‘She’s a bit stuck’: Le Pen looks for momentum after election flop

At a raucous gathering of her far-right supporters in the southern town of Perpignan on Sunday, Marine Le Pen sought to quell dissenters criticising her strategy to “detoxify” the party founded by her father.

“We will not go backwards,” she said. “With all due respect for our history, we are not going back to the Front National,” said Le Pen, referring to the old name for her party which she erased in an effort to remove a taboo from the movement.

The leader of what is now called the Rassemblement National, or National Rally, was trying to regain momentum after underperforming in local elections last month. A little less than a year before presidential polls, Le Pen’s party failed to win a single French regional council after two-thirds of voters — including a large proportion of far-right sympathisers — chose to stay at home.

Hitting her usual notes of anti-immigration and anti-globalisation, and nodding to a plan with other rightwing figures in Italy and Hungary to build a “grand alliance” in the European parliament, the 52-year-old Le Pen was feted by the party faithful.

“I’ve read in the press you are all feeling morose,” she joked to cheers and chants of “Marine Président” and “we are going to win”. 

But despite being reappointed RN chief with 98 per cent of the votes, there were murmurs of discontent at the two-day event — with some wondering if her attempts to appeal to a broader, more mainstream audience were alienating core voters and threatening her chances to make it to the presidential runoff with President Emmanuel Macron.

The failure to win at least one region “has sucked momentum away from the party”, said Valérie Igounet, an expert on the far-right at Sciences Po. “We can already see in polls that the gap between her and Macron has grown . . . she has basically no other option but to remobilise her supporters.”

Supporters of Rassemblement National give a standing ovation at the arrival of the party leader during the party congress in Perpignan © Valentine Chapuis/AFP/Getty

Perpignan, near the Spanish border, is the biggest town run by the RN after Louis Aliot became mayor last year. But with recent election results disappointing, Le Pen is accused of ignoring local politics in favour of national deals.

“Today, we look like eternal seconds. That can . . . demobilise the National Rally electorate for the presidential elections,” Romain Lopez, a small-town RN mayor, told AP.

Since losing against Macron in 2017, Le Pen has doubled down on her campaign to detoxify her party’s image, changing its name in 2018. She had previously expelled her father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was convicted for his anti-Semitic comments. She has extended a hand to politicians from the centre-right. More recently she has touted a government of national unity, if she is elected.

The 93-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen said last week that the “policy of adapting, of rapprochement with power, even with the traditional right, was severely sanctioned”. Calling it “a political error” he warned that it “translates into an electoral failure”.

Bruno Lerognon, a local politician in the southern Herault departement, said in an open letter that Le Pen’s strategy of opening up to other parties was “absurd” and that she was ignoring the grassroots at her peril. 

In Perpignan, despite her tight control of the party, some quietly agreed: “She’s a bit stuck. She can’t go harder without losing some of the support she has built,” said one young delegate.

“What’s putting young people off are all of the political deals,” said Valentin Manent, a 32-year-old who had travelled from Paris for the convention. “We have to find a balance between making deals and not putting off young people who don’t want to vote for politics as usual.”

The failure to win the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur last month was blamed by some on RN’s candidate, Thierry Mariani, an experienced politician from the centre-right Les Républicains (LR) party and representative of Le Pen’s attempts to appeal to a more mainstream audience. 

While the so-called republican front — which sees other parties vote tactically to keep the extreme right from office — held in Provence, Le Pen’s bet is that she can pull in enough moderate rightwing votes to overcome it next year.

Brigitte Gazel, a local politician at the Rassemblement National gathering in Perpignan, is confident Marine Le Pen will ‘get tougher’
Brigitte Gazel, a local politician at the Rassemblement National gathering in Perpignan, is confident Marine Le Pen will ‘get tougher’ © David Keohane/FT

“Our greatest victory over the past 10 years is, without a doubt, a near total ideological victory . . . To be convinced, it is enough to listen to the LR plagiarise us blithely, especially during election campaigns” said Le Pen on Sunday.

But she must get through the first round and be in a position to benefit — another loss would throw her leadership of the RN into doubt. And with one eye on mobilising her base and the wide swath of voters angry with the president, she warned that those “that abstain are handing victory to one person: Macron”.

On the streets of Perpignan, Cyril Poulard, a 44-year-old auto mechanic and RN voter, summed up the disillusion of many far-right sympathisers, saying: political “deals don’t matter if she isn’t going to get elected anyway”.

With some wary of her relative moderation, Le Pen must also face the risk of being outflanked on the right by Éric Zemmour, an ultra-conservative television editorialist who has faced hate-speech charges. He has accused Le Pen of “speaking like Emmanuel Macron” and could run next year.

“Many people in the party agree with Zemmour but we don’t want him to take votes that stop Marine getting to the second round, that would be stupid,” said Manent.

Laboratory technician, local RN politician and self-proclaimed fortune teller Brigitte Gazel is positive Zemmour will not run anyway: “I’ve seen it.”

Waving a French flag and shouting Le Pen slogans while walking to the conference, 59-year-old Gazel also said there was no need to worry about the RN’s chances: “You’ll see, Marine will get tougher.”

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