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Marine le Pen: A Trumpian Takeover or an Election Embarrassment?

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As France gears up for the final round of its elections, the world is beginning to question what the election of Marine Le Pen could bring. 

Five years on from their last election battle, incumbent President Emmanuel Macron narrowly defeated his opponent Le Pen in the first round of the French elections last Sunday. 

Le Pen’s party Reassemblement National (National Rally) finished with 23% of the vote to Macron’s La République En Marche!’s 28%. 

In an election that represented a rejection of the traditional parties of French politics, the Republicans and Socialists, Jean-Luc Melanchon of the far-left France Unbowed movement came in 0.8% behind Le Pen. 

Le Pen materialised as Macron’s opposition in their 2017 election during a time of socio-economic instability, when social spending was under pressure, unemployment was at 10% and social tensions were raised by three terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice.

And the emergence of the far-right doyenne also came at a time of global political change, a year after Britain voted to leave the EU and Trump was elected as president. 

Le Pen’s far-right policies have led people to draw comparisons between her and the 45th US President, with their anti-globalisation, anti-immigration and anti-establishment stances capturing the ‘silent majority’ or those ‘left behind’ in their respective electorates.  

They are also both populist politicians who position themselves against mainstream leaders, and in favour of the little guy, whilst never having lived a day in the shoes of an average worker.

Trump was born into immense wealth and inherited a business empire, whilst Le Pen grew up at a château in an upmarket Parisian suburb that was bequeathed to her father by a neo-fascist political admirer. 

They both have also been suspected of using financial tricks to hide their wealth or avoid taxes. For instance, Le Pen and her father were accused of underestimating their personal fortunes by 60% in 2014, and there have been legal battles in the US for Trump to release his tax returns. 

Trump and Le Pen have also drawn comparisons in their comments on religion; as Trump used the US’ large Christian population to garner votes, so Le Pen invokes the heritage and authority of Catholicism to explain her secular nation’s identity.

In a campaign speech, she said:

“The principles we fight for are engraved in our national motto: liberty, equality, brotherhood, which stems from the principles of secularisation resulting from a Christian heritage.”

Le Pen’s 2017 bid surfaced at a time of heightened religious tensions following two terrorist attacks in Paris and one in Nice in the preceding years, when anti-Islam sentiment was on the rise in France. 

As she said to the EU Parliament floor after blaming Islamic fundamentalists for the Paris attacks in November 2015: “The assassin is the ideology in the name of which terrorism does the killing.”

Le Pen rode this anti-Islam wave in a way reminiscent of Trump’s islamaphobia, or his anti-immigrant xenophobia, such as the “Build the Wall” slogan adopted from his followers.

This theme of dogmatism and ideology is apparent in both the leaders’ rhetoric, and the protection of US and French values prevalent in both the leaders’ policy. 

As Trump campaigned to ‘Make America Great Again’, Le Pen emboldens France to ‘Rendre aux Français leur pays’ or ‘Give the French back their Country’, prompting not only comparisons made by the press between the figures but also between the politicians themselves too. 

As Le Pen told CNBC in 2017: “I am very happy about the election of Donald Trump. 

“I think that the United States will once again regain its former image in the world which had become very damaged.”

But there are some differences between the two far-right figures, the most notable in their economic policy, with Le Pen shifting to the left towards a more interventionist policy, whilst Trump remains capitalist to the core. 

Campaigning this year, Le Pen has advocated for generous hand-outs to ease the cost of living crisis, free-handed pensions and loans, exempting under-30s from paying income tax, cutting VAT on energy, and implementing a ‘Buy French’ policy. 

This has put her at odds with pro-business centrist Macron, whose economic proposals prioritise continuity, counterbalancing state pension increases and measures to help workers with an increase in the retirement age and a cut to business taxes. 

Whilst Trump infiltrated and took over the Republican party he was not able, like Le Pen has in France, to change the two-party system that dominates US politics. 

And whilst Trump is known to antagonise and incite reaction and attention with his words, Le Pen is more careful with her rhetoric.

She has purposefully and carefully rebranded her party away from the principles of its predecessor the National Front, a dynastic party built on colonial nostalgia and the Third Reich.

Led by Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie, the often racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic party philosophy forced it to the fringes of French politics for over four decades, in a country strongly associated with liberalism and the enlightenment. 

For example, when speaking to the press in 2017 Le Pen denied that France was responsible for the Vel D’Hiv mass arrest of Jews on behalf of Germans during World War II despite President Jacques Chirac formally acknowledging France’s guilt in 1995. 

This has presented an ideological barrier to Le Pen who took four attempts to get elected to the French parliament, with her party gaining just 6 seats in the 577 seat National Assembly in 2017.  

As Le Pen emphasised to LBC: “I excluded from the national front my very own father, we could not tolerate words, unacceptable words that would lead to a caricature of our movement.”

Le Pen still holds plenty of ammunition for the far-right, such as advocating for a total ban on Muslim headscarves that has further heightened religious tensions in the country.

But this time around, in 2022, Le Pen has also dropped the controversial issues that sunk her five years ago, such as restoring the death penalty and leaving the euro. 

She has also made sure to distance herself from Putin, a man whom she formerly referred to as a friend, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of this year. 

But opponents still accuse her of being too close to Moscow, with her party owing millions to Russian banks, and her emphasis on Russia being a post-war ally again. 

This is seen as harmful by her critics as Le Pen’s desire to withdraw France from NATO challenges Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture. 

As the world, and Europe, witnesses a political shift from consensus to polarisation, Le Pen’s election would shock and divide the country. 

The left, fond of demonstrations, would take to the streets in a country still reeling from a series of populist grassroots protests against social and political injustice in 2018-20 called the Yellow Vests Movement. 

And a bitterly divided France would have implications beyond its borders, affecting Europe and the European Union.

Many critics have argued that she is trying to destroy the European Union from inside the bloc, by slowly deconstructing the EU. 

Whilst she stated whilst campaigning in Burgundy last week that leaving the EU is not her objective, much of Le Pen’s nationalist and protectionist policy proposals contradict the EU’s commitment to integration, breach several treaties and are incompatible with membership of the 27-nation union. 

Le Pen advocates for a national priority for French workers over EU workers, the establishment of primacy of French law over EU law, cut tax on goods and fuels in violation of EU free market rules, and violating Schengen law by blocking the free movement of goods and people. 

Meanwhile, europhile Macron pushes for development of Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’ in defence, technology, agriculture and energy, and the creation of a ‘European metaverse’ to challenge Facebook.  

In their battle for votes, both have moved more towards the centre, with Macron re-orienting the EU towards a more protectionist stance, and Le Pen dropping her more ardent anti-EU measures such as withdrawing France from the euro. 

But critics have called Le Pen’s 2022 EU policy ‘Frexit in all but the name’ that could lead to a stand-off that could paralyse the EU at a time of global panic. 

As countries like Belarus and Ukraine fight to become part of the EU, a founding nation could potentially harm or leave it, causing waves that will ripple throughout the union.

At a time of global uncertainty following a pandemic and in the midst of the Russo-Ukraine War, some fear the election of Le Pen could put western unity at risk. 

The safer (and only other) option to pro-EU, liberal voters and outsiders is the business-centrist europhile incumbent Macron. 

Macron is aiming to be the first French politician in two decades to win re-election, after his 2017 landslide victory that undercut the traditional conservative and socialist parties who had in 2012 gained 55% of the vote. 

Although he has failed in his first term to deliver on his promise to ‘Build a New France’ with GDP only slightly higher than before covid, unemployment at 7% and inflation rising, Macron has witnessed a recent rise in popular support. 

Although unusual for an incumbent in an election year, Macron’s approval ratings are at 30% after his strong reaction to the war in Ukraine as he has prioritised European stability over his election campaign. 

In a first-round election marked by anti-elite anger and a rejection of the traditional parties of French politics, Jean-Luc Melanchon of the far-left France Unbowed movement also came in 0.8% behind Le Pen. 

But with the first round of elections plagued with historically low levels of voter turnout, the 56% of 18-24-year-olds who are predicted to vote for Le Pen could indeed choose to abstain from voting. 

And as Macron’s older, wealthier voters are more likely to turn out, there have even been worries that Le Pen could use high voting abstention rates to question the legitimacy of a Macron win. 

Whether Le Pen exhibits a Trump takeover like in 2016, or Macron is re-elected, it is clear Le Pen has shifted politics in France towards the right, challenging the liberal consensus Macron has set up. 

As Trump exacerbated political polarisation in the US, so Le Pen has caused a wave of change – not just in this French election, but the entire political environment of Europe. 

France will go to the polls on April 24th to decide between continuity and change. 

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