Tense times for Marine Le Pen's National Front as electoral fortunes wane
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The far-right National Front has touted itself as “France’s top party” since Marine Le Pen took over its leadership in 2011, and racked up steady gains and glittering first-round scores nationally in consecutive elections. No longer.
The first round of the legislative elections last Sunday was a clear setback for the National Front (FN), dashing high expectations built up since Jean-Marie Le Pen’s heir took over the leadership from her party-founder father six years ago.
A tidal wave of votes nationally for centrist President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM, and previously 'En Marche!') -- which is forecast to win up to 455 of the 577 lower-house seats in next Sunday’s run-off (there are two rounds of voting in France's legislative elections, like the presidential poll) -- left the traditional political parties reeling.
But, just after Marine Le Pen’s solid performance in the finale of the presidential election last month, her anti-immigration Europhobic party expected much, much more from this vote.
The FN had reportedly highlighted 45 “winnable” seats, in places where Le Pen took more than 50 percent of the vote against Macron on May 7. But when this legislative election wraps up on Sunday, the FN is now expected to win scarcely more than the two seats it has held since 2012. Pollsters are forecasting a haul of between one and five seats, well below the 15 necessary under French law to form an official group in parliament, with all the extra resources and speaking time that this status confers.
The lone (virtually) guaranteed seat is likely to be for Marine Le Pen herself. The 48-year-old presidential runner-up tallied her party’s highest score last Sunday, with 46.02 percent of the vote in her district in Pas-de-Calais. Having finished nearly 30 points ahead of her run-off opponent from LREM, Le Pen is set to win a seat in the National Assembly’s semi-circular lawmaking chamber. This after two failed bids in 2007 and 2012.
But from the FN’s perspective, the good news stops there.
Indeed, after the heady heights of the presidential election – with 21.3 percent (7.7 million votes) in the first round and 33.9 percent (10.6 million votes) in the second, both record highs for the FN that were ironically relatively disappointing after opinion polls had forecast a much better result – the party’s total tally in the first round of the legislative elections on Sunday did not even crack the three million mark.
Significantly, the FN scored slightly lower nationally than it did in 2012, earning 538,000 fewer votes – this is the first time since Marine Le Pen took the helm that the longtime pariahs of French politics have lost voters from one comparable election to the next.
“It’s an extremely worrying result for the FN,” Jean-Yves Camus, a far-right specialist, told FRANCE 24.
“From a political point of view, but also financially because political parties’ public financing is based on the legislative election results. With fewer than three million votes, the FN will have to make due with less state financial support than they had counted on. A failure aggravated by the probable absence of a parliamentary group in the National Assembly,” added Camus, co-author of the recently released Far-Right Politics in Europe.
Le Pen has called the result “extremely disappointing”, while blaming above all the record-low voter turnout and the Macron camp’s surprising success.
To be clear, FN candidates have qualified for 120 run-off races in Sunday’s final legislative vote, advancing to the second round in twice as many cases as they did five years ago. Indeed, 20 FN candidates topped their first-round races, compared to only five in 2012. But those sunny figures are deceiving in that low voter turnout has meant that all but one of those 120 run-off races will be duels, when in 2012 many more were showdowns against more than one other finalist – so-called “triangulaires”. As a rule, the FN is far more likely to win in three-way contests, when its opponents split the anti-FN vote.
As such, some top party executives will likely tout their first-place finishes last Sunday – like Le Pen ally Florian Philippot in the Moselle and Louis Aliot, Madame Le Pen's partner, in the Pyrenées-Orientales – but they are unlikely to turn those scores into seats next Sunday. Gilbert Collard, the only FN incumbent running for re-election to the National Assembly, finished a miserly 48 votes ahead of LREM newcomer Marie Sara, a former bullfighter; Sara is expected to win office for Macron’s camp on Sunday.
Until now, Le Pen’s mission to de-demonise the party appeared to be paying off at the ballot box. And this setback is evidently not sitting well.
Ahead of a party convention due next year, recriminations are already simmering. Widely panned for her disastrous performance in the presidential finalists’ TV debate last month, Le Pen has tried to kick the soul-searching down the road, at least until after the election or the party convention expected at the start of 2018.
“We are in election time,” Le Pen told Europe 1 radio on Wednesday. “There will be a time... for discussion, for analysis, for rebuilding, and that time has for the moment not arrived.”
The premature exit of Le Pen’s niece, the FN’s 27-year-old star parliamentarian Marion Maréchal-Le Pen -- who quit politics temporarily after the presidential election and declined to defend her National Assembly seat in this race – was already thought to have had a negative impact on grassroots morale.
A conservative hardliner whom some characterise as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s truest protégée, Maréchal-Le Pen’s loss now appears to have shaken the party balance, awakening ambitions on the youngest Le Pen’s hardline conservative side of the party. One upshot is public sniping between Philippot, a Maréchal-Le Pen foe on the one hand, and the harder-line Nicolas Bay on the other. The controversial Philippot, who is staunchly opposed to the euro currency while others feel that policy limits the party’s ballot-box potential, has come in for particularly heavy criticism of late.
If party infighting weren’t worrying enough for the FN’s embattled leader, Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, has also threatened to weigh in at a meeting of the party’s political committee slated for next Tuesday, just after the election.
The FN’s rabble-rousing founder’s inflammatory statements -- which are manifestly unwelcome to his daughter, who has tried to make the party more palatable to French voters – have cost him his membership in the party he founded. But the 88-year-old went to court to obtain his reinstatement as the FN’s “honourary president” and appears poised to use it. In that event, one party executive recently suggested the party would be willing to pay a 2,000-euro legal fine just to keep 'papa' Le Pen at bay.
All in all, it's not the confident, forward-looking atmosphere one would expect for a party just weeks past its all-time electoral peak. Au contraire.