Before France voted on Sunday, Marine Le Pen hinted she would not run again if she lost her third attempt at bringing the far-right to the presidency. Her concession speech, however, suggested she was not ready to give up the mantle of opposition leader to the newly re-elected Emmanuel Macron.
Fresh from securing her party’s strongest score at 41.5 per cent, the 53-year old on Sunday said she would “never abandon the people” and vowed to fight on in June legislative elections. “More than ever I will keep up my commitment to France and to the French,” she assured cheering supporters.
Yet her loss in the presidential runoff has triggered recriminations over her limitations as a politician and the incoherence of her programme, as well as bringing back lingering questions of whether her family name is still too toxic for many French given the xenophobic and anti-Semitic positions of her father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
At stake is who will be able to lead an expanded far-right political force, enlarged by the emergence of anti-immigration politician Eric Zemmour and the collapse of the Les Republicains party, whose presidential candidate secured less than 5 per cent of the votes in the first round on April 10.
Robert Menard, the far-right mayor of Beziers who supported Le Pen but is not a member of her Rassemblement National Party, said her political potential was capped by a “glass ceiling.”
She “paid the price” for her confused positions on Europe, wooing of leftwing voters with “nonsense” economic policiesand being too pro-Russia, said Menard. “She ran her best campaign ever but still lost by a large margin — that is not a good sign for the future.”
Le Pen’s loss shows how the so-called front républicain, Most voters vote tactically to block the far-right from gaining power, was still holding firm, said political scientist Pascal Perrineau. It has eroded in the past 20 years, but Macron revived it by warning that Le Pen’s victory would lead France down an “authoritarian path” and even “trigger a civil war” if she implemented her plan to ban the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public spaces, he said during a televised debate.
To tear down such a bulwark, the far-right may need a new leader whose last name is not Le Pen, said Perrineau.
“This could well be the end of the decades-long cycle in which the French far right was dominated by one family,” he said. “If the far right are to take power, they will need a new person to embody the movement. But for now it’s still hard to see who that person will be.”
Le Pen’s next mission of winning as many parliamentary seats as possible in June will require deciding whether to team up with Zemmourwhose Reconquête party poached high-profile RN figures and allies — including her charismatic niece Marion Maréchal — to join his campaign.
With 7 per cent in the first round of voting, the former columnist has emphasized the need to join forces. Yet on Sunday in a sign that rivalries might get in the way, Zemmour could not resist a barb: “Alas . . . this is the eighth time that defeat has hit the Le Pen name,” he said, adding Le Pen’s losses to those of her father.
RN officials said there would not be a comprehensive deal between the two parties but hinted that some arrangements could be made on individual constituencies.
“Our objective is to bring all the patriots together to prevent Macron from having full powers and riding roughshod over the millions who did not vote for him,” said Philippe Olivier, an RN MEP.
France’s two-round system for choosing its lower house of parliament will not help. Only candidates who score more that 12.5 per cent of registered votes can advance to the run-off, which often leads to intense negotiations and dealmaking between parties. French voters have also tended to grant newly elected presidents the capacity to implement their programme.
In 2017, RN only won eight seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, falling short of the 15 needed to create a parliamentary group, while Macron’s party won 267.
Marine Le Pen has won over more voters since taking over her father’s Front National in 2011, partly thanks to her efforts to “detoxify” it by purging its most overtly racist and anti-Semitic elements. She kicked out her father in 2015 and renamed the party in 2018.
While the French electorate in general is now broadly more in tune with the party’s original anti-immigration stance — 70 per cent of voters now say they worry about immigration — Le Pen developed an economic platform heavy on public spending to attract the working class. During this year’s campaign, she focused on the rising cost of living and championing scepticism of the EU.
Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s 26-year-old number two, pointed to how she had won in 28 out of France’s 101 departments this time, compared with only two in 2017. “Next time, we’ll go all the way,” he said.
The 32-year-old Marion Maréchal, now Reconquête’s vice-president and who is expected to run for parliament, may try to position herself as the far-right’s new standard bearer. But Perrineau said she had made a “huge mistake” by backing Zemmour and betraying her aunt.
“She could have bided her time and taken her place as the rightful heir without the baggage of the Le Pen name, but she has given all that up,” Perrineau said.
Sipping champagne at Le Pen’s night party in the 16th arrondissement of Paris on Sunday night, Nadine Guillemet, a longtime RN voter from Versailles, said she hoped the warring factions would make peace given the many problems France was facing. “They all need to election work together.”