After Marine Le Pen – POLITICO


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PARIS – Each week, a group of members of the French far-right National Rally connects to a video call to discuss politics. They debate the electoral strategy, gossip about who is riding in the party and deplore their leader and presidential candidate in 2022, Marine Le Pen.

“We all have the same conviction that Marine Le Pen will not win the next elections,” said a participant in the call and a member of the National Council, a committee of 120 members that decides party policy.

“We have to find a new candidate,” said the participant, who asked not to be cited by name for fear of being sidelined.

The discontent group, a mix of National Council members, regional heavyweights and local representatives, meets online on Friday. Some are talkative, says the participant; others rarely speak and listen attentively. Another participant said the discussions are being kept secret from the rest of the party. Some members of the group – but not many – have suggested replacing Le Pen before next year’s election.

As the longtime party leader embarks on her third attempt to storm the Elysee Palace, few expect her to do better than she did last time around, when she came in second place in the first round of voting, only to be rejected in the second round against the French. President Emmanuel Macron.

This is a view shared by many participants in the National Gathering. And so, some are already looking beyond the elections to ask: after losing, what’s the next step?

“We will see what the future of the National Rally will be,” said Nicolas Bay, National Rally MEP and critical supporter of Le Pen, who says he is not participating in the online discussions. “It is quite possible that it is not necessarily someone who bears the name of Le Pen who will lead the party.”

Le Pen brand

Marine Le Pen, who succeeded her father Jean-Marie Le Pen as party leader, is a brand in France – and one of the Rassemblement national’s greatest assets. But some also see it as one of his biggest obstacles to winning the presidency.

While polls show Le Pen’s radical ideas on immigration and security have become more mainstream, many voters still view her as incompetent or scary.

“The [National Rally] the vote has spread to all layers of society, ”said Frédéric Dabi, deputy director general of the Ifop polling agency, which recently published a study on his electorate. “Marine Le Pen has become the No. 1 candidate for employees, and her scores among seniors, managers and graduates, where AI is generally not strong, are not negligible.

The same poll showed, however, that Le Pen’s image had deteriorated since the last presidential election. Another recent study found that 56% of French people said they found Le Pen scary.

While some polls put Le Pen within Macron’s reach in the second round, the vast majority predict its failure once again.

Le Pen tried to counter negative perceptions by giving his interviews a more personal touch and talking about his feelings and his family. “It’s time to let go of my armor,” she said in northern France earlier this month. “The French need to know me better, to be able to judge me better.

“Maybe when you’re a woman in the political struggle, used to taking punches, you start to come across as tough, rigid,” she added. “I think I have the maturity today to give up that tenacity. Under the warrior there is also a mother.

Is his strategy working?

“It is too early to tell,” said Sylvain Crépon, a specialist on the far right. “A year before the last election, her poll numbers were close to current projections, and she lost again significantly to Macron.”

France’s two-round presidential system makes it difficult to polarize candidates like Le Pen, who have failed to build bridges with other political parties.

In 2017, she came second in the first round with 21% of the vote against 24% for Macron. But after the rest of the political spectrum called on their supporters to vote against her, she was beaten in the second round, with 34% against 66% for Macron.

Some believe Macron is unpopular enough among left-wing voters to refuse to support him in another face-to-face with Le Pen.

The French president “is not a roadblock [holding back the far right]”Said Olivier Faure, leader of the socialist party, in a recent interview. “It’s a bridge.”

“The duel that was promised to us [between Le Pen and Macron] is dangerous for our country, ”he said, adding that left-wing voters felt betrayed by the president’s policies after the last elections.

But Le Pen has struggled to completely shake off his reputation for dangerous extremism.

Last week, she spoke out in favor of a controversial open letter written by 20 retired generals, claiming that France was heading towards a “civil war” caused by Islamism and the police scapegoat by the police. politicians. His support for soldiers who warn that the army might have to intervene to save French citizens is dangerous territory for Le Pen.

It’s a reminder of the tightrope that she walks between her efforts to normalize the National Rally and her uncompromising reading of the perils France faces.

Unlucky third time

On a cold morning in the north of France, a dozen members of the National Rally turned out to show their support for Le Pen. The leader of the National Rally was scathing supporters and taking selfies, touring France ahead of the regional elections in June.

Not everyone was an enthusiastic supporter.

“I think the name Le Pen has had its day,” said Dorothée, a part-time shop owner who has been campaigning for the far right for decades. She said she preferred party vice chairman Jordan Bardella, a 25-year-old MEP and rising party star, who “could put France back on its feet.”

“He has charisma, speaks well,” she added. “It would be more energizing than Le Pen.”

Le Pen may have come a long way in detoxifying his party, dissociating it from its roots as a one-issue xenophobic force and reneging on its own calls to leave the eurozone. But the voters spoiled her personally.

“She doesn’t cut it; it lacks charisma, ”said Lili, an apple grower, who sells her own produce in the market. “She should have left. I would have preferred his niece [Marion Maréchal, a far-right politician turned political institute director], who speaks well and she listens.

It’s not just the base that already looks at Le Pen.

According to several elected officials, secret talks are taking place at the National Assembly to prepare for the future.

“We know that the next election is decisive,” said the participant in the call, who is also a member of the national party council.

“We are thinking about what will follow,” said the participant. “Let’s say the discussions are a bit under the radar. We used to meet every week in a restaurant, now we talk online, ”he said.

According to the participant, some members of the group support Le Pen’s pugnacious niece, Maréchal. Others support Eric Zemmour, an expert on far-right television – neither Marshal nor Zemmour has disclosed presidential ambitions. This week, Zemmour was drawn into a controversy over his integrity, after a local councilor of the Socialist Party accused him of sexually harassing her in the 2000s. Zemmour did not respond to French media inquiries for comments.

“Discussions are taking place, but they are taking place in a very discreet manner,” explains André Murawski, a regional councilor who left the National Rally in 2018. “Marine Le Pen completely controls the party, and it is difficult to lobby for a alternative candidate.

The closer you get to the top of the party, the less members will talk about a future that does not include Le Pen.

Asked about the possibility of a third defeat for the party leader, David Rachline, heavyweight of the party and mayor of the city of Fréjus, replied: “First we will win 2022, then I will work on the Le Pen campaign. for a second term. “

But the party’s financial woes – France’s campaign watchdog recently revealed he is over 22 million euros in debt, more than any other part – could accelerate change.

The lady is not to turn

Many party insiders greet the discussions on Le Pen’s ouster with a chuckle. To say that she won’t go away easily is to put it lightly. “They are all afraid of her,” said a former party adviser. “There are always plots against her, but there is always one who tells the others.

“There is only one leader and she makes all the decisions,” said the advisor.

Previous challenges to the party leadership have presented all the brutality and cruelty of a family feud. In 2015, Le Pen ousted his father, who had founded the party, then known as the National Front. Le Pen’s niece, Maréchal, and his right-hand man Florian Philippot left the party after the 2017 defeat.

Insiders describe Le Pen as a shrewd fighter, keeping an iron grip on the party by ousting or ostracizing potential rivals. His father made a career out of repeated presidential losses, pushing the debate to the right while enjoying an otherwise successful political career. There is no reason her daughter cannot do the same.

Today, the senior officers of the party are the most united they have been for a long time.

“There is no internal democracy within the party, no strongholds, no internal struggles between different personalities,” explains Sylvain Crépon, a specialist on the far right. “As soon as a leader emerges, Marine does what her father did. It suppresses them or marginalizes them. “

Bay, Le Pen’s critical backer, was sidelined from the party committee tasked with vetting candidates last year, in a move that was seen at the time as retribution for his closeness to Marshal.

Bay downplayed the matter: “I don’t have to be on all the committees,” he said.

But while acknowledging that Le Pen currently has “the support of the party and the voters,” he questioned whether that would hold true forever.

“I think there are RN personalities emerging,” he said. The question is whether any of them would stand a chance against Le Pen.

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