By Clara Piacenza
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen is a candidate who cannot be counted out in the race to become France’s next president.
Le Pen has managed to establish herself as one of the most popular candidates, with polls indicating she could win the first round set for April 23.
Although her party has historically been well outside the mainstream, her support levels are hovering just above one quarter of the electorate.
Depending on the survey, Le Pen is ranked either just above or just below former government minister Emmanuel Macron, who is running under his own banner, and well ahead of conservative former Prime Minister François Fillon and Socialist Benoît Hamon.
In this year’s unpredictable election, outsiders are favorites. They include Macron, who boasts that he bows to no party but his own.
Le Pen’s popularity was never a certainty. Historically her National Front party has been associated with extremist stances espoused by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who led the grouping from 1972 to 2011 while drawing a string of lawsuits for provocative statements against minorities.
The National Front has long been relegated to the fringes of French political life, an extremist, right-wing party with a limited audience.
But when Marine took over in 2011, she set about re-branding the National Front, clearing out its most extreme elements while maintaining its core principles, which are similar to those of other European populist parties.
Some have tagged her “France’s Trump.”
Marine Le Pen is openly Eurosceptic, and she sees no irony in adopting that stance as a member of the European Parliament. She would prefer France to be outside both the European Union and the euro zone. She is deeply anti-liberal and blames France’s economic problems on open borders and excessive immigration.
Similar stances are found in the programs of the People’s Party in Denmark and the UK Independence Party in Britain.
Le Pen is often compared to Donald Trump, the new U.S. president. Some have tagged her “France’s Trump.”
Indeed there are obvious similarities between the renegade politicians’ programs. They are both nationalists, oppose immigration and advocate protectionism.
Their electorates are similar: Trump’s supporters tend to be less educated and are heavily represented in the white working-class. The National Front is particularly successful among low-income earners.
Marine Le Pen has appealed increasingly to voters attached to traditional values — similar to Trump, who came out against abortion in a move that endeared him with traditionally conservative Americans.
The French candidate does not shy away from an association with Trump. When Trump won the U.S. election, she quickly congratulated the new president on Twitter, saying the American people were now “free.”
She wants to be accepted as a mainstream politician.
Yet Le Pen’s campaign strategy has differed considerably from Trump’s. Trump reveled in distancing himself from the political establishment — his outsider status was at the core of his political campaign. He denounced his opponents as “politically correct” and uttered a string of controversial statements regarding women, immigrants and minorities.
For her part, Le Pen has opted for more subtlety, partly to pull the curtain down on her estranged father’s bitter legacy. Increasingly she appears on mainstream French political TV shows and radio programs. She has cut openly xenophobic or shocking statements from her speeches.
Unlike Trump, she wants to be accepted as a mainstream politician.
The National Front is trying to position itself as an open, traditional party and to rid itself of the “extremist” stigma that has hamstrung it since it was created in 1972. To do this, Le Pen has eschewed aggressive populist rhetoric and put an emphasis on policy positions.
Some far-right politicians have taken issue with Le Pen’s strategy, accusing her of abandoning the party’s core principles. But so far, her strategy seems to be working.
She has won support from a broader segment of the electorate — her party placed first in regional elections last year before running into a wall in the second round — and is almost guaranteed a place in the May 7 run-off round.
Marine Le Pen is indubitably at the forefront of a wave of European populism. But her rhetoric is dramatically different from Trump’s — and her less aggressive approach just might end up making the difference in France’s uncertain presidential race.
Clara Piacenza is a French student studying European Studies at King’s College London. She is passionate about literature and history of art, and hopes to become a journalist specialized in these fields. She speaks French, German and English, and enjoys traveling.