- National Front leader softens stance ahead of elections
- December vote may give party its first major foothold
Marine Le Pen has a new role model: David Cameron.
The head of France’s far-right National Front party wants to take a leaf out of the U.K. leader’s playbook and use the threat of an exit from the European Union as a bargaining chip to win concessions for her country.
“I am so happy to see David Cameron doing in the U.K. what I want to do for France,’’ Le Pen said in a telephone interview. “He’s using the months ahead of the referendum to get what he wants for his country, and we want that too, more sovereignty for France and more freedom.”
While tapping into her party’s euro-skepticism, the comments mark a shift for the 47-year-old self-proclaimed “Madame Frexit,” who in June called for an orderly breakup of the common currency. The move is in line with Le Pen’s effort to elbow her way into the mainstream, distancing herself from the party’s hard-line fringe on everything from the economy to race issues in a bid to win votes -- and power -- in France’s regional elections December 6 and 13.
The latest polls show Le Pen on track to win the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, bordering the Channel and facing the U.K., in the December ballot. Her call for a confrontation with the EU has some traction there, as high unemployment, thousands of migrants and post-industrial depression have already made the region fertile ground for the National Front. The North led the No vote in the 2005 referendum on a European Constitution and Le Pen made her best scores there in the 2012 presidential elections.
“Numbers don’t lie, she stands a major chance,” said BVA pollster Adelaide Zulfikarpasic. “Everything is helping her: the migrant crisis, massive unemployment, pessimism and her standing up to defend the ‘little people’ against the might of Europe.”
An Oct. 22 poll for La Voix du Nord daily showed Le Pen winning the two-round vote in all scenarios. The National Front could also win in the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur and Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine to the east, according to several polls.
Le Pen rides high even in the polls for the 2017 presidential ballot, with about a third of the French electorate saying they may vote for her, according to an Ifop poll for Journal du Dimanche published Oct. 11. A September survey showed she would make it to the second round of the election.
For all her efforts to tone down her party’s historical positions, her demands for the EU are more extreme than anything Cameron is likely to come up with.
Cameron has been campaigning in Berlin, Brussels and Paris, arguing that concessions he’s seeking for Britain would be good for Europe. He will spell out his demands Tuesday, aiming for a deal in December that he can take to British voters and -- in Downing Street’s central scenario -- win a referendum due by the end of 2017 to keep the U.K. in the EU.
For her part, Le Pen wants France to return to the franc, while sharing the euro as a common currency with the rest of its European partners. She wants to scrap the Schengen agreement that allows free movement of workers across the region. As for the migrants sitting in Calais, she wants to deport them far away from France.
“What she says is more mainstream but, behind the scenes, it’s still the same nationalistic anti-European position,” said Vincent Tiberj, associate professor at Paris’s Sciences Po university. “She still wants to dismantle the EU, it’s just the steps toward it that are changing.”
France’s regional elections are the equivalent of state elections in the U.S. While the elected heads in France have no say on education, police and justice matters, they are in charge of local infrastructure, including ports and airports, and attracting investors to their regions.
Their geographical reach has also expanded after President Francois Hollande last year cut their number to 13 in mainland France from 22. Le Pen running the North -- the doorway to the U.K. and Belgium -- would give the National Front its first major foothold in the French administration.
“It would be a tragedy if the National Front won one, two or three regions,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Europe 1 radio Sunday. He pledged that the Socialist Party will “do anything they can,” including teaming up with rival party The Republicans, to prevent a victory for Le Pen’s party.
On the campaign trail, Le Pen visits factories in Picardie and towns along the Channel coast telling voters they should ask to see what Europe “can give back” and, as Cameron is doing, use that to negotiate.
And if they don’t get what they want “then yes, we’ll leave Europe,” Le Pen told Bloomberg.