Last week, the head of France’s nativist, anti-globalist political party, National Front (NF), was given two hours of primetime television to share her perspectives. Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, is an eloquent, guarded version of our very own orange dictator, and is quickly becoming a mainstream political leader. In fact, according to Arun Kant, chief executive and chief investment officer at the Leonie Hill Capital investing firm, Le Pen is on track to be the next president of France.
Thanks to the popularity of the far-right’s ideas, he believes his firm’s proprietary system’s analysis of data that predicts Le Pen will “walk over” her opponents. Given that her policies mirror those of President Trump- she is a harsh critic of open borders and free trade- it may not be that far a stretch. Kant is alone in his predictions, with most strategists believing she will reach the second round of voting, but estimate that she will only have about a 30% chance of winning the presidency.
Sounds alarmingly similar to other predictions pre-Brexit and Trump election, though. And given Le Pen’s lineage, I have no doubts that she may experience a surge in support as the populist movement expands.
As the daughter and political heir of the famous Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine inherited her father’s NF, and she may have inherited her taste for provocation from her father too. However, unlike her father’s dramatic statements that confirmed his reputation as a far-right extremist- or alt-right, as we seem to be calling them these days- Marine’s demeanor and appearances rebrand the NF as a legitimate political party.
“When you say radical right in America, people think Ku Klux Klan,” Le Pen said, “They think of something violent, racists. This makes no sense at all. We are democratic. We are in the centre...If anything, I’m to the left of Obama.”
Let’s be clear: no, Le Pen is absolutely not left of Obama. Spend any time researching her stances on the economy, immigration, involvement in the European Union and anything that matters in the political world, and you’ll see that she is extremely protectionist and intolerant of diversity and change. While her father Jean-Marie was content to shout from the fringes and be an election spoiler, Le Pen is making a play for real political power. After inheriting the NF back in 2011, she has rebranded the party to become more mainstream and acceptable- and it’s working. After winning a record-breaking 18% of votes in last year’s presidential election, her platform has extended support and supplanted Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement (which lost the presidency to Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party last year). She now has her troops running aggressively in municipal elections for March.
“Our political presence locally is the foundation of our ascent to power,” Le Pen says. Having spent months recruiting and training grassroots candidates, the NF is poised to snap up hundreds of city-council seats and mayoralties of several big cities.
Districts in France have long been sending socialist lawmakers to Parliament, while Communists and other far-left parties have played active roles in local communities for years. However, like Trump, Le Pen has a voter base beyond the urban centers. In Trump country, there are many swaths of voters in the deindustrializing rust belt who helped give Obama the presidency in 2008 and 2012, and whose votes subsequently delivered formerly Democratic states to Trump back in November.
Don’t be mistaken though. Just like Trump, Le Pen also has support beyond angry, disenfranchised whites in the country- in the economically depressed regions that account for most of the 900,000 industrial jobs France has lost over the past 15 years. The FN’s typical stronghold is the sun-soaked south, where social conservatives and staunch nationalists returning from colonial-era Algeria have backed the movement long before their message was molded to be appetizing to the masses. But with the rise of the global populist movement, Le Pen may very well manage to ride the tide to an unprecedented victory.
“The counties that voted for Trump have the same sociological profiles as districts voting for Marine Le Pen--deindustrialized, rather lost, very socially vulnerable,” says political analyst Stephane Wahnich, who has written two books about the FN leader. “Paris and Lyon vote for the left, because they’re wealthy. Guys from Hayange vote for the far right, because they feel forgotten. The only one who’s taking up their cause is Marine Le Pen.”
Hayange, a town of 15,000 near the border with Luxembourg, has a solid left-wing tradition, but in 2014 booted out its Socialist mayor in favor of Fabien Engelmann from the NF. A former hard-left trade unionist, 37-year-old Engelmann switched to the NF in 2010 due to his growing concerns about immigration and the perceived threat of Islam. Hayange backed Socialist Francois Hollande by a whisker ahead of Engelmann, but if the latest polls are anything to go by, word on the street of Hayange says to expect an NF candidate to be representing them after the March elections. It’s just one of the many towns sharing the same story, and it’s indicative of Le Pen winning that final battle in a country where more than 230 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in little more than 18 months. With more than 3 million people jobless after decades of mass unemployment, the audience for Le Pen’s hard line on security and national identity is growing. Although many voters are still afraid of the party, after Trump’s election, there appears to be some credibility now shared by the NF’s similar perspectives.
There are key differences though. Trump ended up being the candidate for the Republicans, a mainstream party, while Le Pen leads an outsider movement. Trump has zero public office experience while Le Pen was born into a political dynasty (she is the youngest of three sisters who were wheeled out by their father to symbolize true French nationalism). With her involvement in politics for almost 20 years, she doesn’t exactly represent the anti-establishment that Trump thrived on. Whereas Trump made outrageous pronouncements at his rallies and ridiculous-sounding promises during his campaign, Le Pen has carefully toned down parts of the NF’s rhetoric to slide the party into the mainstream. Le Pen’s father was a closer mirror to Trump, shouting political outrage and inciting protests. In comparison, Le Pen offers a calm, collected image with her policies.
And that is the most terrifying thing about Le Pen. She’s likable. She’s relaxed, fluent, chatty, and often witty during interviews. In her two-hour interview last week, she attracted 3.5 million viewers- a new record for the prestigious France 2’s Politics Show. I detest what she stands for, but it’s difficult to resist her charismatic charm when watching her.
Marine Le Pen is Donald Trump without the crazy. She has repackaged some of the most destructive and sweetly persuasive ideas of the extreme right- xenophobia, protectionism, authoritarianism- into a single, modern, and (most importantly) achievable program for the French government. In stark contrast to her father, Le Pen is neither anti-Semitic nor directly confrontational. She considers herself a “nationalist” in her anti-European Union stance and anti-immigrant rhetoric. She has supported her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, David Rachline in Frejus and Robert Menard in Beziers as they pursued campaigns of petty harassment and denigration of local Muslim populations. In fact, her niece even went so far as to say that French-born Muslims will never be “truly French” because they did not share France’s Christian “traditions and values.” On the other hand, she also claims to be a de facto “socialist” with trade barriers, subsidies for industries which manufacture and retail in the country, a higher minimum wage and a reduction of the retirement age back to 60. She is also a social liberal; she supports abortion and some gay rights. Many of the ambitious young men involved in NF work are openly homosexual.
On one level, all of this can be dismissed as a ragbag of attitudes designed to appeal to all the grievances and frustrations of a population that has been stuck for decades, a country spinning its wheels while trying to play catch-up on a global economic scale. Le Pen has skilfully exploited the anger of blue-collar and middle-class voters, who berate politicians and demand change but with no idea what these changes will entail and what sacrifices need to be made in order to improve their personal situations.
On another level, combining nationalism and socialism lends itself to dangerous policies. The NF has already renewed its commitment this year to a massive reduction in legal immigration. Le Pen argues French citizenship should be “either inherited or merited.” Last December, she even elaborated on it in one of her speeches in Paris: “If you come to our country, don’t expect to be taken care of, to be looked after, that your children will be educated without charge...Playtime is over.” And long before the Paris attacks in 2015, she proposed the idea that France should “expel foreigners who preach hatred on our soil” and that dual-nationality Muslims should have their French citizenships revoked. Le Pen has also been vocal in that jobs, welfare, housing, schools, or any area of public service should go to French nationals before they get to foreigners. Additionally, the NF manifesto includes upping police numbers and giving them more powers as well as “creating 40,000 new prison places.”
Despite legal investigations regarding campaign funding irregularities and demands to pay back misspent funds, the NF’s popularity continues to grow. Opinion polls forecast Le Pen will become at least one of the top two candidates for the first round of voting, and few expect Socialist Benoit Hamon to make much headway. Le Pen’s main opponents will either be centrist former economy minister Emmanuel Macron or right-wing candidate Francois Fillon. Neither of these candidates has the same appeal as Le Pen anywhere outside the metropolitan areas. Le Pen is working the system and playing all the right tunes, and despite her Trump-like ideas, she is gaining more and more ground. No one else is offering any acknowledgment of the large suburban and country populations. With their support, Le Pen is poised to overtake anyone else.
Global politics is entering a new era. It’s safe to assume French politics will as well, with Marine Le Pen at its helm.