Marine Le Pen’s Bait-and-Switch Foreign Policy

The far-right leader is using traditional language to mask her ideas for a radical shift in France's role in the world.


Marine Le Pen may well be the next president of France. Or maybe she won’t. But after the twin shocks of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, it would be foolish not to at least prepare for the possibility of a Le Pen presidency. For those outside of France, preparation includes understanding what a President Le Pen foreign policy would look like. The short answer: While cloaking itself in familiar rhetoric, it would mark a sharp, and frightening, shift in France’s role in the world.

Le Pen, in contrast with candidate Trump, is far from a blank slate on foreign policy. Her vision for France’s role on the world stage is consistent and long-standing, and was again recently presented in a campaign speech that was even translated into English. Le Pen has engaged in the same rebranding effort for the National Front’s foreign policy that has so successfully distanced her party’s domestic policies from those of her predecessor and father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. In international affairs, Le Pen père was obsessed with the old demons of French history — disputes about the Vichy regime, the fault lines over anti-Semitism, the Cold War fight against communism, and the bitter feuds over Algeria and France’s imperial past.

Le Pen fille studiously ignores that history of division and instead seeks to reassure voters by recasting her foreign policy in terms that French voters have long embraced. She even claims to be the ideological heir of Gen. Charles De Gaulle, the founder of the French Fifth Republic. She has sold her foreign policy as one born out of deeply ingrained French political traditions — grandeur, independence, and the identity and history of the French nation.

But filtered through the ideology of the far-right National Front, her three pillars for a French foreign policy — independence, identity, and order — yield something new and very different for France and its partners. Le Pen explicitly rejects the notion of a Western camp to which France should belong, or of a universal model that the West should impose on the rest of the world. She insists that she is the only “realist” in the presidential race — that is, she alone seeks to promote French interests as opposed to the “delusional” politically correct visions of previous governments on issues such as Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, free trade, or humanitarian intervention in the Middle East. In terms similar to Trump, she advocates a foreign policy for the common man against the betrayals of an elite class that cares little for the “real” France.

In other words, Le Pen has taken traditional French ideas about the country’s place and role in the world and flipped them on their heads. She presents her ideas in rhetoric that sounds very French in its seeming adherence to classical legalism, but the details reveal a clear departure from the pro-U.N., pro-Europe, Germany-friendly position France has stuck to for decades. By selling her foreign policy in terms familiar to voters, she obscures just how radical a change it would be.

Le Pen’s worldview is built around three principal pillars — all of them ideas that French voters have been comfortable with for a long time.

The first is France’s independence: the idea that France not only can and should run its own foreign policy, but also that this is essential in order for France to follow the domestic policies of its choice. In Le Pen’s view, France stands among the great nations of the world. She remains capable of protecting her interests, alone if necessary. France’s capacity for independence rests not only on its storied history, but also on its strength on the international stage — strength built, first and foremost, on its military, to which Le Pen wants to dedicate 3 percent of its gross domestic product, including funds for modernizing France’s nuclear deterrent.

But the “independence” that Le Pen advocates is much narrower than the traditional postwar French understanding, and goes even further than the independent footing France has sought to adhere to since the end of the Cold War. Le Pen, for instance, rejects the notion that France needs the EU, NATO, Germany, or the United States to defend itself and its interests. Indeed, she believes the NATO alliance “increasingly diminishes France’s strategic autonomy” and thus weakens France.

Le Pen doesn’t just exclude tight alignment with allies, as every French leader since De Gaulle has — she also rules out any permanent foreign entanglement. Since the 1970s, France’s vision of its independence has been artfully reconciled with NATO, the EU, and the United Nations by asserting that membership in these organizations enhances French leverage without hampering its freedom of action. But Le Pen rejects the first two institutions, and speaks only rarely and often disparagingly of the U.N. She will accept international cooperation only on the basis of strict sovereign equality and when such cooperation directly serves French interests. France thus need not accept legal obligations that limit French independence, nor does it need to participate in other powers’ wars to satisfy alliance commitments or for any other reason.

The second pillar of Le Pen’s foreign policy is France’s identity: the idea that the country’s greatest strength is its distinctive history and culture as a nation. French presidential candidates typically extol French grandeur and evoke France’s glorious past to inspire their voters. So when Le Pen talks about “what France must bring to the world, because it is France, and because we are French,” she speaks a familiar language. Le Pen’s uniqueness, however, lies in her belief that French identity is under severe threat and will be salvaged by retrenchment. For her, the single-greatest threat to France is the loss of its identity. The global environment today is filled with dangers that could transform or even obliterate French identity, from migration, to free trade, to the European Union, to terrorism, to “de-nationalized elites.”

Thus, Le Pen’s brand of universalism — a long French tradition — is “that of differences,” as she put it in her key foreign-policy speech earlier this year. Le Pen claims that she “defends a multicultural conception of the world,” but within that world nations have to be “uni-cultural.” In the foreign-policy arena, Le Pen’s determination to defend and protect France’s uniqueness implies a deep aversion to passing moral judgment on other countries. Le Pen wants to, so to speak, “enhance” the concept of human rights with “the rights of peoples” — by which she means nations. Le Pen holds that one of the most fundamental rights for a country is the right to decide how to deal with critical issues like religion, political systems, and border control. There can, in this view, be no universal approach to human rights. Human rights have to be defined — and will be limited — within national contexts, and those definitions cannot be questioned from the outside.

The third pillar is order. The history of France is one of civil wars and foreign invasions; thus, an essential and explicit role of French governments is to provide domestic order and protect against foreign threats. Since World War II, French efforts to inject order in the international realm have included establishing and joining international institutions, which French governments have traditionally seen as promoting an international order that serves as a first layer of defense against sources of internal chaos.

In Le Pen’s view, however, those international institutions now threaten France by removing from the French people the right to decide how to organize their domestic life. She thus rejects the current international architecture. She insists that order depends not only on a strong national defense, but also on protecting the nation from foreign influences. Instead of the current international order, she sees France as an integral part of a new “multipolar world order” based on “dialogue” and “respect” among nations.

Accordingly, Le Pen’s platform largely consists of a list of international regimes and institutions from which she wants to withdraw: NATO’s integrated command, the Schengen Area, the eurozone, the EU, and various free trade agreements. She has a principled objection to multilateral groups such as the World Trade Organization and the G-20, because in her view only the people of a nation “are able to decide what is right for them.”

These withdrawals do not amount to isolationism. Le Pen fully accepts that order will at times require military operations overseas as French interests can be threatened from abroad. She claims, in fact, that Africa will be her No. 1 international priority. But her desire for a multipolar world order means that she would rather cooperate abroad with allies like Russia, which respects the need to protect identity, than those such as Germany and the United States (until Trump), which demand openness. Those demands threaten both independence and identity. So unlike those in Britain who advocated leaving the European Union, Le Pen does not see a post-EU France pursuing its interests through bilateral free trade or multilateral cooperation.

The use of the traditional French narratives of independence, identity, and order are meant, in part, to counter the National Front’s long-standing credibility problem. Many in the French electorate have long believed that the party is unprepared for government or even dangerous. This updated framing allows Le Pen to speak about “what France has to bring to the world,” about “the role that was hers, and the role I will give back to her.” Even though presidential elections are not won on foreign policy, her new narrative is built on concepts that resonate deeply with large segments of the French population. In using them, Le Pen attempts to cast herself as a credible stateswoman.

But the reality of her positions, when laid out clearly, is startling. A President Le Pen would seek to disengage France from most of its international commitments. Beyond NATO’s integrated command and the EU, other international regimes such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Criminal Court would probably be added to the list. Although she has been less clear on climate change, she has criticized the Paris deal not just for being “wobbly and impractical,” but also because, regardless of the effects on others, each nation has the right and can afford to decide for itself how to deal with the climate.

President Le Pen, with a sufficient parliamentary majority, would also be able to seek a more flexible alliance posture, preferring to cooperate with countries and institutions that value sovereignty over interdependence. Her positive reaction to Trump’s election was based on hopes that “America would break with the absurd idea of subjugation of its allies.” Her support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in the name of the fight against terrorist groups, is consistent with this approach. The priority she gives to Africa — focused on Francophone countries and built around the principles of sovereignty and noninterference — is mostly meant to produce migration agreements that offer countries of transit and origin financial incentives to reduce migration, as detailed in her recent speech in Chad.

All three pillars of her worldview come together in her desire for closer relations with Moscow. If achieved, better relations with Russia would signal French foreign-policy independence, bring it closer with a country that also believes in the pre-eminence of identity and conservative values, and point to a desire to prioritize the fight against both terrorism and U.S.-led globalization.

Le Pen’s foreign-policy ideas resonate with at least part of the electorate because they rest securely on France’s national myths: the idea that France’s place in the world stems from its proud history, the notion that France can make its way in the world alone, and the idea that France sits at the top table and participates in shaping the international order. These myths have been important tools for governing France since the foundation of the Fifth Republic.

But in previous administrations, such myths have been interpreted through a more realistic and open lens. France has been an important architect of today’s European and global orders. But its contribution has been based on the notion that independence doesn’t preclude interdependence, a vision of French identity that can survive being bound by international commitments, and an ability to catalyze international cooperation through contributions to global order, as exemplified by France’s active role in many multilateral forums.

A President Le Pen would almost surely find that myths make for good campaign posturing, but not for good government. The foreign-policy challenges France faces today defy simple answers that France can implement alone. Terrorism requires a response that masters the nexus between internal and external security. Climate change can be controlled only if key economies believe in international coordination enough to make the needed national adjustments. Russia’s behavior isn’t only a response to Western slights, and its strategy in Syria does not help to address the terrorist and refugee threats to Europe.

Marine Le Pen will not find answers to these problems in the romantic poetry of French national myths. She will need to forge effective international cooperation, particularly with France’s traditional partners. But that doesn’t mean such myths couldn’t help her get elected.

Photo credit: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Jeremy Shapiro is research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.  Twitter: @jyshapiro