Le Pen Battles to Keep Control of Her Party

  • National Front has no obvious challenger to Le Pen as leader
  • Party grandees demand a return to traditional issues

Marine Le Pen lost the French presidency on Sunday. Now she’s fighting to keep control of her own party.

While Le Pen racked up the National Front’s biggest ever tally with more than 10 million votes, her score of 34 percent still fell short of many activists’ expectations after a year which had seen Britain vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump take power in the U.S.

The need to fight parliamentary elections in June will encourage the party to maintain its discipline for another month, but after that there will be a reckoning. Already dissidents looking ahead to a party conference later this year are questioning her decision to campaign against the EU rather than on the group’s usual themes of immigration and security.

While Le Pen’s position is not in immediate danger because there are no obvious successors, the risk for her is that she will be forced by the party’s old guard around her father to return to a more traditional platform based on identity politics.

“With terrorism, unemployment and Trump, the environment was so favorable, so favorable,” said Jean-Francois Touze, a senior National Front official when the party was led by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie. “It’s a total failure.”

June may not provide much respite for her either.

The National Front has always done badly in legislative elections because of a lack of grassroots talent and a two-round system that allows mainstream voters to pool their ballots and keep the Front out.

The party has just two lawmakers in the current parliament and a poll by OpinionWay last week projected that it will get no more than 25 seats in the 577-strong chamber this time around. The survey showed Macron’s En Marche! as the biggest party with as many as 286 delegates.

“The stakes are high,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist specializing in far-right politics. “She can’t afford to do too badly in the legislative elections after losing the presidential vote.”

No Challenger

Touze is part of a faction pushing for a return to the National Front’s traditional line. He said that after a “truce” for the legislative vote, the party will have to hold a conference to decide both on its policy program and its leadership.

While critics are challenging Le Pen’s direction for the party, her position may be safe for now because there’s no obvious successor in the wings. Her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a National Front lawmaker and occasional critic, is the only other figure who can compare with Le Pen’s profile and at 27 is seen as too green for the leadership.

“There’s no one in the party who can challenge her,” said Sylvain Crepon, a sociology professor at the University of Tours who specializes in the National Front. “The question may be asked after 2022 if she doesn’t make progress. But for the moment, I don’t see who is in position to take her place.”

Reasonably Safe

While Le Pen’s position may be reasonably safe, the daggers are out for Florian Philippot her closest aide. He has helped Le Pen airbrush the Front’s racist image and talk about some of the party’s key concerns as matters of “sovereignty” rather than “nationalism.” He was the architect of Le Pen’s plan to pull France out of the euro which ultimately proved to be a turn off for many voters.

“Making the euro exit a priority was the wrong option, and it’s probably a key to the defeat,” Joel Jadot, a 70-year-old party member from northern France, said in a telephone interview Sunday night. “Changes will have to be made, that’s unavoidable. We must shift back to the national identity, fighting terrorism, and security. She will have little choice about that.”

‘End of a World’

Le Pen let expectations run out of control early on as she tried to tap into the populist revolt that sparked Brexit and brought Trump to power. In January, she attended a rally in Koblenz, Germany with fellow extremists Geert Wilders and Germany’s Frauke Petry where she predicted a backlash that would sweep through the heart of Europe.

“This the end of a world and the rise of a new one,” she said.

In the end, Wilders was beaten in the Dutch election in March and Petry was pushed out by her Alternative for Germany party in April as it trailed Germany’s two main parties by some 20 percentage points.

Difficult Debate

Le Pen herself struggled in the final weeks of her campaign when she needed to bring her political experience to bear against the untested Macron, running in his first election of any kind.

But her attacks during their head-to-head television debate misfired as she fumbled the policy details of her arguments. Her father Jean-Marie said she “lacked stature.”

At her final rally the day after the debate, Le Pen’s confidence was ebbing. Addressing a small crowd of about 200 die-hard supporters in a field in northern France on May 4, she said that nothing would keep her quiet, whatever the result.

Le Pen senior redoubled his criticism of his daughter late Sunday. In an interview with RTL television, he said her euro policy was the mistake that had derailed her campaign and she should have focused immigration and security instead.

“We need to talk to France about its real problems,” he said.

— With assistance by Andre Tartar

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