What ever happened to the Front National?

‘Mais où est passé le Front national?’ asked Le Monde on 3 June, in a short article about the apparent absence of the local FN candidate from campaigning in Sarlat (Dordogne). And it’s not just in the south-west that this is happening. What’s become of the far-right party? The question is worth asking, because since her defeat on 7 May, both Marine Le Pen and her party have gone very quiet. Run silent, run deep – more submarine than Marine.

I have written elsewhere that, despite record scores in both rounds of the presidential election, Marine Le Pen’s performance was a disappointment to her and to her supporters. She expected to win the first round, but in the end came within 600,000 votes of being eliminated, by François Fillon for crying out loud. Then, in the second round, she took 33% when expectations were of a 60/40 split.

On the evening of 7 May, Le Pen appeared before her supporters to concede defeat, but also to declare that she was ready to fight the general elections in June, to lead a 'refondation' of the party, perhaps even with a change of name, leading anti-globalisation, anti-Macron 'patriots' into the fray. We steeled ourselves for a feisty ‘third round’. Then, suddenly, nothing happened.

That’s been the story of the FN throughout this general election campaign: no bangs, but several whimpers. Two days after the second round, at a meeting of the party’s executive committee, Marion Maréchal Le Pen (MMLP), niece of the candidate and one of only two outgoing FN deputies, announced that she would not be seeking re-election and that she was withdrawing from politics for the time being to spend more time with her young daughter.

MMLP’s announcement was probably a relief to her aunt. If there is to be a challenge to her position, it won’t be coming from that quarter just yet. In fact, the announcement was not altogether a surprise. Le Canard Enchaîné had run a story of rumours of a temporary withdrawal from politics back in early April.

It was a disappointment though, to FN supporters on the Catholic right who saw in MMLP a candidate who stood up for the traditional values of the FN against Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen’s ‘bras droit’. Philippot is seen as the force behind the drive to ‘dédiaboliser’ (detoxify) the FN’s image and was mostly responsible for the presidential manifesto, focussing on the big state, 'patriotic protectionism' and leaving the Eurozone. That last policy was seen within the FN as the policy that really cost Le Pen.  Macron's deft ability to expose her obvious lack of mastery of the subject during the presidential TV debate only made matters worse.

Philippot responded to his critics by threatening to quit the party if it abandoned the policy of leaving the Eurozone, a means perhaps to force Le Pen to back him. At the same time, he set up, within the FN, a subgroup called ‘Les Patriotes’, what in French is known as a courant or a microparti, which will also aim to act as a bridgehead to fellow travellers outside the FN. Philippot firmly believes the party name has become a toxic brand.

Philippot’s 'back me or sack me' posturing has met with a frosty response from Le Pen, but at the same time she has been uncharacteristcally quiet. 'Crevée' (exhausted) according to some observers, it wasn’t until 18 May, the eve of the deadline for submission of candidatures, during a television appearance, that she formally announced her intention to run in Hénin-Beaumont, in the Pas-de-Calais. Since then she has cruised beneath the radar of a media more focussed either on Macron's candidates or on the arguments going on within the right.

The same has been true of Philippot, standing in Forbach, in Alsace. Described by one commentator as a candidat-TGV, he has been accused of commuting out to the constituency, putting in a brief appearance, then jumping back on the next train to Paris. Le Monde suggests that it’s more to do with Philippot’s belief that he’s a shoo-in for the second round and that he can actually have more impact by appearing in the national media rather than on the ground.

That might be true, but in the presidential election here, Macron beat Le Pen in the second round and with 16 others chasing the seat, it seems a risky strategy. Philippot may also feel that he needs to be in Paris covering his back, or in Laon (Aisne), supporting his brother Damien, a former Ifop polling analyst who worked for the FN, and is now the party's candidate there. (The FN is 'très famille'.)

Still, as the case of Florence Joubert, the FN candidate in Sarlat, seems to indicate, it’s one being adopted elsewhere too. Joubert sees no point in attending public meetings ‘that no-one comes to’ and that there are ‘other ways of campaigning’, despite the party's central bureau underlining to candidates the importance of getting out and meeting people (Le Monde, 21-22 May 2017).

It’s not entirely clear what Joubert means, but here are some thoughts.

The first is to do with the material cost of the campaign. The FN is strapped for cash and it’s not cheap running 570-odd candidates. Recently, the Russian bank that lent the party money has asked for it back. This prompted Le Pen to launch an appeal for funds, what she calls an emprunt patriotique, calling on the support of citizens ‘who want to ensure that democracy can function by lending to the Front National for the legislative elections’.

The FN has no money. That’s one of the reasons why the handful of MEPs it has have been, allegedly, syphoning off money from their allowances as members of the European parliament towards the party. The FN is also under investigation for some very dubious financial practices at the last general election, which is all laid out in Laurent Fargues’s illuminating Le Procès interdit de Marine Le Pen – Enquête sur la machine à cash du FN (Editions First-Grund, 2017). As a consequence, they are having to tighten their belts this time around.

And maybe that doesn’t matter. The outgoing Socialist deputy in Sarlat, Germinal Peiro (what a splendid name) makes the point that it really doesn’t matter who the local FN candidate is, becauseit’s Marine Le Pen. And the FN vote is solid at 20% there.

Peiro makes a doubly valid point, perhaps without knowing it. The FN is run on a rigid Fuhrerprinzip. What the leader says goes. This is taken to the point that candidates receive briefings by email (weekly, if not daily) as to what they are to say and do in response to specific questions or particular events. During the presidential campaign, the French radio station Europe 1's satirist and impersonator, Nicolas Canteloup, had a great deal of fun portraying Le Pen's spokesman Nicolas Bay as starting every sentence with the phrase 'Marine told me to tell you...'.

Now, the same might be said of candidates of Macron’s La République en Marche and Mélenchon's La France Insoumise, many of whom lack experience on the gound, but they can at least be seen out in the constituencies, pressing the flesh and trying to get their faces known.

Maybe, in fact, it doesn’t matter.

Jean-Marie Le Pen always argued that the presidential election was the only one that really counted. Perhaps his daughter has figured that, with 2022 in mind, it would be better not to win many seats (although financially that would be insane) and to rail instead against 'the system' that gives very few seats to a party that has, for argument's sake, 20% of the vote. Maybe she is exhausted and needs to bide her time until the party congress that has now been scheduled for early 2018 to examine the way forward for the FN. And maybe she will wait and look at the impact of the general election on the republican right and then make whatever remains there a deal they cannot refuse. Perhaps the party's name will change and then a new patriotic front will storm to victory in 2020's municipal elections…