Analysis

Marine Le Pen Suffers Wretched Week as Political Challengers Surge in France

With a new rival on the right, the National Front leader is left with only xenophobia. And even her niece is cramping her style in the run-up to the presidential election.

Marine Le Pen visiting the horse show in Villepinte, France, December 2, 2016.
Jacky Naegelen / Reuters

Napoleon’s right-hand man Talleyrand said back in 1814: “It is a calamity for a state to be governed by a good man when it needs a great one.” François Hollande, France’s nicest president ever, hasn’t been great enough. But his popularity is surging – up to 25 percent in some polls – a kind of consolation prize for his dedication to the Republic.

It’s not clear whether the left can exploit Hollande’s resignation announcement and gird for the fight for the lysée Palace, but one thing is certain: The biggest loser in France’s most turbulent political week in a long time is Marine Le Pen.

On Wednesday, cracks in her National Front party were apparent as many party members openly expressed support for Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. The issue was abortion rights, but the clash has the potential to morph into a full-fledged challenge to the older Le Pen’s leadership.

In the past week, the far-right leader was ready four times to make a dramatic announcement that would help her take back the reins, but ended up having her television appearance canceled each time.

François Fillon won a surprising victory in the center-right primary, Hollande announced he was stepping down, Prime Minister Manuel Valls resigned in order to run for the presidency, and Emmanuel Macron also entered the race on the left. Night after night, Le Pen was preempted by other newsmakers whose stated goal is to block her path to the lysée Palace.

But it wasn’t just the quantity of challengers. The presence of Thatcherite-like Fillon blurs the differences with Le Pen, leaving her with only xenophobia to propel her campaign.

On every other front – opposition to multiculturalism, restoring Christianity to state culture, making it more difficult for women to legally obtain an abortion, opposition to gay rights and restoring nationalism to the school curriculum – Fillon is perceived as more credible.

Francois Fillon, former French prime minister and member of Les Republicains political party, attends a rally as he campaigns in the second round for the French center-right presidential primary election in Lyon, France, November 22, 2016.
Robert Pratta, Reuters

By May, Fillon is expected to clarify his positions on the National Front’s core issues – immigration laws, the country’s attitude toward Islam, revoking the citizenship of terror suspects and closing down mosques. Le Pen understands that she has to attack Fillon head on before he owns these issues, hence her desire to ramp up her headline quota.

Fresh faces

On top of that, the evaporation of the predicted Hollande-Le Pen-Nicolas Sarkozy battle has made Le Pen seem like the representative of the past; now almost all the candidates are new faces. With Hollande and Sarkozy out of the picture, Le Pen is left facing young, sometimes very young, candidates, some of whom are just as populist as she is.

Hollande’s withdrawal created a new map of the left; Valls is now perceived more as a centrist than a leftist. This is strengthening radical-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Unfortunately for Le Pen, while Mélenchon holds starkly opposing views on foreign affairs and security, his economic platform is incredibly similar to hers.

This odd situation, absent anywhere else in Europe, not only gives Le Pen supporters a non-racist option (or at least, a less racist option, as Mélenchon’s remarks on Israel have taken on an anti-Semitic odor), it’s also driving away right-wing voters who are tempted to shift even further right.

Le Pen also finds herself facing the most unexpected challenge of all – the rise of the political center.

Traditionally, the French have shunned centrist positions and have never elected a centrist president. The eternal candidate in this category, François Bayrou, is one of the country’s most popular politicians, but at the moment of truth the French always abandon him.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris on July 27, 2016 for a meeting with French president following the attack at a church in Saint-Etienne-Du-Rouveray.
Bertrand Guay, AFP

Macron, the former finance minister, could alter this pattern by siphoning from the far right the votes that centrist candidates are always lacking. Macron is cautious in his responses to questions about immigration, but his pro-business platform is appealing to many who’ve grown disillusioned with Le Pen and view the National Front’s near-communist economic platform as a grave mistake.

The latest polls show that if Macron made it to the presidential election’s second round in May, he would beat Le Pen by a huge margin. Before that, more leftists would feel more comfortable with a former Socialist Party darling than with Fillon.

At the same time, the far right’s defeat in Austria lends credence to the theory that Europeans like to flirt with populist stances in national referendums or local elections, but they return to the legitimate parties in general elections. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s latest pronouncements, including a call to outlaw the burqa, have further blurred the difference between Le Pen and the classic right wing.

Niece a nuisance

All of which makes it easy to understand the surging opposition to Le Pen and the growing ambition of her niece Marion. The younger Le Pen is the granddaughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, and despite her young age (she turns 27 this weekend), she has attracted strong support in the movement. The younger Le Pen chose a highly charged issue over which to challenge her aunt: abortion.

The National Front has always been critical of the ease with which women can have abortions in France, but in her attempt to win the women’s vote, Marine Le Pen has been careful to keep any mention of this out of the party’s platform for the 2017 election.

This week, the government gave Marion a chance to hone her positions. The National Assembly passed a law prohibiting anti-abortion organizations from advertising in public, including on billboards and online. The government aims to remove from the public space an American-funded campaign with slogans like “I’ll never forgive myself” and “The guilt feelings never go away.” As of this week, such ads are banned in France and punishable by prison time.

French President Francois Hollande talks to the press on October 8, 2016 in Tulle as part of his visit in Correze.
Mehdi Fedouach, AFP Photo

Marion Le Pen hastened to decry the “banalization of abortion” and said the National Front would be “more aggressive than François Fillon” on this issue. Fillon has said he’s against abortion but would not seek to change the status quo.

The young Le Pen also declared that the National Front would cancel the full reimbursement for abortions given by France’s national insurance system, and would institute a “waiting and thinking period” before abortions could be performed.

The National Front leader had no choice but to declare that the party has no intention to change the existing legislation on abortion. As Florian Philippot, one of the party’s vice presidents, put it, “There is only one person in the National Front who holds a different view, and she is all alone in her radical position.”

Since then, party supporters have flooded their Twitter accounts with pictures of Marion Le Pen, ostensibly to show that she’s not “all alone.” The protest essentially amounts to a challenge to her aunt’s leadership.

The National Front is of course no stranger to familial strife; after all, Marine Le Pen ousted her own father from the party. But a crisis around such a fundamental issue could hurt her.

Le Pen will probably be making some strong statements in the coming days in an attempt to stanch the flow and regain the media focus. That is, if she can find an evening when other politicians aren’t stealing the show.