By Francois Valentin of UnHerd
According to a new Viavoice poll, Marine Le Pen is now France’s second most popular politician, only behind former prime minister and potential centrist presidential candidate Édouard Philippe. This might not seem surprising at first: Le Pen has reached the last two presidential runoffs and boasts the second largest contingent in parliament. But it will still be a shock for older generations of French citizens who remember her controversial father, Jean-Marie, and the extreme origins of her party, now known as Rassemblement National (RN).
Marine has remained an immigration hardliner but has also detoxified the RN brand by tacking her party, traditionally a home for shopkeepers and small business owners, to the Left on welfare and economics. While keeping the historic south-eastern stronghold, her social stances have made the post-industrial north of France, previously a Left-wing bastion, her new fiefdom (she has been an MP in a northern district since 2017).
Yet Le Pen’s appeal is truly national. In the first round of last year’s presidential election, she only decisively trailed Emmanuel Macron in the over-60s age category, beating the President in every working-age category. She also beat Macron in the first five income deciles.
On the coattails of her defeat, she garnered 88 seats in parliament, making RN the second largest party in the National Assembly. As part of her branding operation, she implemented what the media dubbed the “strategy of the suit and tie”: rather than acting like rambunctious agitators, her MPs slowly built their profiles and tactfully supported cross-party initiatives. As a result, according to the same Viavoice poll, RN is now deemed the most credible party not just on immigration but also on education, welfare, pensions, energy and even on discrimination.
In stark contrast, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his Left-wing party La France Insoumise opted for a strategy of constant parliamentary guerrilla warfare. Despite months of protests and strikes against Macron’s raising the legal retirement age to 64 years, which should have made for fertile electoral grounds for the Left, Mélenchon is now the most widely rejected French politician, with 69% holding a negative opinion of him.
But Le Pen’s occupation of her electoral gold mine might not be completely unassailable. Éric Zemmour’s bombastic 2022 presidential run could have sunk her political career, with many ambitious RN bigwigs mulling joining Zemmour when his polls overtook hers. Eventually, she wrestled back momentum, but a domino effect felt like a distinct possibility.
Internally, Le Pen’s young right-hand man Jordan Bardella (also the third most popular politician in France) could provide an exciting alternative with his remarkable rise from a working-class background to political wunderkind. During the 2022 campaign, she ruled out a fourth presidential run, but has since softened her position. RN has always relied on its figurehead, whether Le Pen or her father. A diverse collection of growing profiles could be a strength for the party; equally, it could pave the way for fierce internecine skirmishes.
If Le Pen keeps control of her political lane it remains to be seen whether she has done enough to break the presidential “glass ceiling”. The French system has become a race between moribund establishment parties and fresh upstarts to snatch the coveted runoff spot against Le Pen in what has so far been a guaranteed first-class ticket to the Élysée presidential palace thanks to an instinctive “everyone but Le Pen” voting response. Mélenchon’s supporters, for example, despite their intense rejection of Macron were still four times more likely to vote for him than Le Pen in the 2022 runoff.
With Macron out of the picture for 2027 (despite his grumblings about the “damnable bullshit” of the two-term limit), fearful centrists need not lose all hope yet. Philippe, Macron’s first prime minister, remains France’s best liked politician, according to this month’s poll. His popularity and the recurring aversion to Le Pen, even if it is increasingly strained, may be enough to fend her off.