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After The Loss, What's Going On With Le Pen?

12/05/2017 16:08 BST | Updated 12/05/2017 16:09 BST
Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

The French are at it again. For years, news from the other side of the Channel talked about the rise of Marine Le Pen's Front national. Then, last Sunday, the French decided to buck that trend and rejected Le Pen's presidential candidacy with a resounding majority of 66.1% for a centrist who loves Europe. Even though it has always been highly unlikely Le Pen would reach the Elysées Palace, her rise had been real. So where does this leave her - and her party the 'Front national' - after last week's defeat?

On the one hand, the 33.9% share of the votes Le Pen received last Sunday, or around 11 million votes, are a personal achievement for the candidate. She did not only manage to nearly double her father's 2002 score, but also normalised the far-right to achieve its highest ever result. On the other, however, the mood among FN activists is that of bitter defeat rather than the aftermath of an impressive performance.

To some extent, these activists only have their own hubris to blame. For the last year, the FN has continuously insisted it was 'France's first party'. This slogan was supported by the party's triumph in the European elections and then by the polls that predicted Marine Le Pen to come on top of the first round of the presidential elections.

Activists did not necessarily expect victory on Election Day, but overall results that could entertain the impression that the FN was the party 'of the people': a leading position in the first presidential round and a narrower margin in the second. Instead, Le Pen came second in the first round and lost in the second by a greater margin than expected. To make things worse, Macron did not only win the overall vote, but also locally in most departments, and most notably in the FN's home turf in the South of France.

On election night, these results caught up with the FN's inner circle. Marine Le Pen was forced to promise a 'profound transformation' of the party, while her senior advisor and the face of the party's modernisation, Florian Phillipot, made untypically curt and incoherent appearances on different channels. On the other end of the spectrum, party activists immediately demanded heads to roll over a disastrous campaign.

The most obvious criticism was aimed at Le Pen. The weakness of her campaign was crowned by a performance on a televised debate that even the most ardent party supporters considered as abysmal enough to feel 'betrayed'. However, the heaviest arrows targeted Florian Phillipot. For many in the party's rank and file, the man on Le Pen's side is the brain behind the strategy of the last few years and the embodiment of technocratisation.

In a party like the FN, which allows no free thought, let alone dissent from the party line, and where the only way to advance is to curry favour with its leader, this kind of open criticism demonstrates a budding crisis. And yet, is Le Pen's leadership - and with it the party's latest rise - really in danger?

The current situation highlights one of the FN's main successes and internal weaknesses: for the last decade and a half, the party has kept the otherwise notoriously fragmented factions of the French far-right more-or-less united. Under the party roof, old Vichyites, nostalgics of French Algeria, monarchists, reactionary Catholics and others came together for the promise of power. However, tensions between these groups have always simmered below the surface. Moreover, for many of the party's traditional supporters, Marine Le Pen's project of brand detoxification had gone too far in diluting the far-right's identity. They have often resented Marine's claim that the 'Front national' under her leadership was 'neither on the Right nor on the Left'.

Nonetheless, there is no immediate danger for the FN to break up. Older party activists remember the dangers of this kind of move after the 1998 split, when Jean-Marie Le Pen's then number two, Bruno Mégret, left to found a competing party. The schism nearly buried the FN despite Le Pen father's subsequent rebound. Even more importantly, for the time being there is no potential heir to Marine. While older, established party members are usually tainted by their days under Le Pen senior, the party's strict centralisation has not allowed any younger stars to emerge.

There has been one notable exception to this rule, Le Pen's niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. The 27-year old MP for the southern department of the Vaucluse has been the only prominent party member beyond Marine's immediate entourage. Popular with the party rank and file, she has been a vocal supporter of 'move to the right' and a critic of Phillipot's influence. However, she resigned from the party earlier this week. While her official statement put her decision down to 'personal issues', internal party sources reminded of her disillusionment with the party's 'amateurism'.

So where does the FN stand? For the time being, the party is in no real danger of imploding, at least until the legislative elections in June. There, the party will try to win at least 15 MPs and therefore - for the first time - establish itself as a true parliamentary presence. Such an achievement will give Le Pen a bone to pacify party activists and a real share of power. After receiving 11 million votes in the presidential elections, this should be a walk in the park. However, the two-round system of the French legislative elections will make it possible for local party branches to strike anti-Frontist deals and keep the FN at bay once again.

So keep your eyes on June 18. If the FN fails then, its internal pressures are bound to fire up to the surface. After its rise in the last few years, the far-right is not going anywhere, but the Front national as its unique voice may find itself either transformed or marginalised by a newcomer.