‘It’s about showing we’re able to govern’: Le Pen looks to 2027 with plan to sanitise image

Far-right leader insists National Rally’s more than 80 MPs dress and act smartly as they settle into parliament as France’s biggest opposition

At the French national assembly, Thomas Ménagé stood straightening the smart suit and tie that the far-right leader Marine Le Pen insists her parliamentarians wear to prove they are serious and respectable.

“We’re a new generation,” said the 31-year-old who used to work as a middle-manager in a property firm. “We’ve shown we work hard in parliament and the aim now is to prove we’re capable of governing the country when Marine Le Pen becomes president in 2027.”

Le Pen’s far-right National Rally continues to send shockwaves through French politics as the biggest single opposition party in parliament, pitching itself as a counterweight to the centrist grouping of president Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen’s strategy for the start of 2023 is to use the unprecedented presence of more than 80 far-right lawmakers in parliament as a crucial step in her long-running drive to sanitise her party’s image and move it away from the jackbooted antisemitic imagery of the past. She is seeking to counter opponents’ criticisms of party racism and xenophobia, ahead of a potential fourth attempt at the presidency in four years’ time.

Laurent Jacobelli and Thomas Ménagé debate in the National Assembly.
National Rally MPs (left to right) Laurent Jacobelli and Thomas Ménagé take part in a debate. Photograph: Jacques Witt/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

On Thursday, the anti-immigration party will for the first time in its 50-year history have the right to take charge of a day of parliamentary business to propose its own laws. For this, the party has deliberately sidestepped its radical, far-right, anti-immigration manifesto that wants to keep France for the French, and instead sought to borrow ideas from the left and other parties.

Le Pen said there was “only one political objective: the concrete improvement of French people’s lives”. Proposals will include inciting companies to raise salaries by 10%, scrapping urban low emissions zones, which the party argues “punish” poor, working drivers, and introducing uniforms in schools. Other parties have refused to back these laws, but the National Rally will use the debates to showcase what it calls its a new “common sense” approach to politics.

A key test will come at the end of January when one of Le Pen’s 89 far-right lawmakers faces a re-run of her election in the Marne, after administrative errors on the paperwork for a centrist candidate. It is crucial that Le Pen’s party hang on to the seat. Le Pen’s lawmakers – who include former lawyers, doctors, senior civil servants, police officers, a journalist, a delivery driver and a ferry worker – are the cornerstone of her attempts to prove the party is a normal parliamentary group like any other, as well as largely increasing its public funding.

When, in November, one of Le Pen’s lawmakers, Grégoire de Fournas, was banned from parliament for two weeks for shouting “go back to Africa” when Carlos Martens Bilongo, a black, leftwing member of the house, was talking about migrants rescued off the coast of Italy, it seemed Le Pen’s careful plans to present a low-key professional new image would be derailed. Macron’s prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said: “Racism has no place in our democracy.” The party argued the comments had been misunderstood and Le Pen tightened the rules on her lawmakers keeping a low-profile.

MP Carlos Martens Bilongo speaks to the journalists after being told to ‘go back to Africa’ by National Rally MP Grégoire de Fournas.
MP Carlos Martens Bilongo speaks to the journalists after being told to ‘go back to Africa’ by National Rally MP Grégoire de Fournas. Photograph: Ait Adjedjou Karim/Abaca/Rex/Shutterstock

A poll by Kantar-Public-Epoka for Le Monde and FranceInfo showed that a majority felt the party “made racist or xenophobic comments” or was “aggressive”. But the same poll showed Le Pen was succeeding in using parliament to counter the long-running criticism that her party was a protest movement incapable of ever governing. A total of 40% felt the party was capable of taking part in a government – the highest level ever. The number who thought the National Rally represented a “danger for democracy” was down to 46% from 58% in 2017.

Laure Lavalette, a National Rally member of parliament for the Var, in the south, said of the parliamentary operation: “It’s as if we’ve very quickly built up a small business out of nothing. It’s about professionalism, showing we’re able to govern.”

Le Pen’s strategy in parliament has been to remain ideologically hard to pin down – sometimes her party backs Macron’s centrist government, such as voting in favour of cost of living measures. Sometimes the party backs ideas from the radical left, also supporting the left’s motion of no-confidence in the government. Le Pen’s calls this “common sense” and “pragmatism”. But the National Rally remains isolated by other parties. Even a charity parliamentary football match caused controversy when some on the left and centre refused to play because there were far-right lawmakers on the team.

Last month, as members of the National Rally’s youth movement sipped drinks at a cocktail party on a boat moored opposite the Eiffel Tower in Paris, many said that the party’s newfound standing in parliament would boost membership. “The fact that we are so active in parliament is of course bringing in new people,” said Rémy, a party member who worked as a teacher at a Paris high-school. “There’s a new dynamic at play, a reconstruction as a serious political party.”

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella rehearse their speeches before a rally in September 2022.
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella rehearse their speeches before a rally in September 2022. Photograph: Alain Robert/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

The Socialist lawmaker Philippe Brun, who represents a constituency in L’Eure, in rural Normandy, saw four out of five seats in his area go to the far right at the parliamentary election. He said: “Whereas we might have thought the National Rally would adopt a protest position in parliament, like Jean-Marie Le Pen did with a much smaller parliamentary group in the 1980s, they have surprisingly played the parliamentary game, seeking consensus positions and tabling amendments to laws. The phrase I hear them most often use to state their position is ‘common sense’.”

Brun, who built up his own political support by touring the gilets jaunes anti-government protests in 2018 and 2019, said the key challenge for the left was to expose the far right as “opportunistic”, and acting “against the real interests” of the working-class people it was winning over from the left in rural areas.

Antoine Bristielle, the director of opinion at the Fondation Jean Jaurès thinktank, said: “We’re seeing the National Rally use this parliament as a kind of shopfront for their drive to “normalise” the party. Previously, their opponents called them an incompetent, protest party unable to govern. First they tried to show with the town-halls they won that they could govern like others at a local level, and now with lawmakers are trying to show that they are an opposition party like any other. Polling by Ipsos for the Fondation Jean Jaurès, showed strikingly that, 32% of people agreed that ‘the society the National Rally promotes is the society I would like to live in’. Parliament has added a new level to their attempts to de-demonise their image.”


Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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