Marine Le Pen: France’s Woman in the Wings

Marine Le Pen is well positioned to emerge even stronger in the 2017 elections.

Joel Saget, AFP / Getty Images

As the results came down Sunday night in the first round of France's presidential election, far-right leader Marine Le Pen's concession speech sounded anything but.

"All united, all brought together, everything is possible now!" she declared through her permanent smile, her blonde mane swaying with the force of her words before ecstatic supporters. With 17.9 percent of Sunday's vote, Le Pen finished a strong third in a ballot where only the top two advance to the runoff, which will pit Socialist François Hollande (28.63 percent) against right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy (27.18 percent) on May 6. But the nevertheless triumphant National Front leader exclaimed, "My friends, dear French people, nothing will ever be the same!"

There is a lot more to that line than meets the eye. And it's bad news for Sarkozy and key for Hollande.

Marine Le Pen does have reason to smile. But, as a matter of fact, on one crucial measure, her assertion that nothing will be as it was is dead wrong. Sure, she beat her father's historic score in 2002, when the rabble-rousing Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked France by making it to the runoff. Back then, Le Pen père shamed the left with 16.86 percent of the vote and squared off with right-winger Jacques Chirac, who won reelection in a landslide. Chirac's win brought in a feisty interior minister called Nicolas Sarkozy, who would make his name vowing to clean up the "scum" in the projects and talking top-cop tough on immigration. All, went the story, to bring far-right voters back into the mainstream and fold and cripple the National Front.

For a time, Sarkozy's plan seemed to work. He even squelched the National Front vote to a low 10.44 percent in 2007, when he won the presidency in part by cherry-picking hardline ideas. He tried to repeat the strategy in his 2012 campaign—his most-listened-to campaign adviser was once a journalist for a far-right newspaper—even convincing himself at one point that French voters' top worry was meat slaughtered by Muslim ritual. Surreally, the sitting president of Europe's second-largest economy, a country in the thick of a debt crisis and still at war in Afghanistan, appeared to put the pressing questions of school luncheon meats and gender-specific swimming pool hours (lest they cater to Muslim women) above all else. He promised to halve immigration, lamenting "uncontrolled waves of migration," forgetting he has been the pivot of that control for much of the last decade.

But in light of Marine Le Pen's quasi-triumph on Sunday night, it is worth noting that her father's record score in 2002, plus the 2.34 percent of ex-National Front splinter candidate Bruno Mégret, gave the far right a grand total of 19.2 percent of the vote back then. Ten years later, the French would be right to ask, in the parlance, "Tout ça pour ça?" All that for that? Is it better that the far right scores a lot of votes, but never wins power? Or that far-right aspirations become government policy, while their election scores suffer? Sarkozy's explicit gamble was on the latter. But in 2012, thanks in part to that bet, France has a bit of both.

For years, Sarkozy echoed far-right rhetoric, only to see it through part way, putting off moderates and disappointing hardliners, while Marine Le Pen worked hard to give her party a more modern, more palatable face.

As Jean-Marie Le Pen has always chided, "People prefer the original to the copy." Sarkozy's rhetoric worked on National Front voters in 2007. But his pretension to being the "candidate of the people" didn’t sit as well this time with the National Front's disenfranchised supporters, who have since waded through a devastating economic crisis. In the event the examples weren't fresh to mind, cameras caught the so-called bling president at a rally last week slipping his estimated €55,000 Patek Philippe watch, a gift from his former-supermodel heiress wife, into his pocket as he greeted supporters, as if he were afraid "the people" were poised to nick it.

What do the results mean for the future?

On Sunday in Tulle, François Hollande's unassuming local constituency in the heartland Corrèze region, Hollande was he was pressing the flesh at polling stations, telling reporters even before the votes came in that the first round was "the most important." "The second round is a vote that might be close, that might be ample, but that will confirm what the first round showed," he explained. After the results gave him the top spot and Le Pen a strong third, Hollande took the stage of the town's gymnasium, composed and confident, and pointed the finger at a Sarkozy, "who played into the far right's hand."

Backstage, Hollande’s entourage said there was no doubt he had the key candidates on his left flank on his side—while slamming Sarkozy associates said to assume Marine Le Pen's score need only be added to Sarkozy's total for the win. "Sarkozy's unrestrained right-wing strategy didn't work. It even amplified [the far-right's score]," a source close to Hollande argued. "It's difficult to turn a disavowal into a proclamation of victory, but you can count on Sarkozy to try to."

Indeed, throughout the evening, Hollande's second-round allies came, many, quick, and resolute. Fourth-place finisher Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front, a coalition that includes the Communist Party, endorsed Hollande in calling his voters (11.11 percent) to turn out "without asking for anything in return, on May 6 to defeat Sarkozy." That crucial phrasing will leave Hollande free to cast his second-round net wide and appeal to centrist voters instead of kowtowing leftward for communist support. Late Sunday night at the airport in Brive-la-Gaillarde, where he boarded a private jet to Paris with his first-round win in pocket, Hollande didn't pull any punches. "I am the strongest because I am first," he said.

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Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, seemed to have trouble hiding the fact she has far more to gain if Hollande wins and Sarkozy loses. A recent poll says only 60 percent of her voters say they will vote for Sarkozy in the second round, the rest splitting fairly evenly between Hollande and staying home. Habitually lumping both mainstream parties into one, she is not poised to endorse anyone. Why play kingmaker when she might be queen? Indeed, while the far-right score approximates its 2002 showing, the right-wing governing party was stronger then in the face of the challenge. Sarkozy's UMP party, or Union for a Popular Movement, was created in late 2002, transforming informal election alliances into a political party uniting right-wing and centrist forces. But that unity has fissured over time as Sarkozy has flitted about the political spectrum, and some analysts believe defeat in 2012 could split the alliance for good—with a strong Marine Le Pen happy to pick at the scraps and widen her own base.

Sarkozy, the UMP party's most iconoclastic voice for much of its short history, has already said he'll quit politics if he is defeated May 6, in practice leaving party heavyweights to fight a nasty leadership battle for a new champ just as Marine Le Pen hits top form. All the more reason for her schadenfreude. In the very short term, that might be good news for François Hollande, as Sarkozy will have to work harder over the next two weeks to widen support than the Socialist will. On the medium term, if Hollande wins France's top job, internecine battles on the right could weaken the opposition just as Hollande's own Socialists were left reeling after Sarkozy's sound win in 2007.

But what about the long term? As the far-right leader told supporters last night, "Whatever happens over the next 15 days, the battle for France has only just begun!" Is Marine Le Pen angling to win it all in 2017? Perhaps. But remember, she is only 43. She can afford patience. And hers is a family business. Her father was in his 40s when he first ran for president, and kept trying every time until he was 79. At that rate, Marine Le Pen might still be on the ballot in 2047.