Marine Le Pen (AFP)
On January 16, 2011, Marine Le Pen took over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as President of the Front National, which is now the Rassemblement National (National Rally). Many wondered if the party, led by the elder Le Pen for almost 40 years, would survive.
It not only survived. It thrived. But Marine Le Pen did not achieve all objectives — and now she and the National Rally are in a potentially precarious situation.
Founded in 1972, with the aim of uniting the different currents of the French far right, the National Front’s first national success was in the European Parliament elections of 1984, when it secured 10% of the vote and elected its first MEPs. The party has been a force to be reckoned with ever since. While still struggling to gain representation at the national level – due to France’s two-round electoral system – it has grown into a party representing more than 1/5 of the French electorate.
When Marine Le Pen took over the party in 2011, she set the goal of turning the National Rally into a party of government. To achieve this, she initiated a process of “dédiabolisation” (“de-demonization”), aimed at softening the party’s image. She embraced Republicanism, backtracked on some of the party’s more controversial stances, and expelled militants holding excessively radical views.
Following a series of comments by Jean-Marie Le Pen about the Holocaust, she broke publicly with her father and expelled him from the party, in a saga that included reports of her cat murdered by her father’s Doberman. Finally, in an attempt to complete the transition from eternal opposition to government in waiting, in 2018 she changed the party’s name to Rassemblement National.
In parallel, under the influence of ideas from her former adviser Florian Philippot, she revised the party’s message to target voters on the left of the political spectrum. Arguing that her party was “neither left nor right” and asserting the emergence of a new cleavage between “patriots” and “globalists”, she sought to expand her voting base by attracting disillusioned working class voters.
Neither strategy was new: de-demonization was first discussed by the RN’s leadership in the 1980s, while the “neither left nor right” line was briefly adopted in the 1990s. However, Le Pen made both elements strategic goals, and imposed her strategy upon the party machine.
10 Years, Mixed Results
Marine Le Pen’s 10 years at the head of the National Rally can be roughly divided into two periods before and after the 2017 Presidential election. From 2011 until 2017, her strategy of de-demonization bore fruit. The party’s election results improved steadily, as did perceptions of its image and fitness to govern In 2011, 56% of polled respondents viewed the party as a “threat to democracy”, but only 47% held the same view in 2014.
The National Rally also benefitted from a news cycle that spoke to its key issues. The migration crisis in 2015 and the sequence of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamist fundamentalists during the decade gave the party’s agenda stronger resonance.
Paradoxically, the 2017 presidential election marked both the high and low point of Le Pen’s tenure as party leader. Despite a lackluster campaign, Le Pen made it into the second round of the Presidential election, replicating the achievement of her father in 2002. And Marine far surpassed her father: in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s vote between rounds only marginally improved from 16.8% to 17.8%, whilst Marine Le Pen’s in 2017 increased from 21.3% to 33.9%.
However, the contest presented many challenges for the younger Le Pen. Her positions on the European Union were heavily criticized as too extreme. A disastrous performance in the debate that preceded the second round undermined her hard-won polling and reputational gains. In a head-to-head with Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen appeared aggressive, unprepared, and rambling in the face of a better-prepared adversary. While it is unlikely that she would have won the Presidency even with a good performance, the debate marked the end of Le Pen’s 2017 Presidential ambitions.
Her image has not fully recovered, and the party’s latest electoral performances have not been its strongest. In the European elections of 2019, it won 23.3% of the vote, down from 24.9% in 2014, and it recently failed to make significant inroads in the 2020 municipal elections. Financial and legal issues have raised questions about long-term prospects.
Luckily for the National Rally, most French parties are currently in disarray. The left is divided and still recovering from 2017, while the right-wing Les Republicans are struggling to find the leader they need to take them into the next Presidential election. So Le Pen still appears as Macron’s main opposition – and the President is happy to feed this narrative because he views Le Pen as his “natural” opponent and potentially an easy target.
This may be enough for Le Pen to survive, but it is unclear if it is enough for her to win the Presidency in 2022. Le Pen can find comfort in a recent poll which gave her 48% v. Macron’s 52%. However, there is still a long way to go until 2022, and being “OK” might not be enough to break the National Rallly’s glass ceiling. Some party members are already looking to Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal as the next leader, in case her aunt trips again at the final Presidential hurdle.
Ten years on, Marine Le Pen has achieved much. But her best may not be enough for a far right ascendancy in France.