Analysis

Marine Le Pen’s Ill-fated Search for Lost Time

After losing to Emmanuel Macron, the National Front faces a critical test in France’s parliamentary election. The grass roots want to focus on ‘Arabs out,’ but Le Pen’s star is waning either way

Marine Le Pen after conceding defeat in the French presidential election, Paris, May 7, 2017.
Joel Saget / AFP

The champagne was never taken out of the refrigerator. The flags were still stored away. The security guards were more on edge than ever. In the hall at the edge of Paris’ Bois de Vincennes park, the dance music was blasting from the loudspeakers, but no one dared venture onto the floor.

It was 9:30 P.M. on Sunday, May 7, the day of the second and final round of the French presidential election. A few minutes earlier, Marine Le Pen had told her supporters she was conceding defeat and had called Emmanuel Macron to congratulate him.

Le Pen had won 34.1 percent of the vote in the second round, more than the National Front had ever received in a presidential election but still a lot less than her supporters had hoped for in an election that followed deadly terror attacks, high unemployment, massive immigration, riots in poor suburbs and the Brexit vote. And that comes on top of apparent support from Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Just three months ago, opinion polls had given her 45 percent.

As recently as early March, in the run-up to the first round when 11 candidates faced off, Le Pen was leading Macron in the opinion polls by 8 to 12 percentage points. Standing facing an empty dance floor on election night, all one Le Pen supporter could do was mutter “was all that just to achieve just this?”

Still, Le Pen got up from her chair and volunteered to be the first on the dance floor – to the music of Jewish singer Jean-Jacques Goldman’s “Quand la musique est bonne” (“When the Music is Good”). With television cameras all around her, the song blared out: “When the music is good, when the music gives, even when I didn’t gamble right, even when I missed the train, even when I don’t have love, even when my time is up.”

Someone yelled to the DJ and the song was stopped in the middle, but it was too late. Twitter was flooded with comments delighting in the flub, and video of the incident made its way to the wider media, to be replayed over and over. Less than five minutes later, 500 journalists who had been assigned to the venue were asked to leave.

The following day, after a meeting of the National Front leadership, leaks reflected an unprecedented situation for this disciplined party. And the real situation was apparent to anyone who has traveled around Provence or northern France in recent years. The people there are angry, very angry.

Party activists and even elected officials from Le Pen’s party are calling on her to forgo her “suicidal economic position,” as her father Jean-Marie Le Pen put it. They want her to stop talking about pulling France out of the European Union and a return to the franc. They want her to focus on the core platform since the party was founded: Arabs out.

A tenth of parliament?

Next month there are crucial parliamentary elections – the “third round” as they’re known in French political slang. The vote will take place in two more rounds on June 11 and June 18. They’ll decide who will serve in the 577-seat National Assembly, but also the level of public funding each party will receive based on its showing. For the National Front, which has been denied bank financing, this aspect is more critical than for any other party.

France’s center-right party is picking up the pieces following an embezzlement scandal linked to its leader, François Fillon. The party hopes to attract enough support in the National Assembly to force a right-wing government on Macron and his En Marche party. Macron's team is pushing for a majority in parliament without the need for the right’s support.

Meanwhile, far leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon hopes to take advantage of his decent showing in the presidential election to become a larger parliamentary force than the Socialists, who haven’t yet found a way to recapture the public’s hearts. One way or another, Mélenchon has decided to run for a parliamentary seat in Marseille that in previous general elections was held by a Socialist.

Le Pen’s situation hardly looks stellar, in part because of France’s system of parliamentary voting by constituency. It will be an accomplishment if she gets 50 National Front candidates elected to the National Assembly, but it will still be less than a tenth of the legislature. Which prompts the question of whether she has what it takes.

Last Tuesday, two days after the election, France’s TF1 television broadcast an extraordinary documentary, “Behind the Scenes of Victory,” in which Macron was followed for the 200 days leading up to the election. The cameras went nearly everywhere he did, and he agreed to wear a wireless microphone behind his tie. The film features many moments that will fascinate political observers, revealing, for example, his limited staff’s iron discipline. But one scene also reflects Macron’s leadership skills in the days when his campaign against Le Pen seemed like a lost cause.

This unfolded at a Whirlpool factory in Macron’s hometown of Amiens in the north, where the workers were on strike over plans to move the production line to Poland. On a visit to the town, Macron said he would study the issue. The footage shows him meeting with labor representatives from the plant at the offices of the local chamber of commerce.

At that moment, Le Pen shows up at the Whirlpool factory, accompanied by dozens of her supporters, who mingle with the striking workers. Le Pen ridicules Macron as “a man of the establishment and suits” who had chosen not to visit the Whirlpool plant.

Macon then abruptly leaves the meeting room and huddles with his staff in a corridor, furious with them for their alleged complacency. He announces that he will head to the plant to confront Le Pen. His people are seen objecting to the idea if for no other reason than because his government security people say they can’t protect him at the site. Macron raises his voice further.

“Listen to me,” he screams. “I’m going down there and that’s it! The security guards are going to tell you how to run a campaign?” He then refers to outgoing President François Hollande. “If we listen to security, we’ll be like President Hollande, shut up in limousines, not understanding the reality at all. I’m going down there. If they don’t want to come, they can stay here.”

Turning point

That was the moment, the creators of the documentary say, when Macron won the election, not the television debate. France’s TV networks showed him steadfast against the swearing and spitting workers. An hour and a half later he shook the hands of the last of the workers, who thanked him for coming. Le Pen was already on her way back to Paris, satisfied with her ploy but only learning on the evening news that Macron had also made an appearance at the plant.

Now running for the National Assembly, Le Pen attributes her downfall in the presidential election to bad luck, a scattershot campaign and an underperformance in the debate. She still hopes to make the National Front the largest opposition party in parliament. She believes that even if she fails, her voters aren’t going anywhere.

Is she right? At least 10 percent of those who had committed to support her ended up voting for Mélenchon in the first round. And the day after her catastrophic debate performance another 6 percent of voters defected.

At last week’s not-so-private National Front conclave, it was decided that victory in the National Assembly election would come by grabbing votes from the left-wing Mélenchon so as not to rile the classic right-wing voter. As a result, Le Pen announced that she planned to change her party’s name from the National Front and would highlight its antiestablishment character as a new movement.

Two hours later, the most popular far-right politician, Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, announced that she was quitting politics “for the time being” and wouldn’t be the party’s candidate in a constituency in Vaucluse, where she has complete control. At 27, the younger Le Pen understands what Macron, who quit the government of Socialist President Hollande, understood at 37: Let your party get swept away when you’re on the outside, then appear before the voters in a presidential election as a fresh face.

But those are the qualities that Marine Le Pen lost forever last week.