Le Pen Returns to French Campaign With Sarkozy Making her Case

  • National Front leader has kept a low profile this year
  • Le Pen lost December regional election, remains high in polls

National Front leader Marine Le Pen will make her biggest political statement so far this year with a major rally at the weekend in her southern heartlands, after months of near silence when she let the news do the talking.

Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, anti-euro party will kick off her bid for the French presidency next year with a two-day summer festival in Frejus, a Riviera coastal town close to Cannes, culminating in a one-hour speech by its figurehead on Sunday afternoon.

Marine Le Pen

Photographer: Chesnot/Getty Images

The far-right party chief has given only a handful of interviews since coming up short when on the brink of an electoral breakthrough in regional elections in December. While Le Pen has kept a low profile, events have kept her concerns in the forefront of voters’ minds.

Throughout the summer a series of shocks appear to have borne out her warnings about the risks of immigration, terrorism and the failings of the European Union. There was the June 23 vote by the British to ditch the EU, the Islamist-inspired truck rampage in Nice on July 14 and the July 26 murder of a French priest by two men acting for Islamic State. The failed Turkish coup the same month is threatening an agreement to stem the flow of refugees to Europe and France ended the holiday season in a tizzy over whether to allow Muslim women to wear body-covering swimsuits on the beach.

“During the past months of hysterical public debate in France, she stood out for not participating,” said Joel Gombin, a politics professor at the University of Picardy. “The themes that dominate French politics at the moment are so deeply associated with the National Front that Marine Le Pen doesn’t have to take part. And she can even look moderate, or at least above the fray.”

Sarkozy’s Pitch

As Le Pen remained silent over the summer, former President Nicolas Sarkozy launched his own campaign for 2017 targeting her supporters. He called for a clampdown on potential terrorist suspects and a national law to ban the full-body bathing suits. He also said schools should stop offering non-pork options at lunch. It hasn’t worked.

The number of people with a positive view of Sarkozy fell to 35 percent in September from 38 percent in July, according to an Ifop poll. Those with a positive view of Le Pen rose to 33 percent from 28 percent.

“When politicians debate the causes she has defended for years, it only benefits her,” Gombin said. “Sarkozy’s strategy to chase National Front voters worked in 2007, because it was new and so was he. It failed in 2012.”

With President Francois Hollande’s approval rating close to a record low and Sarkozy facing around a dozen rivals for The Republicans’ nomination, the 2017 race is wide open.

For Le Pen, the challenge is winning over centrist voters who never would have considered the party because of the racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric of its founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. To detoxify her party’s image, the 48-year-old daughter has instead focused on economic issues such as the decline of industrial jobs in France, and the supposed threat to French culture from poorly assimilated immigrants -- but without disparaging the immigrants themselves. Last year, she had her father kicked out of the party.

Terrorist Attacks

Almost every poll over the past year shows Le Pen qualifying for the May 7 run-off in next year’s presidential election and then losing, whoever she’s up against. A BVA poll released Thursday showed her winning between 30 percent and 33 percent in the first round depending on which candidates other parties nominate; that’s up from 28 percent to 29 percent in the same poll three months ago. But in the two-person run-off she’d still get no more than 44 percent support.

Le Pen is expected to announce her team for next year’s presidential elections at this weekend’s rally, which will include a series of workshops on security, Brexit, and “Islamic terrorism” where supporters can mingle with party executives. She’s likely to repeat her promise to hold a nationwide referendum on EU membership and promote what she has called the “French way of life” that immigrants should accept.

Since she declared her presidential bid earlier this year, Le Pen has given few details about how she’d fight the terrorism that has claimed 235 lives in France since the start of last year. She says the EU’s open borders have left France defenseless and in a Sept. 3 speech  Brachay, eastern France, she suggested terrorists were hiding among migrants.

“The best weapon against terrorism is the ballot,” she said.

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— With assistance by Celeste Perri

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