Historic Victory

How Marine Le Pen and France’s Ultra-Right Won the Day

Far-right scion Marine Le Pen triumphed in elections for European Parliament, and with François Hollande weakened, some are already dreading a 2017 showdown for the French presidency.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Tempest, hurricane, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, or Big Bang? The clutch call in French newsrooms Monday evidently rested on which natural disaster best fit the far-right National Front’s latest historic victory. Enter the four horsemen of the apocalypse? Nah, try two: Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen, France’s emblematic firebrands.

Four hundred million Europeans were called on to cast their votes in 28 countries in European Parliament elections that concluded Sunday. But only 43.1 percent bothered. The European People’s Party topped the vote, likely salvaging the European Commission presidency for its center-right candidate Jean-Claude Juncker, despite losing 20 percent of its seats.

But so-called Euroskeptics won the day, besting every conventional party in France, Great Britain, Denmark, and Greece, and posting notable scores in Sweden, Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere. In a European Union bitterly riven by economic and financial crises, high unemployment, and anemic economies, populist parties—which trade on finger-pointing at everything from the euro currency and EU regulations to migrants and Islam—at the very least claimed bragging rights.

Looking more closely, far-right Euroskeptical parties’ results were mixed. The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), which saw one top candidate forced to step down last month after likening EU regulations to Nazi Germany, finished third nationally but topped 20 percent of the vote. Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), which some polls tipped to win, finished third in the Netherlands, losing one of its five seats. And Belgium’s Vlaams Belang also lost ground.

But one far-right performance easily eclipsed the rest. France’s Marine Le Pen, 45, quadrupled her party’s 2009 score. With 24.83 percent nationally, the National Front will hold a third of France’s seats in Strasbourg with 24 seats, up from three. Both Le Pens, Marine and 85-year-old Jean-Marie, won reelection. And Jean-Marie Le Pen’s blond scion looks to be just getting into her stride.

Since taking the reins of the National Front in 2011 from her hoary, rabble-rousing dad, who founded the party when she was 4, Marine has marshaled a string of historic victories. But none is more impressive than Sunday night’s prize. The National Front won its first-ever first-place finish nationally and sounded a clarion call across Europe. And in France, some worry Le Pen’s triumph Sunday night was only a dry run for her next presidential bid in 2017.

Indeed, not one for subtlety, Le Pen celebrated her party’s win Sunday night in Paris at the Elysée Lounge, only 300 feet from the presidential palace gates. Earlier, just moments after polls closed in France, Le Pen’s victory speech strived for presidential gravitas. With her party HQ bedecked in handy posters boasting “France’s leading party,” Le Pen professed to speak to “all of the French people, whether they voted for us, abstained, or even if they fought us.”

Emboldened, Le Pen père and fille immediately called for new French Prime Minister Manuel Valls to resign and for embattled Socialist President François Hollande to dissolve the National Assembly, France’s lower house, where the National Front holds only two of the 577 seats.

Her win doesn’t come as a surprise; polls were spot on, and Marine has been trumpeting her impending victory for months. But it is nevertheless a shock to France’s system. Some analysts are already dreading a showdown for the French presidency in 2017, with Marine Le Pen repeating her father’s shock performance on April 21, 2002, when he made it into a runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac.

And yet in 2002 there was a backlash. To this day in France, “April 21” stands as the sort of yearless shorthand mnemonic reserved elsewhere for far bloodier disasters (9/11, 7/7). Then, young people poured out into the streets in protest chanting “never again.” And humbled Socialists rallied to throw support behind the conservative Chirac.

But Le Monde argued Monday that this time French society chose “laisser-faire,” seeing the far-right victory a mile away and doing nothing to stop its advance.

Indeed, the polling firm CSA estimates that three-quarters of under 35s in France didn’t bother to vote. And many of those who did voted far-right. Ten percent of voters under 25 voted for the National Front on Sunday, CSA estimates, and 20 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds did the same. Those numbers may be the ultimate proof Marine Le Pen has achieved her goal of de-demonizing her party.

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Hollande, the least popular president of France’s modern era, held a crisis meeting early Monday. Weakened again, he faces a Brussels meeting of European heads of state on Tuesday. His Socialist Party scored a disastrous 13.98 percent of the French vote Sunday night. Pointedly, less than 6 percent of registered voters went out to support the ruling party, only two years into Hollande’s flailing term.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Valls is stressing recently announced tax cuts, particularly for the middle and working classes, despite already hard-to-deliver pledges to draw down the deficit. It will be lost on no Socialist that the party picked up only 10 percent of the working-class vote on Sunday, according to a CSA estimate. The National Front, meanwhile, garnered 47 percent.

France’s opposition Union for a Popular Movement is struggling, too, poised for yet another leadership battle. With 20.8 percent on Sunday, the UMP is set to drop a third of its seats. Leader Jean-François Copé is weighed down by a campaign financing affair. And former president Nicolas Sarkozy, touted by supporters as a savior-in-waiting, is saddled with scandals himself. (On Monday, Sarkozy’s former chief of staff was in police custody over the so-called Tapie Affair.) In the closing days of this campaign, Sarkozy published a long op-ed in which he appeared to court Le Pen voters, reprising a losing tactic he used in the dying days of his 2012 presidential campaign. It didn’t work this time, either.

Marine Le Pen’s challenge now will be forming an official European Parliament group. The move would unlock EU funding, more speaking time, and seats on committees. An official group requires at least 25 seats across seven countries. The latter part will be the challenge.

Some nationalist populist parties, such as Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party or the Danish People’s Party, have distanced themselves from Le Pen. And the Swedish Democrats reportedly are hesitating. She did cement an alliance months ago with Wilders’s PVV and should partner with Austria’s FPÖ. But at least one potential ally, in Slovakia, failed to win any seats. And Le Pen has her own pariahs, making alliances with Greece’s Golden Dawn or Hungary’s Jobbik unlikely.

However talks for a group shake out, 24 National Front members with a mind to wreak havoc in Strasbourg will net a cool $8,500 a month sitting in Europe’s parliament. (Begrudgingly, of course.) At least until Marine Le Pen can get on with bigger plans.