The other day a young National Front activist told me that if Marine Le Pen had another name, she would win the presidency by 10 points. It’s more or less indisputable that on the main issue of immigration, French sentiment is far closer to her views than to Emmanuel Macron’s; on the more complicated issue of Europe, public opinion splits more evenly. She has run a far better campaign than Macron, and would win hands down any “like to have a beer with” or “cares about people like you” contest. But the name, the stigma of being Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, remains an issue: the circumstance that gave her a media platform and an instant political base when she first became a public figure in 2002 is now a weight around her ankles as she hopes to rise beyond being the candidate of the extrème droit National Front.
For the last few days the campaign has turned around history—the history of the National Front and Marine Le Pen’s efforts to transcend it by forging an electoral alliance with well-respected center-right politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan; Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to keep the focus on the historic failings of the French far right, attending a memorial for Shoah remembrance on Sunday and today spending the morning at the place where right-wing militants pushed a Moroccan man into the Seine in 1995, where he drowned. I’m not sure these are the kind of historical questions French people are interested in.
As he has done regularly in recent years, Jean Marie Le Pen gave a May 1 speech before the statue of Joan of Arc. It’s in a nice square in the opulent center of Paris; on a holiday, perhaps 200 people, aging extreme-right militants or the simply curious, showed up. They were outnumbered by the French or international press: any attendee who wanted to be interviewed about what they thought about Jean Marie or France or Europe had ample opportunity to declaim before the cameras. As Alain Finkielkraut has pointed out, Marine Le Pen may have carried out the political murder of her father by kicking him out of the party, but the left (and, he might have added, the liberal press) insists on trying to resurrect him. At this point, Emmanuel Macron’s main electoral strategy is to link Marine Le Pen with the National Front, or with right-wing crimes committed long before National Front was born.
Still ready to play his assigned part, Jean Marie Le Pen, now 88, showed up wearing a bright red coat, paid homage to Joan of Arc, spoke some eloquent sentences about how we are all tied by cords to our parents and our nation and our history. At which point his microphone died, and no one could hear a word he said. He continued on, seemingly oblivious. Remarkably it took his team a full half hour to fix his sound system. When it was fixed, he gave some sobering statistics about French demographics and closed with a “Vive La France” and a slightly less emphatic “Vive la Republique.”
Jean Marie Le Pen was never an actual fascist; his play was to create a party where the various right-wing losers in France’s political battles—unreconstructed partisans of French Algeria, Vichyites, royalists—could find a political home without being ashamed of their roots and identity. It ensured him a platform and a permanent gadfly role in the French entertainment/political complex, and gave him a nice living; his actual impact on French political life was minimal.
The National Front became relevant only as it became obvious that conventional conservative politicians were failing to do what conservative politicians are elected to do—adapt to change, but preserve the institutions, the structures, the core national interests of the nations whose voters elect them. Marine Le Pen clearly recognized this, and set to work mainstreaming her father’s party. It’s a long process—you can’t fire everyone at once, and there are always surprises. This past week it was reported that the long-serving vice president of the party, known as a sort of diligent technocrat with little public role, had said something to an interviewer nearly 20 years ago questioning one of the accepted facts of the Holocaust (while distinguishing himself from out-and-out “negationists”). It was on allegedly on tape. He quickly resigned, but it reminded everyone that quarter of a century ago, Jean Marie Le Pen had created a scandal by minimizing the significance of the Holocaust, and one can assume he did not discourage those looking to advance in the party from doing the same. No one in the National Front expects Jean Marie Le Pen to help out his daughter by just shutting up during the campaign. Some claim he is jealous of his daughter’s success and hopes to undermine her. In the next week, the anti-National Front media (i.e., most of it) will give him ample access to the microphone.
While Macron was focusing on the Shoah (a kind of politics that Alain Finkielkraut, a child of survivors, thought profane to incorporate in electoral campaigning), Le Pen announced an alliance with Nicolas DuPont-Aignan and named him her prime minister if she won. DuPont-Aignan is one of those politicians who have hovered near the top for a while without quite breaking into the presidential tier. A good-looking graduate of ENA (the career equivalent of being a Harvard Law graduate if there were no other Ivy League law schools), a man associated with the Gaullist center until he broke and formed his own Euro-skeptic party Debout La France in 2008. He ran for president twice, obtaining a non-ridiculous 4.7 percent and finishing 6th in an 11-person field last week.
He endorsement of Marine Le Pen gives the latter something she had long sought and never quite achieved—an alliance with another, mainstream party, the ability to show that her National Front was a party like any other, and that those who agreed with it on many issues could form alliances with it. Dupont-Aignan is a better orator than anyone else the National Front has, and he is extremely persuasive in arguing that the long-standing division between the establishment right and the populist right must be transcended if France hopes to retain its sovereignty and confront its main problems. The alliance has made him an significant national figure while giving the National Front added credibility—a fact likely to endure whatever happens next Sunday. The old talking heads of the establishment right are having aneurysms denouncing DuPont-Aignan’s betrayal of “Republican values,” but to my ears at least, their protests sound rote and hollow.
Through all of this, Le Pen and Dupont-Aignan are hitting Macron hard. At her rally today Marine Le Pen reminded voters that five years ago, the socialist Hollande had said in a campaign rally that the “unnamed” enemy of France is “finance”—the big power of the big banks. Well, Marine declaimed, now we know the name and what do you know, it’s the name of Hollande’s poulain Emmanual Macron, the former (Rothschild) banker. The word means protégée, but also young colt or foal, and it sounds like it ought to mean “little chicken.” The 39-year-old Macron gets portrayed as young and weak and inexperienced and linked to timeless great power of finance at the same time.
It was discovered a few weeks ago that Macron’s campaign has some links to members of an Islamic organization, the UOIF. This too is talked about, and it’s an open question whether French voters are are more disturbed about links to ancient fascists or contemporary Islamists.
No polls have been published since Dupont-Aignan joined Le Pen. The latest ones had Macron still ahead by 19 or 20 points. Too much to make up in six days. My National Front contacts still say so. Nonetheless, if you just look at the images on TV, Le Pen should be winning.