By Zach Roberts
Marine Le Pen was left visibly stunned when the Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, claimed that her party, National Rally, was “too soft” on Islam. Her response was perhaps the rational, and most diplomatic response, iterating that she “does not intend to attack Islam, which is a religion like any other.” The question is, are moments like these an indicator of the far-right party ‘going soft’ or has Macron got desperate? Is he fighting a losing battle against the right?
Macron’s approval rating is heading for its lowest since the pension reform strikes of December 2019, and with 60% disapproval at the time of writing, these are hardly enviable statistics for someone vying for reelection next year. His first term has not been easy by any means, inheriting a country shocked in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and an ever increasing paranoia around Islamic extremism in France. In addition, the Gilet Jaunes movement has become the face of discontent against Macron’s stringent economic and welfare austerity measures. Managing crises such as these is always incredibly tricky, but it appears that Macron and his En Marche party have changed strategy from defensive to offensive. The Interior Minister’s comments are just one example of how En Marche are now choosing to attack other parties instead of defending their work over the last four years. Darmanin, a Minister clearly unafraid to speak his mind, also gave an interview to far-right magazine, ‘Valeurs Actuelles’, about the ‘challenges of Islam’, demonstrating the seismic shift in the political spectrum of France’s two current major parties. When a far right populist such as Marine Le Pen, who once called for the ‘de-Islamisation of France’ is the one advocating for religious freedoms, it sets a worrying precedent for the political future. Macron, a self-professed centrist, currently has a reelection campaign built on the far more typical right-wing policies of austerity and an intense crack down on law, order and extremism. An approach clearly failing to garner support, as many polls now have Le Pen closing in on Macron.
Saying that this incredibly close Presidential race therefore grants more legitimacy to the National Rally has to be discussed with a degree of scepticism. This tightness is perhaps reflecting how far to the right the political centre in France has swung instead. Many worry that Le Pen, who was in court in February for an alleged breach of hate speech laws, is hardly the political saviour that France needs. A reminder is perhaps needed that the National Rally is still the infamous National Front party, just with a new name and new generation of Le Pen in charge. Jean Marie Le Pen became a renowned political figure for his controversial policies and comments, and for his five Presidential bids, most notably in 2002 when he reached the second round. His own daughter then kicked him from the party for persistent out of line comments that have included racism, anti-semitism and holocaust denial. Marine then reached the second round herself in 2017, but very much still in her father’s shadow, carrying the legacy of extreme views on nationalism, euroscepticism and immigration. It was perhaps this that encouraged her to rebrand the party to ‘National Rally’ in 2018. A new name signalled a move away from her father’s unsavoury and controversial past, followed by more openmindedness on many of the party’s traditional pledges including a commitment to keep France in the Euro, the mass removal of members who had made unacceptable comments, including her father, and relaxations or complete u-turns on many social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and the death penalty. Despite this, her core remains distinctly populist and these changes of stance perhaps reflect that of the general swings of opinion of French citizens rather than a personal change of heart. A populist’s role is to fill a gap in a country’s current political system and with the wide range of political affiliations, right and left, united by the Gilet Jaunes, it is surely Le Pen’s job to do the same.
So have France legitimised a populist? Her politics aside, her attempts to build National Rally as not only a feasible, but the biggest, opposition to Macron, have to be appreciated. The party has spent the last few years focusing on local, grassroots campaigning and a strategy called ‘rayonnement’ which is the idea of spreading the ideas and policies of National Rally through local mayors across France. Mayors are the most trusted political figures in France and their influence cannot be underestimated and is why Le Pen is utilising them. It may seem like a small move but it is having a huge impact on not only the popularity, but also the general exposure of the party.
Darmanin may have been right then, perhaps Le Pen has ’gone soft’. But the main issue was not what he said, but the tone behind his comments. Going ‘soft’ was implied as a detriment. He may have been trying to call out Le Pen’s vacillating stance on key policy areas, but whereas populism is inherently good at reflecting public opinion, his comments exposed the lack of En Marche’s ability to read the tone of the French people, something that could ultimately see Macron lose next year.
Image - Flickr (Mat Beaudet)