Argument

How Marine Le Pen Is Making a Comeback, One French Village at a Time

The former National Front has a new name and a new strategy: to pave the way to power by winning city hall after city hall.

Marine Le Pen answers questions in France.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, answers journalists' questions during a visit to Châteaudouble in southern France on Sept. 12, 2018. Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images

“I’m going to do everything to win,” Dorian Munoz, who leads the far-right National Rally’s youth outreach in the Var region of southern France, told me in a recent interview. He’s just 27, but he’s running for mayor in La Seyne-sur-Mer, one of the region’s only remaining left-leaning cities.

For months now, the National Rally—formerly the National Front—has been aggressively campaigning for the March 2020 municipal elections. It comes after the party’s success in last May’s European Parliament elections, in which it won 23 percent of the national vote, ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche. And in its strongholds—the northern mining basin, where unemployment is high, and along the Mediterranean coast, where the memory of the Algerian war still resonates—its numbers soared, in some areas exceeding 40 percent. “Local politics is what we do best,” Munoz said. “It’s in the DNA of the party: We’re never not on the ground.” In just one year of outreach, he said, he has doubled party membership in La Seyne.

As the National Rally seeks to shed its image as a political pariah and settle into the mainstream, municipal elections have emerged as an indispensable strategy. During the last round, in 2014, it made unprecedented gains, winning mayoral races in some 12 small and midsize cities. And while big cities are generally out of reach, the party has found a sweet spot in municipalities like La Seyne, which has a population of around 65,000.

Although the strategy has yet to translate into national gains, the party has decided that chipping away at local offices will be critical to its long-term success. Marine Le Pen, who has presided over the National Rally since 2011, has for years worked to distance it from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a notorious racist who called the Nazi gas chambers a “detail of history.” So far, that has entailed policy shifts on issues including same-sex marriage, the death penalty, and the euro—not ceding ground on immigration or relinquishing its regular tirades against Muslims but developing talking points on other issues, too.

Indeed, since its municipal victories in 2014, the National Rally has decided that consolidating its local presence will not only solidify its normalization but also show voters that its representatives are good managers. Up until now, the party’s rebranding has been ideological; now, its approach to local politics demonstrates a tactical evolution, too. Le Pen has invested in a new generation of party activists, and that starts at the local level.

Le Pen’s leadership has been central to this shift: She has invested in a new generation of party activists, and that starts at the local level. In small cities and towns, the National Rally “is very effective at finding new talent to diversify and ‘youthify’ itself,” said Dorit Geva, a political sociologist at Central European University who focuses on the European far-right. Le Pen has worked to empower party activists in their 20s—such as Munoz, running in La Seyne, and David Rachline, who was just 26 when he was elected mayor of the southeastern city of Fréjus in 2014. (He also managed Le Pen’s 2017 presidential campaign.)

Mayors enjoy higher approval ratings than any other elected officials in France, according to an August survey conducted by the polling agency Ifop. And while its forays into local leadership haven’t always gone well—in the mid-1990s, a then-National Front mayor sent the city of Toulon into debt and eventually left office marred by scandal—its recent experiences indicate that local offices are a good place to start.

That strategic objective—small electoral gains that will burnish the party’s image, undoing the taboo that hovers over it in order to generate more significant wins down the line—is driving the party’s focus on local offices. A National Rally mayor, whose primary responsibilities are to manage daily life and keep the streets clean, passes for an effective technocrat more easily than a far-right ideologue.

It’s a tactic the party calls rayonnement: Put a mayor in office in one town, and his or her influence will “radiate” across the region. What followed the 2014 municipal elections shows that rayonnement can work. Steeve Briois’s 2014 victory in the northern town of Hénin-Beaumont, for example, paved the way for further success in the area; the National Rally managed to show that it wasn’t just “capable of winning an absolute majority … but that it could manage a municipality of significant size,” the political scientists Jérôme Fourquet and Sylvain Manternach wrote in a recent study.

In 2015, the National Rally won six cantons in the region and made further gains in the legislative elections that followed two years later. Similarly, when Robert Ménard—an independent elected with the party’s backing—became mayor of Béziers in 2014, he not only transformed the southern city but earned a following, inspiring “Ménardist” candidates to make gains in three neighboring cantons in elections the following year.

A popular National Rally mayor can effectively convince voters that the party’s ideological core is just an aside.

That doesn’t mean that the National Rally’s mayoral candidates shed their partisan affiliation during their campaigns or time in office. Julien Sanchez, who in 2014 became mayor of Beaucaire, in southern France, has pushed to make pork a requirement in school cafeterias, targeting Muslims and Jews; Ménard has called Islam “insoluble in democracy,” launched an offensive against kebab shops, and recently barred hijab-wearing women from participating in a wellness festival; and during his campaign, Rachline pledged to halt construction of a new mosque and cut funding to nonprofit organizations serving Muslims.

But those ideological battles often get buried in the stuff of local politics. On a recent sunny afternoon in downtown Fréjus, shop owners were effusive in their praise for the mayor. Anouar El-Harti, who immigrated to France from Morocco as a child, told me that Rachline had changed his perception of the National Rally entirely. The young mayor had given “new life” to shop owners, “made Fréjus dynamic,” and “attracted tourists,” he said.

“In 2017, I didn’t vote Le Pen for president,” Harti said, citing the party’s long-standing reputation as a xenophobic, anti-Islam movement. “But in 2022,” when the next presidential elections are set to take place, “I’d very much consider it,” he said, because he has been so taken with Rachline’s governance.

But other locals stressed that even if they’re pleased with Rachline’s leadership—he has lifted Fréjus out of debt—they’d never vote for the National Rally in other elections. “When I vote for a mayor, I vote for the person,” said a chocolatier in her 50s, who declined to give her name. “On a national or European level, it’s different.” When I asked if she was deterred by Rachline’s embrace of the National Rally’s rhetoric on immigration, she shrugged. “Of course there’s the anti-immigrant aspect. But before, Fréjus was bankrupt.”

Geva, the sociologist, attributes this attitude to the nature of the political system in France, where local politics aren’t necessarily a path to national power. But the party isn’t in a rush. “They’re making sure they’ll be represented at all levels, to show that they’re effective at governance, and eventually that’ll make them more legitimate as a national party,” she said. And it’s clear that, at least on a small scale, a popular National Rally mayor can effectively convince voters that the party’s ideological core is just an aside.

The current political climate will help. The March municipal elections will be the first domestic vote since the yellow vest protests broke out late last year, when opposition to a fuel tax hike inspired a broad denunciation of inequality and elitism. Le Pen is fully aware that yellow vest fervor was particularly strong in the regions where her party tends to enjoy support, such as the southeast and the north.

Although the movement was apolitical, the National Rally is well positioned to seize on its anti-establishment sentiment and demands for a solid social safety net; Le Pen’s ideological rebranding has in part involved a more robust defense of the welfare state. And Macron, whose neoliberal economic reforms have enraged voters since he took office, is a perfect target.

The National Rally also intends to surf on the fragmentation of France’s establishment parties—especially the center-right Republicans, long a major national force, who are increasingly hampered by internal divisions.

“The right wing lacks a leader, a charismatic figure, creating a historic opportunity for the National Rally,” said Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far-right at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. “Socialists become Macron, Republicans become En Marche,” Le Pen joked at a recent rally. She’s already actively courting members of the traditional right, hoping to capitalize on the Republicans’ political disarray ahead of the March vote.

That involves both targeting center-right municipalities—such as Brignoles, in the Var, and Perpignan, near the border with Spain—and trying to convince disillusioned Republicans to join National Rally candidate lists.

Le Pen is optimistic; she recently called the municipal elections a “first step” toward the 2022 presidential vote. “Each election is an opportunity for our political family to attach another carabiner on the slope leading up to the summit,” she declared at a party rally in Fréjus on Sept. 15. “And the summit is the Élysée.”

This story appears in the Fall 2019 print issue. Research for this article was supported with a grant from the Institute of Current World Affairs.

Karina Piser is a journalist based in Paris. Twitter: @karinadanielle6

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