It was only back in May that Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Front and daughter of its antisemitic founder, performed staggeringly well against Emmanuel Macron in France’s presidential election. Winning 40 percent against Macron in the second-round vote and electing eight candidates to the French National Assembly, Le Pen produced a dream result for her party and her platform of immigration skepticism and political populism. The National Front made all the big headlines, and her candidates dominated primetime TV news.
Several months later, Le Pen’s National Front is in shambles, torn apart by infighting and strife. What happened? It’s important to understand—and resist the temptation to engage in schadenfreude.
Many National Front members were, despite the record result, disappointed after the election, having hoped they’d be able to elect Le Pen president. So the Front’s vice chairman Florian Philippot created a think tank to restructure the party. That effort was undermined when in early September, as her approval ratings declined and Philippot raised more criticism over the party’s policy line, Le Pen decided to strip him off of his responsibilities, which led him to quit the National Front. This divided the party, and put Le Pen at a crossroads.
Le Pen is known for her low-tolerance attitude towards those she regards as traitors. According to Agence France Presse (AFP), she’s either arranged for the departures or straight-out excluded 17 percent of the party’s internal board since 2014. Her heavy hand towards her own allies famously extended to her own father, who she booted from the party after concluding that his antisemitism was a liability. This ruthless purging was the reason the Front lost seven out of its 24 seats in the European Parliament, stripping it of its title of the strongest French party in the European Union.
Le Pen’s authoritarian approach has today left her facing tough questions about her future in the National Front. These woes have led the French press to repeatedly ask: Is this the end of the French far right?
But covering just everyday party politics doesn’t necessarily position one to understand why political movements emerge in the first place. Le Pen wasn’t successful because she had a good team or a fantastic strategy: alas, Donald Trump has shown that neither is really needed to win a presidential election against an establishment opponent. Le Pen’s success is that of her ideas.
Take her protectionism. According to an IFOP (French Institute for Public Opinion) poll in 2012, prior to the presidential election that year, 53 percent of French people believed that free trade has a negative impact on consumer prices, 69 percent asserted that it aggravates the deficit, and a staggering 81 percent believed that it has a negative impact on employment. These views are not limited to any particular demographic: they’re shared throughout the private and the public sector, across different kinds of professions, between urban and rural areas, those working and retired, men and women. Nor did voting intention—whether a respondent was far-left, far-right, centrist, conservative, or socialist—seem to make much difference as to how trade was perceived.
And while age groups did show marginal differences when it came to opinions on protectionism, the perception that Le Pen’s National Front is only supported by old people longing for a new Charles De Gaulle is highly misleading. In the first round of the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen gathered more support among those aged 18-24 than she did from those over 60. In fact, between them, the communist-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Le Pen—both staunch protectionists—amassed over 50 percent of support among young people. The National Front itself ironizes this on its website, in response to the suggestion by other party leaders that the French voting age be lowered to 16: “Since the National Front is the favorite choice for young people, we might be suspected to be interested in such a measure. That is, however, not the case.”
This is why it doesn’t matter if Le Pen’s party stands or falls. It will either reassemble elsewhere or the voters will hijack another party. Ideas don’t just disappear because the messenger left for an early pension. The question in politics is much less “who is in charge?” than “why are they in charge?” Those who oppose the National Front need to change the hearts and minds of people rather than pronouncing a political party dead based on its leadership changes. The best way to defeat the far left and far right is to challenge the economically illiterate and welfare-heavy promises that both sides make, which are exactly what France doesn’t need right now.
Until then, even if Marine Le Pen fades away, France will see a new figure of her kind pop up in the coming years. It’s bad ideas we have to fight, not people.
Bill Wirtz is a Young Voices advocate. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, CapX, the Mises Institute, Le Monde, and Le Figaro.