Is France prepared for President Le Pen?
"The euro . . . is a political weapon to force countries to implement the policies decided by the EU." Marine Le Pen
FRANCE: If Marine Le Pen wins France’s presidential elections in May, all talk of punishing Britain for the outrage of Brexit will become irrelevant. French diplomacy will pirouette overnight under a National Front (FN) leader.
The Elysee Palace will seek an entente cordiale with the British, offering a bilateral alliance on new foundations. It will then be the European Union that faces an existential choice: whether to reinvent itself as a loose federation of nation states, or succumb to galloping disintegration.
‘‘What is the point in punishing a country? It is senseless, unless you think the EU is a prison, and you are condemned if you escape. I want to rebuild our damaged relations with the United Kingdom,’’ Le Pen said.
‘‘A people decides its own destiny. You cannot force a country to do something that is against its own interests, or against the democratic process,’’ she said.
It is a far cry from the language of President Francois Hollande, who told Europe that Britain must ‘‘pay a price’’ to deter any other country from toying with temptation.
Whether she has a chance of winning is hotly disputed, but it is no longer unthinkable. Bookmakers have lifted the odds to 3/1, an ‘‘alarming’’ development says economic forecaster Oxford Economics.
‘‘France is the political heart of Europe, and the moment we leave the euro the whole project collapses,’’ said Le Pen.
The latest L’Express poll found she trails Fillon by just 44 to 56 in a run-off election. The taboo of voting for the Front National is not what it was, and Britain’s referendum shock has played into her hands.
‘‘Brexit has been a powerful weapon for us. In the past, our adversaries have always been able to say that there is ‘no alternative’ but now we have had Brexit, and then Trump, and Austria,’’ she said.
‘‘A whole psychological framework is breaking down. I think 2017 is going to be the year of the grand return of the nation state, the control of borders and currencies,’’ she said.
Her rising star unsettles the 250,000 Britons who live and work or are retired in France.
‘‘They can be reassured because none of my policies are antiEnglish. Nothing will change for them,’’ she insisted. ‘‘All existing contracts will be upheld. I am totally opposed to any form of retroactivity because it is against the rule of law. All we are talking about is what happens in the future.’’
Yet nobody knows quite what Le Pen intends with her ‘‘national priority’’ plan for French workers, and her surtax on the hiring of foreign staff. New legal residents will have to wait two years before they can access the ‘‘full plenitude’’ of healthcare and state services, though there could be a reciprocal deal with the UK on medical insurance.
‘‘What we’re concerned about is massive immigration of unskilled workers, mostly from the Maghreb and Africa, which pulls down salaries in France,’’ she said. The contours of this ‘‘France First’’ policy are left vague. Critics will draw their own conclusions.
Le Pen’s position on Europe differs from the clean break of the Brexiteers. The edges have been softened for appearances as her party sniffs real power.
In theory, France could remain in the EU if others agree to the FN’s exorbitant terms: a managed break-up of the euro; control of post-Schengen national borders; the right to impose trade barriers; and the primacy of French law. If they refuse, she will call a referendum on EU membership and the French franc.
She hopes that Italy, Spain, Greece, and others will join in a collective revolt against the German-led euro system once given a lead. ‘‘They may rally around France and agree to dismantle this structure together in an orderly way before it collapses in chaos,’’ she said.
‘‘The euro is a potent tool used by Germany to engage in permanent monetary dumping. It suits the Germans just fine but we unfortunate travelling companions cannot be subjected to this misery for ever to promote their happiness.’’
She has made up her mind on the pivotal issue of coinage. ‘‘We can do nothing under the current structure in Europe, and the euro is the keystone. Not a single one of our measures will ever see the light of day,’’ she said.
‘‘The euro is not a currency. It is a political weapon to force countries to implement the policies decided by the EU and keep them on a leash. Look at what happened to the Greeks when they said no to austerity, as they were right to do: liquidity for the banks was cut off,’’ she said.
Le Pen admits her anti-euro stand may cost votes. In 2012, say her strategists, it knocked her out in the first round.
The party is split. Her critics say the fight against Europe frightens the mainstream voters that she is trying to woo away from the Republicans. Others say it diverts attention from the FN’s law-and-order message and more visceral matters: the defence of France’s secular society, as they put it, or the crusade against Islam as France’s 4.7 million Muslims see it.
‘‘It may hurt me, but what other solution is there? Am I supposed to lie and pretend that it is possible to pursue our patriotic policies while we are still in the euro?’’ she said.
French views on Europe fluctuate but are slowly hardening over time. A survey last June found that 61 per cent of French voters had an ‘‘unfavourable’’ opinion of the EU – compared with 48 per cent in the UK – and a clear majority wanted core powers repatriated from Brussels.
Whether she can overcome the toxic legacy of the Front National is an open question. She has carried out a purge, taking the devil out of the party. The rebranding has paid off – up to a point – though some say she has ‘‘watered the wine’’ too. For now, however, Le Pen is in the political sweet spot.
The centre-Right is stuck with a ‘‘Mr Clean’’ who turns out not to be clean. The Left is split. The Socialists have chosen a ‘‘Corbynesque’’ utopian unable to stop the leakage of their workingclass base to the FN.
‘‘For the first time in more than 30 years, there is a party that taps into all the core values of the working class: cultural, economic, and social protectionism,’’ says the think tank Terra Nova.
Le Pen is relishing a duel with the perfect adversary: Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European globalist, and the untested boy-wonder of French politics. The former economy minister talks well but he has no party machine, and has not yet fleshed out his policies.
‘‘The choice in modern politics is no longer between Left and Right. It lies elsewhere, and with Macron things are clear. It is a battle between patriots and unbridled globalism,’’ she said.
Whether the French are ready for Le Pen’s pungent brew has become a massively important question. – Telegraph Group
French presidential election candidate Marine Le Pen poses during a photo call on the beach in Nice this week. The Front National leader is appearing more attractive to voters as an ‘‘anchor of stability’’ amid the turbulence of her rivals’ campaigns.