No Le Pen government: what went wrong? And what could still go right?

Jordan Bardella, president of Marine Le Pen’s party National Rally, after learning last night that he would not be Prime Minister

On 7th July, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (Rassemblement National – RN) secured the greatest vote in its history, but paradoxically one which was immediately seen as a setback! And in this case, both the pessimists and the optimists have a point.

While populist anti-immigration parties in other countries (including Le Pen’s allies in Austria and the Netherlands) have already been part of several coalition governments, and while the RN has steadily become more ‘moderate’ in many policy areas to a point where some readers might no longer recognise it as having any ideological relationship to our cause, the remaining aura of Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie (founder of the RN’s predecessor Front National) and the national obsession with its Second World War history, combine to make French nationalism a special case.

The previous National Assembly elected in 2022 was deadlocked, with both the far-left and the RN refusing either to back President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘centrists’, or (needless to say) to work with each other. Macron called a snap general election, believing that he had nothing to lose, but the RN polled very well in the first round, leading to speculation that Le Pen’s party might just about achieve an Assembly majority, or come close enough that they were able to form a minority government. The RN’s president Jordan Bardella (who will be 29 in September) was to be the party’s candidate for Prime Minister.

In the event the RN and allies obtained 143 seats – up from 89 two years ago – after polling 37% of the second round with over ten million votes. But this left them far short of a majority, and they are not even the largest group in the new Assembly, as had been widely predicted. In fact they ended up in third place, behind the far-left ‘Popular Front’ on 182 seats, and Macron’s centrist bloc on 168 seats.

The remnants of the French centre-right – the Republican party – now total just 46 seats, with another 14 Assembly members being conservatives unaligned either to the Republicans or to Le Pen’s bloc.

Bardella’s first reaction was to denounce the RN’s opponents for their opportunistic and unprincipled alliance. So it was: but arguably Bardella and Le Pen had been equally inconsistent, spending the past few years ditching traditional nationalist attitudes and latterly making alliances with conservatives who favour shrinking the French state, whereas the RN seeks to expand it! (Seventeen of the Le Pen bloc’s 143 seats belong to these conservatives, led by the former leader of the Republican party Éric Ciotti, and one is an independent right-winger outside the party, but whom the RN backed.)

Moreover, the RN leadership is itself arguably to blame for organisational failures that became evident during the campaign. Most notably, despite having themselves called repeatedly for an early election, Le Pen and Bardella had failed to prepare a full list of candidates in advance. The RN was caught out by Macron’s snap election, and had to scramble to recruit last minute candidates, some of whom proved inadequate.

To some extent this reflected a long term problem with the Le Pen movement. Although French nationalism has a far stronger intellectual tradition than its British equivalent, it has been the case for years that a large part of this elite disliked the FN and RN. Many of the best and brightest of the movement stayed outside or broke away from Le Pen’s parties: this is a problem that the RN leader will hope to fix by reuniting nationalism in alliance with her niece. But arguably the ultimate logical outcome of the ‘de-demonisation’ process is for Marine Le Pen herself to fall on her sword, and for the movement to choose a leader from outside the Le Pen dynasty.

Yet although these problems have to be acknowledged, Le Pen is in other ways ideally placed to take advantage of what seems sure to be a period of chaos and confusion as the various leftist and ‘centrist’ factions attempt to find a common agenda for government. In her first comments on the results, Le Pen said she “sees the seeds of tomorrow’s victory in today’s result”.

Ultra-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon was quick to claim victory after the second round, but while he is the most visible leader of the ‘New Popular Front’, it seems likely that other elements in that coalition will favour a deal with President Macron’s ‘centrists’.

Under the French constitution, there cannot be another parliamentary election during the next twelve months, so it will not be possible to resolve deadlock in the manner of the 1910 or 1974 elections in the UK, nor is it possible for Macron to repeat the threats deployed last year by Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to hold a second election within months – threats which greatly strengthened his hand in coalition negotiations.

A year or two of chaos should be an ideal build-up to Le Pen’s next (and probably final) attempt to win the French Presidency in 2027.

However, it cannot be denied that the two-round system used for all French elections is likely to continue to be an obstacle. It has consistently worked against the RN/FN and was an important factor in Le Pen’s decision to ‘de-demonise’ her party. Candidates can be elected outright by polling more than 50% in the first round, but if no-one achieves this then the top two candidates in each constituency, plus any third-placed candidate supported by more than 12.5% of the electorate, goes into a second round.

In practice, especially this year, there has been a tendency for these third placed candidates to withdraw in favour of the main anti-Le Pen candidate, which makes it all the more difficult for RN to achieve a majority. This year 37 RN candidates (including Le Pen herself) were elected outright in the first round, plus one from the faction of the conservative Republican Party that supported the decision of its now ousted leader Ciotti to ally with Le Pen.

This Ciotti faction is close to Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s niece, who at the start of the election campaign broke away from the rival nationalist party Reconquête.

France is one of the few European countries that for a short time had not just one but two electorally credible ‘far right’ parties. In fact, until Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it had seemed likely that Reconquête would overtake the RN and that its founder, Jewish journalist and anti-Islam polemicist Éric Zemmour, rather than Le Pen would be the main dissident candidate for the presidency in 2027. However, while Le Pen swiftly condemned Putin, Zemmour found it much more difficult to escape the electoral consequences of his earlier Putinism, and his party swiftly declined. The precise timing of that decline makes it impossible even for those who might agree with Zemmour’s stance to deny that this policy area was the critical factor undermining him with French voters.

Maréchal was elected only a few weeks ago as a Reconquête MEP and in recent years has been effectively its deputy leader, working with Zemmour. However, after Macron called this year’s snap election, she repaired relations with her aunt and proposed negotiating an electoral pact. This led Zemmour to expel Maréchal and her supporters.

In 2022 Éric Zemmour seemed set to overtake Marine Le Pen as leader of the French anti-immigration movement: but two years later his political career seems over.

Zemmour was left with only one MEP rather than five: his surviving ally is his partner, Sarah Knafo. It’s a strange irony that the most ‘hardline’ French nationalist party (among those who contest elections) is led by Jews whose families came from Algeria and Morocco – while the vast majority of French Jews remained ‘loyal’ to parties of the centre and left, which are now in de facto alliance with the Corbyn-style anti-Zionist leftwinger, Jean-Luc Mélenchon!

Reconquête is/was both harder line than RN against immigration (especially against Islam) and more traditionally conservative (in an Anglo-American, quasi-Thatcherite sense) on economic matters, while Le Pen has taken her party onto quasi-socialist turf and has become the natural leader of French workers.

Due to being more conservative than her aunt where economic and welfare policies are concerned, Marion Maréchal was a natural emissary from Le Pen to affluent voters who share her anti-immigration stance but who also (unlike Le Pen) hope for tax cuts.

In the first round of the Assembly elections, Reconquête‘s decline was obvious: their 330 candidates polled a total of 238,934 votes (0.8%). It’s difficult to see how Zemmour can be politically relevant again, other than as an anti-Islam journalist and a mouthpiece for pro-Moscow views.

The stunning success of RN in both the European election and in the first round of the Assembly election led to exaggerated hopes that the ‘de-demonisation’ strategy had succeeded and that the French bourgeoisie would rally behind Le Pen (despite her pro-worker stance on tax and state spending), so as to be sure of excluding Mélenchon and the ultra-left from power.

In fact the second round demonstrated the strength of what some have called the ‘glass ceiling’ or ‘cordon sanitaire‘ excluding Le Pen’s party from power. Old-fashioned British psephologists would have called this a ‘plateau effect’: a party can make rapid growth, but then reaches a stage where further progress is near impossible without some seismic shock to the electorate – a serious split in a rival party, an economic catastrophe, or racial conflict verging on civil war.

This ‘glass ceiling’ is evident when one looks at the detailed results, where it is obvious that the RN had ‘maxed out’ its appeal to conservatives in the first round. It’s astounding to see the extent to which, time and again, the RN failed to increase its first round vote significantly – despite the fact that its opponents were ideological opposites whose votes should not easily have transferred to each other.

To give just a few examples (UK readers will note that French constituency names follow the soulless pattern of French and American revolutionaries, with each region being divided into numbered constituencies rather than traditional names like ‘Ribble Valley’ or ‘Chelsea & Fulham’):

  • Ain, 4th constituency (in east-central France, near the Swiss border). This seat had already been won by the RN in 2022, and after their Assembly member Jérôme Buisson took 46% in the first round, his victory might have seemed a formality. But in the end he won the second round only very narrowly, 51-49, against a Macronist candidate who secured almost all the second choice votes of Greens, ultra-leftists, and conservatives.
  • Aisne, 2nd constituency (based around the city of Saint-Quentin, a once prosperous textile producing area in northern France). In the first round it seemed that the Republican Assembly member Julien Dive, on 35.7%, was in grave danger of losing to the RN candidate who polled 47.1% – especially because a Reconquête candidate had stood and his 1.2% might have been assumed to go to RN. Yet in fact Dive (part of the Republican faction that had rejected their former leader Ciotti’s advice and opposed alliance with Le Pen), won second round backing from an odd assortment of far leftists with whom he has nothing in common, and defeated the RN, 50.6% to 49.4%.
  • Allier, 1st constituency (based around the central French town of Moulins, most famous as the childhood home of French fashion legend Coco Chanel). This was another first round result where an incumbent – this time a Communist, Yannick Monnet, seemed in danger of losing to the RN. Monnet polled 28.8% in the first round, to the RN candidate’s 38.6%. However, in the second round an odd assortment of conservatives and centrists rallied behind the Communist, so he defeated the RN by 50.6% to 49.4%.
  • Alpes-Maritimes, 7th constituency (includes the city of Antibes on the French Riviera, in the south-east corner of France). Incumbent Assembly member Éric Pauget was part of the Republican faction that rejected the advice of their leader Éric Ciotti, who represents a nearby constituency, and ousted Ciotti from the Republican leadership after he recommended alliance with Le Pen. In the first round it seemed that this stance had cost Pauget his seat: he polled 24.9% behind the RN candidate’s 36.3%. Note also that this is an area where Reconquête would once have expected to be strong, but collapsed to 1.4%. Yet in the second round various leftists and centrists rallied behind Pauget, and he defeated the RN by a very comfortable margin: 58.7% to 41.3%.
  • Charente-Maritime, 3rd constituency (south of the city of La Rochelle, on the central west coast of France). The Macronist Assembly member Jean-Philippe Ardouin was decisively defeated in the first round, with an RN candidate in first place on 40.8%. But in a second round run-off against a Socialist allied to the far-left ‘Popular Front’, the RN candidate lost by just 63 votes, 50.1% to 49.9%.
  • Paris, 2nd and 12th constituencies. These form the 7th arrondissement, long known as the most affluent area of the French capital, but the Ciotti faction of the Republicans failed to carry the haute bourgeoisie with them into their alliance with Le Pen. In the first round, an RN candidate polled 11% in the 2nd, and a pro-RN Republican candidate 14.4% in the 12th (where the old Republican vote split almost evenly between pro- and anti- Le Pen factions). The outcome was that the second round contests in this ultra-affluent district were between Macronist and leftist ‘Popular Front’ candidates – in the 12th the latter was a Communist (!) – with the Macronist of course winning in each case.
  • Var, 1st constituency (based around the port and naval base of Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast). The Macronist Assembly member Yannick Chevenard seemed to be in trouble on the first round, polling 31.4%, behind the RN candidate’s 42.3%, with just 2.6% having gone to Reconquête. It seemed unlikely that Chevenard would have been able to rely on second preferences from the ultra-left Popular Front candidate from La France Insoumise (led by Macron’s fiercest enemy Jean-Luc Mélenchon), but in the event that’s what happened. With the help of the far left, the Macronist defeated Le Pen’s candidate, 52.9% to 47.1%.

There are some regions of France that have become undoubted strongholds for the RN. For example, they hold all six seats in the Gard department (in the southern region of Occitania); and ten of the twelve seats in the very different region Pas-de-Calais, where Marine Le Pen’s appeal to French workers has entrenched her support.

In the new Assembly, the first task for Marine Le Pen will be to maintain party discipline, as she waits for the inevitable splintering of the nascent leftist-centrist-Green coalition.

But the second task will be much harder. Should she maintain her pro-worker, traditionally French ‘big state’, stance while hardening her position on racial or semi-racial questions – in effect giving up hope of extending her appeal to affluent voters, and choosing instead to solidify the RN’s base and appeal to the disillusioned third of the French electorate who abstained in both rounds this year?

Or should she try to trim towards the middle class, toning down anti-immigration rhetoric still further, expelling the remaining traditional nationalists from her party, and becoming more like an Anglo-American conservative?

H&D readers will be unsurprised to learn that we would lean heavily towards the former option. We shall soon know which course Marine Le Pen has chosen.

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