PERPIGNAN, France — The National Rally’s disastrous recent regional election results had many asking: Is this the end for Marine Le Pen?
The answer from a party conference this weekend was an emphatic no.
At the meeting in the southern town of Perpignan, there wasn’t the faintest hint of mutiny. Instead, the party rank and file issued a chorus of support for their leader.
“She is the only candidate for us, we completely support her,” said Léo Camus, a student and party member. “Marine Le Pen has never been higher in the polls and her third go at the presidency will be the right one.”
“She is frank, not a turncoat like others,” said Annie, a retired shop owner who did not want to give her surname for fear of criticism from neighbors. “She is in a good place right now.”
In regional elections last month, Le Pen’s allies failed to gain control of any region, prompting questions about whether her attempts to bring the party closer to the mainstream were putting off traditional far-right voters.
Polls put Le Pen and French President Emmanuel Macron neck and neck in the first round of the presidential election next year, but have Macron winning in a run-off, just like in 2017.
Staying the course
In her closing speech to party members on Sunday, Le Pen insisted the RN would continue to “open up” to those beyond the far right in a bid to widen its appeal.
“We won’t go back, with all the respect we have for our own history, we will not return to the National Front,” she said, referring to the former name of the party, which was dropped in 2018. Last week, her father and longtime National Front chief Jean-Marie Le Pen called on the RN to “regain its virility” or face “extinction.”
His daughter was having none of it.
“We were right on immigration, on the loss of decency and on globalization. We have won on the ideological front, now we have to win in the ballots,” she said.
A day before the party conference began, Le Pen had issued a reminder of her stance on the EU, signing a declaration along with the Continent’s leading populist parties — including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, Poland’s governing Law and Justice and Italy’s League, led by Matteo Salvini — against the bloc’s political direction.
“The EU is becoming more and more a tool of radical forces that would like to carry out a cultural, religious transformation and ultimately a nationless construction of Europe, aiming to create … a European Superstate,” the parties wrote.
But back home, some are quietly asking questions about the strategy of Le Pen’s party.
Romain Lopez, mayor of the town of Moissac, thinks the regional election campaign could have been better managed. “Maybe we should have relied more on local councilors who have developed a local network,” he said. “There’s a ripple effect, when you damage the rank and file of a party, you hurt the management of the party.”
Speaking to reporters Sunday, Le Pen defended her decision to ditch many local councilors seeking to renew their mandates.
“When somebody has been fired, it’s usually because either the quality or the necessary psychological balance was lacking,” she said.
An RN staffer who worked on the regional campaign said Le Pen’s personality was a problem in the election race. “She’s a warhorse, a born actress on stage who can campaign tirelessly,” he said, “but she struggles to connect to people.”
The weekend’s meeting also featured votes for the party’s top jobs.
Le Pen, the sole candidate for the leadership of the party, was re-elected with 98.35 percent of votes cast.
And there was also some unexpected news.
Le Pen’s protégé Jordan Bardella was named first vice-president and is set to run the party when Le Pen steps away to start her presidential campaign in September.
“We have to trust the young,” said Le Pen when introducing Bardella’s new role. “A young general who has earnt his stripes during election battles,” was how she described him despite his poor performance in the recent election battle for the greater Paris region — he finished a humiliating third.
But Bardella’s promotion should not necessarily be read as a signal that Le Pen is grooming him as her successor. “It’s not sure that I will give up, it’s not in my character,” she said when asked whether the next presidential election would be her last if she fails.
Observers also note that Bardella could act as a buffer against possible rivals, in particular against Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal, who has retired from politics but remains popular among the far right. If that is the case, Le Pen would be taking a leaf out of her father’s playbook, who for years played his daughter off against his heir apparent Bruno Gollnisch.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)