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Marine Le Pen lost the presidential election, but with a historic high share of the vote for her Rassemblement National party. How much of a threat are they?

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen lost the presidential election to incumbent Emmanuel Macron on Sunday in her third run for the office. Despite Macron's clear victory, with over 58% of the vote to Le Pen's 41%, Le Pen's Rassemblement National (RN) received 13 million votes, a historic high for her anti-immigration party.

RN is a far-right party that campaigned on promises of banning Muslim headscarves, cutting taxes and enacting immigration controls. Le Pen’s anti-establishment message resonated in France's lower-income, lower education, and lower life expectancy areas, resulting in substantial gains.

In an interview before the election, Le Pen announced that she would not run for president again. However, she stated in her concession speech that she would not give up politics after losing to Macron. She said: “I will continue my commitment to France and the French. It’s not over. In a few weeks, we have the legislative elections.”  Le Pen said she will “never abandon France”, casting doubt on her commitment to giving up trying to win the presidency.

Palatable extremism

In 2011, Le Pen took over the party – then known as the National Front – started by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, aiming to make it more electable. His racist, antisemitic views made him a highly controversial figure in French politics and limited his political influence to the fringe.

Le Pen's early career was marked by similar views. She has compared Muslims praying outside mosques with Nazi occupiers. Israel has accused her of denying the Holocaust. But since 2015, she has tried to change her and her party's image and temper its far-right policies. First, she expelled her father, who described the Nazi gas chambers as a detail in world history, from the party. 

The far-right has become an unavoidable force in French politics since Le Pen first ran for president in 2012. Her previously extreme positions regarding French sovereignty and stopping immigration are now more mainstream in France. She has been able to boost her visibility while also cultivating a down-to-earth image – especially in contrast with the haughty Macron – that obscured her questionable objectives. 

An admirer of Brexit, she identifies as a patriot and not a proponent of globalisation, which she has called a threat to French society. She stated in 2017 after Brexit that, "in the EU the real divide is between patriots and globalists and I am on the side of patriotism and many European leaders are on the side of globalism”. In response to the question of whether she supports Frexit, she replied: “Either the EU gives back to the French people its territorial sovereignty, its borders, control over its economy, control over its currency and the superiority of its law, or I will tell the French people, to leave the European Union.

She continues to oppose mass immigration and claims multiculturalism is a threat to traditional French values. She has said that illegal immigrants' children should not be able to expect free schooling.

Her open admiration for Vladimir Putin – and loans from Russian banks to finance RN campaigns – might have been expected to harm her standing with the French electorate. The party's 2022 election brochures showed her shaking hands with the Russian president; Over a million copies were printed, but after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Le Pen ordered all the copies to be thrown away. 

But her Russian ties, as well as the continually simmering controversies about her anti-immigrant stance and Islamophobia, did not dent Le Pen’s image, and the party gained millions of more votes than before.

The working-class vote

The RN party lost the 2017 election to Macron by over 10 million votes, receiving a 33% share. After the defeat, political pundits believed that even though the far-right had gained ground, it was still a long way from victory. 

But its 2022 performance, however, suggests that it has closed the gap. The party changed its position on gay rights, abortion and the death penalty to appeal to a wider audience. Though Le Pen toned down her harsh stance on these issues, criticism from the RN's rank and file did not enable her to fully revamp the party.

Deteriorating conditions for the French working class have played a significant role in the rise of the RN. French voters were increasingly concerned with rising inflation, which increased to 5.4% in April, the highest level since the 1990s. Rising energy prices, a slowdown in growth, and a 0.5% increase in consumer prices in April all contributed to giving the RN fertile territory from which to profit. 

The RN's opposition to immigration, tax cuts and increases in retirement age have also bolstered the party. President Macron announced plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 in 2019, sparking street protests that forced him to postpone such a move; RN has capitalised on strong feeling over the issue. Le Pen's harsh critique of strict lockdowns and slow vaccination delivery also helped the party gain popularity.

A bridgehead to Europe

After losing the presidential, the party is now focused on the parliamentary elections in June.

“We’ve been preparing for a very long time for these elections,” said the acting party president, Jordan Bardella. “It’s essential our ideas are defended in the assembly.” The party announced that it will take a firm position on French identity, security, immigration and taxes. Marine Le Pen will run and try to keep her seat in the Pas-de-Calais département in northern France. 

But RN has struggled in the past to convert large number of votes in presidential elections into parliamentary seats. It received more than 10 million votes in the 2017 presidential election, but only eight seats in the 577-seat parliament. But it has justifiable hopes for an improvement in June, as the party was first in 159 constituencies compared to 45 in 2017; it performed strongly in the northeastern and southern regions of the country. 

If the party does well in the parliamentary elections, it will have far-reaching implications for Europe, as it will give other far-right parties hope of greater influence in the EU. There is a strong possibility that if the rightwing gain a foothold across Europe, the EU might take a different approach to issues such as immigration and security. Even though Le Pen has dropped the idea of leaving the EU, she still advocates for a less integrationist Europe. Unlike Hungary, where a far-right party is in power, centrist France and Germany are the main forces of EU unity after the UK's exit. The future of the EU will be strongly influenced by any changes in the political spectrum in these two countries.

The far-right – in the shape of the RN, Austria’s FPO, Italy's Northern League and Germany’s AfD – holds 22% of seats in the European parliament. By performing well in the parliamentary elections, the RN party increases its chances in Europe. Le Pen has stated that her party wants to significantly decrease the EU's decision-making power, and control over who is allowed to freely travel inside it, as well as withdraw from some of the EU's trade and energy agreements. However, without gaining a parliamentary majority in the June elections, taking the next step would be difficult.

Written By: Olivium staff.


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