Is France pre­pared for Pres­i­dent Le Pen?

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"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

PHOTO: REUTERS

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.

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