France's far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was spotted last week at Trump Tower, in New York. Whether she was there to meet with President-elect Trump or not, which she and Trump's team declined to say, it is important to understand the danger she and her party represent in Europe.
Marine Le Pen is the daughter of far-right politician Jean- Marie Le Pen who, between the 1980s and the 2010s, gradually saw his xenophobic party, the Front National, growing in supporters and in voters to eventually reach the second round of the Presidential election in 2002 - only to be beaten by the conservative Jacques Chirac, thanks to a remarkable republican front that called voters from the left to the right wings of the political spectrum to vote to defeat Le Pen at all costs. Chirac won 82 per cent of the votes to Le Pen's 18 per cent - the largest ever win in a French presidential election.
Detoxification To Look 'Acceptable'.
As Le Pen senior eventually handed over the reins of his party to his daughter Marine Le Pen, in 2011, she obviously kept hammering the same Eurosceptic, anti-establishment, and anti-immigration message as her father before her for a while, but with a difference: she made sure she was keeping a certain distance with her father's openly racist and xenophobic comments, keeping skinheads and neo-Nazi groups out of the party, etc. Marine Le Pen's "detoxification"of the Front National had one aim: making her name and her party look respectable enough even to people who had never voted for her father before and who would never vote for her party otherwise: voters from the centre and the left.
Le Pen's major policies to be elected president, i.e. Her list of big ideas "to save France"- which Nicolas Sarkozy shamelessly kept picking ideas from - haven't much changed over the years: the protection of the French economy from "unfair"competition and globalisation, giving priority to French citizens in jobs and housing, the end to mass immigration, taking a tough stance on law and order issues, reasserting the French cultural identity and being a strong and independent France in defence and foreign affairs, the withdrawing from the Euro and the promise to organise a referendum on EU membership to get France out of the EU, the "Frexit". Empty promises and extremist views that may well take her to the French Presidency in 2017 with the precious help of Nicolas Sarkozy who unconsciously, or not, made Marine Le Pen's extreme views and policies increasingly mainstream, increasingly acceptable to the French.
A Miraculous Chaos.
After the attack in Nice, on 14 July 2016, and months of growing anger towards the authorities in the country, the leader of the Front National, who is never the last to link the free movement of people in Europe to the rise of terror - even if this is yet to be proven - predictably called for the resignation of the interior minister because of the mounting death toll from terror attacks in recent years in France. "In any other country in the world, a minister with a toll as horrendous as Bernard Cazeneuve - 250 dead in 18 months - would have quit," she said. "With such a crisis, we must say: Hollande [President], Valls [then-Prime Minister], Cazeneuve [Interior Minister - now Prime Minister], Sarkozy [former President] and co., never ever again, never ever THEM again!"
When Prime Minister Manuel Valls awkwardly said on TV that "France will have to learn to live with terrorism", it sounded for many like a terrible admission of powerlessness to control the situation or give oneself the right tools to fight terrorism. That admission was light years away from what people really wanted to hear from their government after such atrocity.
The French people's deep sadness after the repeated terrorist attacks has now turned into anger at who they see as clueless and powerless leaders. After the migrant crisis, the terrorist threat in France has become yet another if not THE main reason that makes Marine Le Pen a clear favourite to win the 2017 Presidential election, even though her solutions to treat the problem are as divisive as her words, or her own niece's, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen - one of the youngest MPs in France, who disturbingly told the party supporters after the Nice attack: "Either we kill Islamism or it will kill us again and again. You are with us and against Islamism, or you are against us and for Islamism... Those who choose the status quo become complicit with our enemies."
A Dinasty And A Fight.
After her grandfather and her aunt, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is the third generation of what should be seen as a dangerous far-right dynastic populism that is exponentially rising in France and standing now, more than ever, on the doorstep of power.
In the future, her niece - who is a hardcore conservative in the far-right party - could maybe even be a danger for Marine Le Pen herself, if she is to fail to be elected president for example...
There is indeed a growing ideological battle within the Front National between the leader, Marine Le Pen, and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. At the heart of the battle is what each one of them thinks the party should stand for.
The aunt wants it to be more of a national-populist movement based on some sort of right-wing protectionism and on left-wing ideologies in order to garb the attention of voters on a wider political spectrum.
The niece wants the party to return to its roots: more traditionalist and nostalgic of a 'lost idea of what France was'. A return to the party as it was under the rule of her Grandfather.
"Et tu, Brute?"
Brexit, Trump, Putin...
Marine Le Pen has been one of the first political leaders to congratulate Britain for voting for Brexit, last June. Indeed, her manifesto includes a referendum for a Frexit. She was also one of the first to congratulate Donald Trump on his victory in November.
It's, therefore, all too natural to spot her now at Trump Tower talking with a member of the new President-elect's team. Didn't Nigel Farage himself take a couple of pictures with Trump in front of the tower's golden lifts? Well, unlike Farage, Le Pen has not yet achieved Frexit, so she didn't quite make it to the golden lifts yet, let alone Trump's office! She remained at the cafe, in the basement. (Mind you... Theresa May has not yet been invited in New York!)
CNN journalist Noah Gray even tweeted that Trump's future Press Secretary had told him that "Marine le Pen is NOT meeting w/ PEOTUS (President-elect) or anyone else from transition team", adding that "Trump Tower is open to the Public".
What about her relationship with Russia and Vladimir Putin? When repeatedly asked by journalists about a loan she obtained from a Russian bank to pay for her party's 2017 Presidential election campaign, she gladly explained that she had taken the loan after the refusal of every bank in France to offer her a loan. However, last July, the Central Bank of Russia revoked the bank's license and Le Pen must now repay the €9M her party borrowed from the First Czech-Russian Bank.
Some media have cast doubts on Le Pen's explanations for the Russian bank offering the loan to her party. Some journalists think the loan was offered by Vladimir Putin in order to support Marine Le Pen to win the election in France in exchange for her help to change the European stance on Russia on simply to break up the European Union.
Can Marine Le Pen Win?
The combination of the continued stigmatisation of the Muslim community with the endless finger-pointing at Middle Eastern refugees and the blaming of all migrants in general - the scapegoats for the society's ills - by populist politicians such as Sarkozy or Le Pen is dangerously putting France on the verge of a civil war, which could easily be sparked by anything that would be the last drop to add to the rising anger and general exasperation that already reign in France since the terrorist attacks of 13 November 2015 in Paris. (An abominable terrorist attack somewhere on the scale of 9/11, for instance, or something unfortunately as horrible.)
In April 2017, French people will have a choice between unleashing once and for all their old demons - filled with hate and a deep desire for destruction - at their own peril by electing Marine Le Pen, or believe a second-class déjà vu former prime minister and his windy and divisive promises or... calm down a moment, get their act together and vote with their heads without impulsiveness for a candidate who will bring them hope not fear, togetherness not discord, understanding not intolerance, dexterity not ignorance, competency not ineptness, authority not extremism. Is there anyone matching that description in France?
In an interview he gave to Europe 1 radio on the day Donald Trump was elected President in the United States, former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said: "Since Brexit, the front line of reason no longer exists. It means that the main news for the French people is that Marine Le Pen can win in France." He also said that in his opinion it meant that "extreme populism can win and that Ms Le Pen, with simple answers, can win in France."
Populism in France is neither a left-wing nor a right-wing ideology. It has wrongly been used by politicians as a strategy to win votes. It has, instead, allowed nationalism and extremism to grow into a dangerous weed that now threatens to take over the entire garden of the republic. Only a genuine message of hope may still kill that weed, before it is too late.
So, to answer the title of this article, the question is not whether Marine Le Pen CAN win next May, but rather whether she WILL.