Front National leader Marine Le Pen is unlikely to win power but she is shaping France’s political debate, writes Charles Grant.
Since becoming leader of France’s Front National in January, Marine Le Pen has started to shift her party away from the far right. She has not only dropped the overt racism and Islamophobia of her father, but also adopted hard-left economic policies. “Left and right don’t mean anything anymore – both left and right are for the European Union, the euro, free trade and immigration,” she said when opposing me in a recent dinner debate on the future of Europe in Paris. “For 30 years, left and right have been the same. The real fracture is now between those who support globalisation and nationalists.”
The debate, organised by The KitSon, a Paris think-tank, was off-the-record. But I can repeat some of her comments, since they echoed what she had already said on-the-record elsewhere. She is a tall, strong-looking woman and an effective debater. She speaks pithily and sometimes with humour. She presents her party as a nationalist force – in British terms, the United Kingdom Independence Party rather than the British National Party. In its hostility to the EU and to immigration, the Front National has much in common with Austria’s Freedom Party, the Danish Peoples’ Party, the True Finns, the Sweden Democrats and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Populist, illiberal parties are flourishing in the most sophisticated, liberal societies of northern Europe.
Although Le Pen is changing her party’s brand, she is no Gianfranco Fini: he led his party away from neo-fascism towards the pro-European centre of Italian politics. Le Pen’s European policies remain extreme: she urges France to leave not only the euro but also the EU. Her economic platform is one of national economic autarky. She wants to protect France from globalisation by erecting high tariff barriers. Her economic platform is in fact quite close to that of Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the veteran anti-European and former Socialist minister. Earlier this month she appealed to Chevènement to work with her, but he rebuffed her advances.
Le Pen’s line on the euro and the EU may be extreme, but given the mess that Europe is in, her views may not cost her votes among those who want to kick the Paris and Brussels elites for their apparent complacency, smugness and incompetence. She wants France to leave the euro so that it can devalue and become more competitive. While China and the United States benefit from being able to devalue, she said, the eurozone suffers from low economic growth. “To save the euro we are asking the Greeks to make huge sacrifices through austerity, and soon we will ask the same of people elsewhere, even in France. The euro will lead to war.”
When I responded that devaluation would destroy the French people’s purchasing power, she said that only BCBGs – short for bon chic bon genre, that is to say the fashionable middle class – would complain about devaluation; they buy the foreign goods and holidays that would cost more, whereas most poor people buy things made in France, a point that is highly debatable. She complained about sovereignty draining away to Brussels and said that we live in a Union Soviétique Européenne. The EU represents the interests of big financial groups, she said, and encourages immigration in order to put downward pressure on salaries. She said that her country needs a French agricultural policy, rather than a Common Agricultural Policy, since the CAP was giving too much aid to central Europeans.
“The EU has been built on Anglo-Saxon principles of everything being available to be bought or sold.” Ultra-liberals run the EU, she said, and will not let the French protect their industries. “Without protection we cannot be competitive against China, since we don’t want to work 20 hours a day.” When I said that rather than trying to compete directly with China, France should go up market and produce goods and services that the Chinese cannot, she argued that they could now beat France in any industry – as they were doing by building high-speed trains. I responded by praising the prowess of France’s world-beating companies in areas such as luxury goods, agribusiness, energy and aerospace, so she joked that the best proponents of Sarkozyism came from Britain.
The obvious critique of her line on the EU is that France, on its own, is rather small compared to China and other emerging powers, and that it therefore needs the EU to amplify its voice in the world. But she had no truck with that argument, saying that France on its own had a big voice. “I am a gaullienne, and the general would be horrified to see the EU today. I want an association of sovereign nation-states; that would allow us to influence Russia and the wider world.” And when I suggested that the EU had the merit of constraining German power, she said Germany already dominated the EU. “When Germany has a constitutional problem, we change the EU treaty; but if France has a problem, we have to change our constitution.”
Le Pen wants France to leave NATO. When I pointed out that France would then have to raise defence spending enormously, in order to enjoy a comparable level of security to that provided by NATO today, she was unfazed. “We are not Botswana, if we want to play a big role in defence we can, and in any case defence spending is good for the economy.” During two hours of debate she said nothing that sounded racist. The closest she came was this: “I am not against immigration, France has always accepted foreigners. But it should not lead to lower salaries. And in employment we should prioritise jobs for français de souche.” That could be translated as people of French stock.
I think Le Pen is right when she says that the main political divide in Europe is between nationalists and globalisers. But the solutions that she offers to complex problems are far too simple. Her language resonates with the common man: she is on the side of the little people against foreigners, international bureaucrats and big capitalists. And her economic nationalism goes down particularly well in France, a country that is probably more hostile to globalisation than any other European country.
But there are obvious gaps in Le Pen’s thinking. She has nothing to say about global governance, or what to do about transnational threats such as organised crime, climate change, proliferation or international terrorism. And she would be a more effective critic of globalisation if she acknowledged that in certain respects France does nicely from it. When I told her that France benefited hugely from foreign direct investment – it gets more FDI than any other country in Europe – and that French companies did very well from investing in other member states, like Britain, she had very little to say.
Opinion polls suggest that Marine Le Pen has a good chance of getting into the second round of the May 2012 presidential election – as Jean-Marie Le Pen did when he won more votes than the Socialists’ Lionel Jospin in 2002. According to some polls, the second round would pit the Socialist candidate – almost certain to be either François Hollande or Martine Aubry – against Le Pen. Of course, she would not win the second round. As in 2002, the centre-left and the centre-right would combine to keep out a Le Pen, only reinforcing her view that Sarkozy and the Socialists are the same. But in any case, I do not think she is serious about exercising power, at least for now. If she were serious, she would have to start compromising on some of her economic and international policies, and she shows no signs of doing so.
But even without formally winning office, she – like her equivalents in Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden – is shaping the political debate in her country. Politicians on the centre-right have toughened their line on immigration, lest the Front National steal too many of their votes. And very few French politicians on the centre-right or the centre-left have a good word to say about the EU.
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