Marine Le Pen, launching her presidential campaign in Lyon on 4 February
“What keeps France united is the acceptance of the diversity of origins and destinies and the refusal of fatalism”
From Revolution, Our Battle For France, by Emmanuel Macron
Marie-Solange Werner’s eyes glisten with pride as she recalls the tumultuous life and times of her grandfather Auguste, who fought for France in both the first and second world wars. “He was an extraordinary patriot. He grew up in Alsace in territory that was contested, so he had to choose whether he fought for France or Germany. The Germans tried to enlist him, but he was a true Frenchman and put his life on the line for France. With a family history like that, how can I use my life for anything other than fighting for French values? How could I not be in the Front National?”
Werner, a 55-year-old who has a small business, is an elected FN councillor in the historic Burgundy town of Sens. In a packed hall on the outskirts of town, she is not the only one buzzing on a surge of patriotic elation. Along with about 700 other FN supporters – and some curious onlookers – Werner is at Sens’s Salle des Fêtes to listen to Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the party’s MP for Vaucluse and niece of Marine Le Pen, the first FN presidential candidate to have a genuine chance of power.
“Marion is so right to put France first, and patriotism first,” says Werner. “I have limitless admiration for Jean-Marie Le Pen [the founder of the FN]. But the women of the family can appeal to a broader audience in this election.”
At 27, Maréchal-Le Pen is already a political star. Beautiful and fervently Catholic, she has earned a reputation for remaining ideologically hardcore, even as her aunt has laboured to detoxify the FN’s historic association with racism, antisemitism and far-right extremism. Around the hall, leaflets are scattered featuring a gentle soft-focus portrait of Marine, accompanied by a saccharine text which describes the rise of a “female politician in a world of men; a mother and a sister”. The genre is self-consciously Paris Match. But on a mild spring evening, dressed in a simple white shirt and blue jeans, her niece does not disappoint those looking for stronger stuff.
Maréchal-Le Pen’s theme is the defence of a core “Frenchness” endangered by three principal antagonists – Islam, globalism and the European Union. As evidence, she offers the reported words of a Muslim cleric, Marwan Muhammed, at a conference in the mosque of Orly, near Paris. “Muhammed said: ‘Who has the right to say that France, in 30 or 40 years time, will not be a Muslim country? Who has the right to say that?’
“We have the right!” answers Maréchal-Le Pen, as the overwhelmingly white audience chants a Front National favourite: “On est chez nous.” (“We are at home.”)
“France is a country with Greco-Latin and Christian roots,” she continues, to some of the loudest cheers of the evening. “We will place this heritage in our constitution, and we will put an end to those eternal debates which lead to Christmas cribs being banned from town halls.”
The EU officials in Brussels, she continues, have undermined France on another front, eroding sovereignty through the rules of the single market. The FN, says Maréchal-Le Pen, is committed to an “economic patriotism” which will penalise those firms that seek to relocate factories to countries such as Poland where labour is cheaper. The French state, its powers restored, will protect and revive French industry. French farmers will be protected from cut-throat competition by foreign producers who ignore environmental standards to drive prices down.
Mass migration is threatening the identity and the security of a country scarred by the horrors of terror attacks in Nice, Paris and most recently Paris-Orly airport, she says. If Marine Le Pen becomes president, there would be no more unnecessary guilt over France’s colonial past and no more suggestions “that we should accept immigrants because we have a debt to pay”. Withdrawal from the EU (on which the FN promises a referendum) would give France, like Brexit Britain, the chance to close its borders to would-be terrorists, economic migrants and bogus asylum seekers. “And yes, if there is evidence that travellers from another country pose a threat to the nation, France would not hesitate to impose a blanket ban, as Donald Trump has sought to do in America.”
As for those immigrants entitled to residency, they must respect the culture and history of France, from its Christian roots to the rights of its women to sit on a cafe terrace unveiled and speak with whom they choose.
Delivered with quiet ferocity, it is a speech that burns with resentment at a perceived betrayal of France by social and economic liberalism. Free trade, open borders, multiculturalism and loss of sovereignty have combined to undermine the country’s blue-collar workforce, muddle its cultural identity and destroy its self-confidence.
Maréchal-Le Pen reserves particular venom for the Frenchman who she claims embodies the values that have led the country to such a humiliating dead end: Emmanuel Macron, the independent candidate for the presidency who has emerged as Marine Le Pen’s chief rival. Macron is a former investment banker with Rothschilds, a graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration, the elite training ground for France’s civil servants, and most recently the economy minister in François Hollande’s outgoing cabinet. Proudly liberal, pro-immigration and a committed pro-European, he ticks every box in the list of the FN’s pet hates. Maréchal-Le Pen accuses him of offering France’s soul up for sale.
“Macron has said that there is … no ‘French’ culture,” she says, alluding to interviews in which the candidate has defended cultural diversity and pluralism. “For Macron, France should be seen like a startup business. For him, our country is not a nation, it’s a space. You can come in, move out of it as you like, enjoying the generosity of our system. Me, I gaze in wonder at the gothic cathedral you have here in Sens, the most splendid in France, and marvel at the majesty of Racine’s verse. But all that doesn’t exist [for people like Macron]. The only thing that counts is productivity, the economy, benefits.”
The forthcoming election is thus “a choice of civilisations”: between a borderless business culture and a patriotic country that protects the way of life of its own workers; between free movement of people and the cultivation of French identity and French jobs; between Christianity and Islam; between globalism and France. The themes that informed the Brexit referendum and Trump’s rise to power are percolating through the French body politic in dramatic fashion.
Maréchal-Le Pen ends by evoking the memory of the soldiers who died in the first world war. “Fathers, uncles, brothers went to sacrifice themselves so that France would stay French. If, a century later, we fail to ensure that France remains French, it will mean that their sacrifices were in vain and we will have betrayed our ancestors. Let us be worthy of our heritage! Vote for Marine Le Pen.”
A standing ovation follows, as Marie-Solange Werner’s thoughts doubtless turn to her grandfather.
‘A chemically pure confrontation’
In a month, when voters go to the polls in the first round of the presidential elections, they will participate in a contest like no other during the six decades of the Fifth Republic. The Front National, founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, has never been this close to installing its leader inside the gilded rooms of the Élysée Palace. When Le Pen shocked France in 2002 by making the second-round runoff against Jacques Chirac, the nation treated the event as an affront to republican values. Popularly viewed as a motley ragbag of racist colonialists, Vichy sympathisers, antisemites and oddball royalists, Le Pen’s party was dismissed as a nasty coalition of history’s losers. He was crushed 82%-18%, as voters on left and right formed a republican “cordon sanitaire” to isolate the virus in the political system.
This spring, polls suggest his daughter is on course to top the first ballot, on 23 April, with more than a quarter of the total vote. And nobody really knows what will happen after that. It remains unlikely she will persuade 51% of voters to back her in the second round. But few now believe it cannot be done.
Since taking over the leadership of the FN in 2011, Marine Le Pen has sought to refocus the party’s attention on a different set of losers – ones with a greater claim to sympathy than her father’s old guard. Attracting plenty of former communists and socialists along the way, the party has reached out to those marginalised by 30 years of globalisation and de-industrialisation. Former steelworkers in Alsace-Lorraine and mining communities in the Pas de Calais heeded the call, as Le Pen merged the battle to better the lives of the “left behind” with the conservative cause of defending a supposedly threatened French culture. The polling speaks to the success of the strategy.
As postwar Europe’s most notorious far-right party has advanced to the gates of power, the traditional bastions of French politics have crumbled amid splits, scandals and a crisis of confidence and direction. To the relief of most of the Parti Socialiste, Hollande, the most unpopular president since polling began, opted against standing for a second term. Manuel Valls, Hollande’s centrist prime minister, was then routed in the contest to succeed him as Socialist candidate for the presidency by the leftwing Benoît Hamon. As he struggles to unite the broader left, Hamon languishes at about 13% in the polls – 13% behind Le Pen.
The right has fared no better, placing its faith in the campaign of François Fillon, a conservative Catholic who looked likely to steal some of Le Pen’s clothes. But the former prime minister’s reputation has been wrecked by allegations that he used public funds to pay his family for work they never did. Placed under investigation by the police (unprecedented in a presidential contest), Fillon is limping on doggedly but has fallen behind in the race. Another former prime minister, Alain Juppé, refused to come to the rescue of les Républicains, arguing that – for this election at least – the centre-right was beyond saving. Whichever way you look, the French political establishment is on the ropes, gasping for air.
That leaves the fresh-faced and handsome Macron, who last year invented his own liberal renewal movement, En Marche!, from a standing start. Macron, 39, is neck and neck in the polls with Le Pen, despite running without the formal backing of an established party and in a straight runoff would, as things stand, win comfortably. But a large percentage of voters are still undecided and the inexperienced Macron’s support is fragile. Last week’s terror attack in Westminster was quickly seized on by Le Pen, who tweeted: “To combat terrorism, we must control our borders and deport all radicalised foreigners!”
With sudden clarity the leaders of two insurgent movements face each other across a political landscape littered with the corpses of the old order: one offers a France that closes its borders and puts “les Français de souche” (core French) first; the other hopes to save centre-ground politics by reforming it from within.
“It would be chemically pure if it came down to a runoff between Macron and Le Pen,” says Christophe Guilluy, the author of Peripheral France, a study of the effects of globalisation on the country’s smaller towns and communities. “It would be perfect! It would be a battle between ‘la France en-haut and la France en-bas’ [high France and low France]; between the prosperous in the cities and the provincials who know that this economic model doesn’t need them and feel the pain of that.
“In France, ‘la classe populaire’ used to live and spend their lives creating the wealth. Now the working classes live far from the zone where prosperity is generated. They voted for globalisation over the past 30 years, but it didn’t work for them. The FN is capturing these workers who are at the sharp end of global competition, as well as the young who find that the labour market has shut up shop.”
Guilluy made serious waves in Paris with his latest book, The Twilight of the Elites, which accused metropolitan liberals such as Macron of failing, unlike the FN, to take the growing evidence of discontent outside the cities seriously.
“The globalised economy has come to be concentrated in the big global centres – in London, in Paris, in Lyon, in New York,” he says. “But no one was paying attention to the departing protests of those on their way out of the wealth-generating economy. The difficulty is this economic model has worked, in its own way, but not for a whole section of society which feels excluded. That’s a big intellectual impasse. How to put this society back together requires all our intelligence.”
A political startup
In the back of an elderly Peugeot camper van, Rachel-Flore Pardo smiles and says: “You can tell Christophe Guilluy that we’re doing what he wants. We’re actually going out to listen to the people who aren’t listened to enough.”
Pardo, a law student at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, is part-way through a 5,000km roadtrip with three other twentysomethings, on behalf of the Macron campaign. By 21 April, they aim to have visited 55 French towns, all chosen on the basis that they have swung towards the FN in recent years.
The trip is the idea of 27-year-old Violaine Pierre, the founder of a startup travel company based in New York, and has its origins in a night of deep personal angst. Two years ago Pierre was helping with a vote count for regional elections in Sainte-Tulle, the village where she grew up, not far from Aix-en-Provence. For many years Sainte-Tulle had been a stronghold of the French Communist party, but that night Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, fighting for control of the region, won 53% of the village vote. “It made me feel the time had come to act. We need to act now, not wait for the cataclysm.”
Along with her friend, Mathieu Teachout, Pierre approached Macron when the candidate visited New York. He loved the idea of “En Marche! Le Tour” and authorised the campaign to buy the van. So, since February, Teachout, Pierre and Pardo have been spreading the Macron gospel, from Gaillac in the south to Verdun near the Belgian border.
The get-up-and-go concept is a perfect expression of what En Marche! is trying to be. Since its formation in April last year, Macron’s “startup” movement has attracted more than 200,000 registered supporters and a mainly middle-class volunteer army which has its HQ in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. There, political novices and refugees from the mainstream parties frantically build networks across France. The operation is a curious hybrid of the new and the old. It is overseen by seasoned political operatives from the Socialist party, but also boasts the backing of the veteran centrist François Bayrou and volunteers from the right who have given up on Fillon. If it has a grand theme, it is what Macron describes in his book, Revolution, as a “profound democratic revolution” to restore faith in mainstream politics.
Macron’s election pitch was the result of a consultation with 400 experts and numerous local impromptu committees around France. According to its guidelines, a Macron presidency would promote expertise from civil society at the expense of career politicians and “moralise” public life by limiting terms of office, eliminating conflicts of interest and taking away parliamentary immunity for MPs.
Cleaning up politics certainly carries appeal in a country where distrust in politicians is at record levels. “It’s the one big message we’re hearing in every town,” says Teachout. “The idea ‘they’re all the same, they’re on the make’ and so on. Especially after the Fillon affair.” But when it comes to policy, Macron appears to be offering a freshened-up version of familiar solutions rather than a new economic model. As president, he would reduce public spending and the size of the state and respect Brussels’ deficit targets. Taxes on business would be lowered. A combination of better education and training and tougher sanctions on the jobless would be deployed to lower unemployment, running at about 25% among the young.
Guilluy is sceptical that the solutions meet the scale of the problem: “For 20 years we accepted an international division of labour allowing the Chinese worker to work in the place of the French or the American worker. We told ourselves it didn’t matter because tomorrow that French worker will become someone better qualified, in a better job. It’s going to be all right. But that didn’t happen. Instead we created an economic model that created a great deal of wealth but has not created a unified society. That’s the big issue.”
When Macron was still minister for the economy in Hollande’s government, he called in Guilluy for a chat. “We talked about the problems of the middle class that was disappearing, the problem of the working class. I said: ‘You are following a model which functions in economic terms, but it’s not going to give a place to them.’ His reply was interesting. He said that he knew there was a problem but that the difficulty was an intellectual one: there was no alternative model.”
Today the “tour” is heading to Saint-Quentin, once home to a thriving textile industry but now notable for the number of shop closures in its town centre. In 2015 the Front National candidate made the second-round runoff here, gaining more than double the vote of her leftwing rival.
“We have found that there are two types of Front National supporters,” says Pardo. “Those who really support what the FN represents, its values, and those who vote FN to protest. To those ones, we hope to show that Macron can give them a voice and help them find solutions.” After a visit to a housing estate, Pierre reports that one man told her with pride: ‘I’ve converted my whole block to the FN.’ But back at the camper van, which sports the tricolour and dozens of photographs of wellwishers accumulated over the weeks, there is better news.
Denise and Pierre Briot have come for a chat. “We voted for Hollande last time, but he let us down,” says Pierre Briot, who is unemployed. “He didn’t do anything for Saint-Quentin. The factories have closed and he hasn’t brought any work to replace the jobs. And we only see the politicians at election time.” Denise Briot says she would never vote for the FN. She might consider Macron. “He’s young, he’s a bit of a breath of fresh air. We need some hope around here.”
They agree to pose for pictures in the agreed En Marche! Le Tour format, which involves holding a piece of paper with a message for the election. The Briots’ is: “Keep your promises.”
Back to the future?
There is still time for further twists in what has already been an extraordinary presidential contest. But should the second round pit Le Pen against Macron, voters will be faced with two opposite visions of France and who and what it is for. A taste of how that will play out came in the first presidential debate last week. When Le Pen accused her opponent of approving of the full-body “burkini” swimsuit for Muslim women, Macron responded furiously: “You are failing voters by twisting the truth. The trap you are falling into with your provocations is to divide society.” It was only the opening salvo in the coming culture war.
Last month, launching her campaign, Le Pen told a mass rally in Lyon that “we are not done with being French”. She was quoting from a volume of poems by Victor Hugo entitled L’année terrible (“The terrible year”), written in 1872. Two years previously, France had been humiliated in the Franco-Prussian war – one of the most traumatic experiences in the country’s history. According to the philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff, the author of Inside the Head of Marine Le Pen, the choice of verse was no accident.
“Le Pen has rejected the discourse of her father’s party in the 1980s and returned to an older vision associated with the far right,” said Eltchaninoff. “She can’t use De Gaulle as inspiration because he’s too divisive in relation to Algeria. She can’t draw on the 1930s because of the fascist stigma. So in her speeches and her rhetoric she goes back to the largely forgotten period between 1870 and 1914, the Third Republic. Why? Because that was when France was humiliated by a foreign power.
“Now of course it’s Europe that dominates France in this view. In fact, the Third Republic is a period where you find all the anxieties that drive the contemporary FN – domination by the external power, loss of sovereignty and fear of foreigners. Antisemitism was rife. Now there is Islamophobia.”
It was also the time when one of Le Pen’s favourite formulations – neither left nor right – was first coined, the idea being that the interests of the nation transcended that division. “The argument was, it’s necessary to protect the worker against the bosses (many of whom were Jewish) and against the invasions of migrants and armies. This was described as ‘socialisme national’.”
Emmanuel Macron also talks of En Marche! being a movement that does not belong to the left or the right, despite his previous service in a centre-left government. His aim is to make the case for a pragmatic optimism that has no ideological affiliation, whether to party, ideology or to a mystical idea of the nation. While the attraction of the offer lies in its openness to dialogue and the commitment to diversity, his critics wonder whether the Macron phenomenon really represents anything more profound than a desperate desire to stop the Front National.
At the end of a long day in Saint-Quentin, Pierre is taking a breather after a Q&A session with local En Marche! volunteers. She has always been a Socialist voter, but was, like many others, hugely disappointed by the Hollande presidency.
“I don’t see Emmanuel Macron as some kind of saviour,” she says. “But he has managed to mobilise 200,000 people nationwide, involving many people in politics for the first time. Yes, he’s a liberal, but it’s not inevitable that globalisation has to mean greater inequality. We have to make it easier to change jobs and to train. We have to get proper internet access across the whole country. And France cannot succeed by isolating itself.”
During “Le Tour” she has learned to sympathise with people intending to vent their anger with a vote for the FN. “I never got to really look at a farm before, for example. Now I understand their issues better. If the price of your milk is halved and then halved again … and you’ve got no proper retirement income, no unemployment benefit and you know you’re going to work from 17 to 70 … well, it’s kind of understandable to say to yourself: ‘This is my life and I’m going to vote FN.’ That doesn’t mean you’re a racist.”
For Pierre, this tour of France’s towns is an act of personal catharsis after witnessing Maréchal-Le Pen take control of her village. But she is in no doubt about what is at stake for the whole of France, and Europe, in a month’s time. “Look at the moment we’re in: Trump, Russia, Brexit. It’s not what you want for the planet. It’s terrifying.”
She heads off to find something to eat. The next day the camper van is bound for the ancient town of Cambrai.
HEAD TO HEAD: LE PEN v MACRON
Le Pen Leave Schengen free movement zone. Cut legal immigration by 80% to 10,000. Build more prison space. Recruit 15,000 more police officers.
Macron Remain in Schengen zone. Boost number of border police by 5,000 and hire 10,000 more police officers.
Le Pen Introduce policy of ‘intelligent protectionism’, including taxes on hiring foreign workers and on imports. Increase the spending power of the poorest through a new allowance.
Macron Reduce public spending and the size of the state. Cut business taxes. Give firms incentives to offer permanent employees contracts. Create new apprenticeships.
Le Pen Hold a referendum on EU membership and leave the single European currency.
Macron Lobby for a single European market in energy. Make the case for an EU finance minster to run the eurozone budget.
Le Pen Keep the 35-hour week but allow local flexibility; set retirement age at 60.
Macron Keep 35-hour week but allow some local flexibility. State to take over unemployment insurance.