The Economist: How Marine Le Pen preparing for power

    WORLD  27 February 2024 - 00:01

    The Economist carries an article about French far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s preparation for power. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    It is an annual ritual in France for political leaders to make a new year’s address. Time was that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the hard-right National Rally (RN, formerly the National Front), did so from the back room of a boxy building in Nanterre, on the drab outskirts of Paris. In those days the party she took over in 2011 from her father, Jean-Marie, was more about low-budget protest and fringe provocation than taking power.

    This January the job fell to Jordan Bardella, her slick 28-year-old protégé and now president of the RN, whom she watched from the front row. In a dark suit and tie, he spoke from a grand salon on the swanky Avenue Hoche in Paris, a step away from the Champs-Elysées. The symbolism was potent. The shift from the capital’s periphery to the heart of elite Paris encapsulates a political strategy: the RN is preparing for power.

    Ms Le Pen is no stranger to national elections. Since taking the helm at what was then an extreme-right outfit, co-founded in 1972 by a former member of the Waffen ss and nostalgic for French-run Algeria, she has shaped it into a nationalist-populist party. Having stood at three presidential elections, she has made it to the final run-off in two. Each time, she has lost to the current incumbent, Emmanuel Macron. But her final score has jumped: from 34 per cent in 2017 to 41 per cent in 2022. In 2027 Mr Macron will be barred from running for a third consecutive term. Early polls now suggest—however prematurely—that this time she could scrape a victory.

    The RN is changing gear. In quiet meetings in the back rooms of Paris, party officials and elected deputies are gathering input on everything from market risk to energy policy. Advisers, says one, are working on a handful of legislative bills that would be ready to go to parliament, and a programme for her first 100 days. A 60-page draft economic policy was handed to Ms Le Pen this month, written by Jean-Philippe Tanguy, a young RN deputy and business-school graduate. Each month a secret group of sympathetic high-level civil servants, many retired but some of them young, meets Ms Le Pen to offer advice.

    Such work is partly about scouting for technocratic talent in a party where this has long been scant. The RN has just recruited its first top ex-Euro-official: Fabrice Leggeri, the hard-line former head of Frontex, the EU border-control body. A graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, he has joined the campaign for elections to the European Parliament in June, which Mr Bardella will launch on March 3.

    The RN’s outreach is also part of a charm offensive on the Paris establishment. This is not so much an effort to woo support, unlikely to be forthcoming in a city that voted overwhelmingly for Mr Macron. Rather, it is a bid to neutralise influential opinion. In the tight circles of the capital’s elite, it would be a coup for the RN if it could persuade even a few prominent figures to stop spreading alarm about what the party’s victory might mean.

    Already some doors are opening. Mr Bardella was invited in November to debate with students on the campus of HEC, a top business school in the Paris region. Aides are trying, though with difficulty, to set up meetings for him and his boss with CAC 40 business leaders. Late last year Ms Le Pen lunched publicly with a former boss of EDF, the state-owned electricity utility, at an upscale Paris restaurant.

    For a party that portrays itself as the champion of the people against the out-of-touch ruling class in Paris, such efforts are necessarily tricky. In 2022 Ms Le Pen railed against the “globalist” Mr Macron, who “enslaves mankind to the logic of economics and accounting”. Yet the RN argues that to win the highest office it also needs to combine its strong support base among the less-educated with a chunk of the most-educated and better-off. In 2022 only 26 per cent of those with a university degree voted for Ms Le Pen in the second round.

    Today’s watchword is reassurance. On policy, Ms Le Pen has dropped calls for “Frexit”, leaving the EU or the Euro, which worried voters, while retaining her core nationalist demands, including an end to the right to citizenship for those born to foreign parents on French soil. On style, today’s RN has been purged of its most thuggish elements and antisemitic rhetoric. Ms Le Pen’s 87 fellow deputies sit, besuited, in parliament; two periodically preside over proceedings. Having changed the party’s name, evicted her own father and shed its family-values conservatism, Ms Le Pen has installed a new generation of loyalists. The single biggest age group among RN deputies is now the 30- to 39-year-olds. For the first time in 40 years a poll in December showed that more of the French (45 per cent) do not consider the party to be a “danger for democracy” than judge that it is (41 per cent).

    How far the RN really has shed its past instincts, however, let alone gained the skills to govern, is a different question. Ms Le Pen is certainly not yet a guest at the clubs and debates frequented by the Paris elite. Toxic hangers-on still move in her orbit. She is an admirer of Hungary’s strongman, Viktor Orban, and her party sits in the European Parliament with Germany’s far-right AfD. A Kremlin-linked Russian bank financed some of her previous election campaigns. Even today the RN argues against Ukraine joining either NATO or the EU.

    The difficulty for centrist politicians, though, is that the RN’s normalisation has gone far enough to defang some of their traditional tactics against it. Taking the moral high ground, or scaremongering, no longer washes with much of the electorate. Younger voters, who barely recall her father’s stint, see Mr Bardella as just another politician; a pinned clip on his TikTok account has a massive 8.5m views. In Italy, the relative moderation in office of Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister, whose party has roots in post-war neo-fascism, also weakens the case for panic. “Fear in public opinion is overestimated,” says Dominique Reynié, director of Fondapol, a think-tank. “People think that Le Pen is someone like them.”

    Ahead of European Parliament elections in June, and to reboot his government, Mr Macron has installed a counterpoint to Mr Bardella as prime minister: the 34-year-old Gabriel Attal. Six years apart, each uncommonly poised in debates, the pair have faced each other in television studios before. Already, Mr Attal is proving far more popular than his boss, with a 53per cent approval rating, 17 points higher than Mr Macron’s. But his arrival has not yet made any dent in the crushing ten-point lead that the RN enjoys over Mr Macron’s Renaissance grouping in polls for the Euro-election.

    Most awkwardly, Mr Macron’s attempt to follow the electorate to the right on immigration has ended up helping the RN. In a tactical ambush the RN unexpectedly backed his recent immigration bill, embarrassing the government and allowing Ms Le Pen to claim an “ideological victory”.

    Finding a way to resist nationalist-populism challenges centrists across Europe. Rational argument is a flimsy tool against its simplistic certitudes. Back in 2017, during a presidential debate, Mr Macron famously exposed Ms Le Pen as unfit to govern, when she confused two big French firms and failed to explain her unfathomable currency policy. The more her party does its homework, the harder this argument will be to make. “Our adversaries underestimate the RN,” says the party’s Mr Tanguy. “They don’t realise that we are ready.” 


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