispute gay rights, while the 2012 manifesto endorsed zero-tolerance immigration polices first implemented in the 1970s.

Marine Le Pen has herself said there would be no place for multiculturalism in a France under her presidency – something both Cautres and McPartland agree is destined to fail in a country which has become wedded to its modern, multi-racial identity.

“France is a multicultural country,” McPartland said. “French politicians need to accept that.

"What Marine Le Pen promises is a return to a former France, but there’s no way she can achieve that. They need to accept that religions need to be welcome and not pushed aside."

So what are her chances?

Both Partland and Cautres said they don’t think Marine Le Pen will be elected in 2017. Both agree that she will get past the first round of voting, because “many people will opt for her as a protest vote”, but both suggest she will not get past the second, and FN's campaign will fizzle out just as it did in the 2015 regional elections.

Cautres pointed out the key weakness she will have going into the election.

He told us: “She lacks some credibility in terms of the economy. The Front National doesn’t have the experience. and she knows this is her weak point.

"The mood in France towards the EU is dissatisfaction – but no one has clearly said that France will [leave]. For Marine Le Pen, the cost of her Europe position is quite high to pay as it would damage the economic credibility of her and the party."

McPartland claimed Le Pen's chances hinge on turnout - and her opposition. He said: “She scored a record number of votes in the first round in 2015. The second round comes along, and she fails to win any votes because of tactical voting.

"If turnout is low, this boosts Le Pen’s chances. If it’s higher, then it’s bad news for her.

"The best chance for her winning is Nicolas Sarkozy running and being chosen to run against her. The reason why this gives her a chance is because people on the left can’t face voting for him – many wouldn’t vote.”

In both the EU referendum and the US presidential election, polls predicted that Remain and Hillary Clinton would edge it and were wrong. But both our interviewees suggested that, after these twin shocks, no-one is "underestimating” Madame Le Pen and there is no chance of the pollsters being caught off guard a third time. 

Ultimately, McPartland and Cautres claim the rhetoric that the party still maintains makes it unelectable. But, as they say, it would be unwise to take anything for granted. Marine Le Pen has proved the doubters wrong plenty of times, and after recent events there's plenty of precedent to spur her on.

Donald Trump has made possible what was presented as completely impossible. So it's a sign of hope for those who cannot bear wild globalization and cannot bear the political life led by the elites.
Marine Le Pen speaking to CNN after Trump's election