Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s far-right National Front, was expelled from the party two years ago by his daughter Marine — for spoiling her rebranding campaign by repeating his infamous claim that the gas chambers used to exterminate Europe’s Jews were merely “a detail in the history of the Second World War,” and saying nice things about Marshal Pétain, the wartime leader who collaborated with the Nazis.
Despite that dramatic falling out, the elder Le Pen voted for his daughter in the first round of France’s presidential election, along with 7,679,492 others, and proudly called her achievement in advancing to the May 7th run-off against Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister, “the culmination of a 45-year political battle” for the party he started in 1972.
Now Jean-Marie Le Pen is eager to offer his daughter some advice, whether she wants it or not: to win, she needs to drop the facade of moderation and “campaign à la Trump,” by channeling the anger of disaffected working-class voters who have abandoned mainstream parties for the far-left as well as the far-right.
“I think that her campaign was too ‘cool,'” Le Pen told France Inter radio. “If I’d been in her place, I would have had a campaign like Trump’s,” he explained. “That’s to say, a wide-open campaign, very aggressive against those who are responsible for the decay of the country, whether right or left.”
Le Pen also expressed dismay that Marine had not emulated Trump by focusing on more “divisive” issues, like the perceived threat to Western civilization posed by mass immigration and terrorism, rather than discontent with the European Union.
Those comments suggest that Jean-Marie has not been watching the same campaign as the rest of France. To start with, Marine’s vaunted rebranding of the National Front seems to consist mainly of replacing the anti-Semitism of her father with the sort of virulent, anti-Muslim rhetoric embraced by Trump. Then there is the fact that she launched her second-round campaign by attacking her rival in the run-off, Macron, as a supporter of open borders, “mass immigration and the free circulation of terrorists.” Trump used almost identical language to vilify Hillary Clinton, at least after his campaign was taken over by Steve Bannon, one of Marine Le Pen’s biggest fans.
Far from welcoming her father back into the fold, Marine Le Pen has spent the past few days doing everything she can to distance herself from his toxic legacy, even temporarily stepping aside as the leader of the party he founded. She then declared, “I am not the candidate of the National Front,” during a live television interview on Tuesday night.
That claim provoked near-universal astonishment and a good deal of mockery.
While Le Pen’s opponents dismiss her effort to recast herself as a moderate — the Ivanka to Jean-Marie’s Donald — it is not hard to see why she sees it as essential to make herself electable.
By making it to the run-off with 21.3 percent of the vote in the first round this year, Marine has improved on her father’s showing in 2002, when he advanced to the second round with 16.9 percent. But she is well aware of what happened next that year: Jean-Marie lost the run-off in a landslide, as anti-fascist voters from every other party rallied around the unpopular incumbent, Jacques Chirac, even though he was suspected of corruption. (At a May Day rally just before that year’s second round, half a million protesters marched against Le Pen in Paris, holding signs with the slogan: “Votez escroc, pas facho” — “Vote for the crook, not the fascist.”)
To keep the same thing from happening again, Marine Le Pen’s supporters, including her father, are trying to split apart the unified front against her before it can form by praising Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left critic of the “rigged system” who won 19.6 percent of the first round vote.
Mélenchon, who blames the neoliberal economic policies Macron wants to continue for the rise of the far-right, has refused to endorse the former investment banker. On Tuesday, Jean-Marie Le Pen called that stance “very dignified.”
Macron’s campaign drew attention to those comments and expressed outrage at Mélenchon, noting that he showed no such hesitation in 2002, when he forcefully urged leftists to vote against Jean-Marie Le Pen — even if they had to “wear gloves” or use “clothespins” to hold their noses as they did so.
It was important, Mélenchon said then in televised remarks, to “push Le Pen down as far as possible.”
On Wednesday morning, a spokesman for Mélenchon, Alexis Corbière, said that even though the leader of the “France Unsubjugated” movement would not tell his supporters what to do in the second round, the only possible options were to vote for Macron, abstain or cast a blank ballot. “No one should vote for the National Front,” Corbière said. “I repeat: not one vote for the National Front.”
Despite that statement, and polls showing that half of Mélenchon’s voters intend to vote for Macron, and a third plan to abstain or spoil their ballots, Marine Le Pen has already adopted some of the far-left candidate’s language on economic insecurity.
“Macron is our enemy, he is our class enemy,” one young Mélenchon supporter told the Financial Times on Sunday, rejecting the prospect of voting for a banker who served briefly as the economy minister of the current, deeply unpopular president, François Hollande. “Macron is the hard 3 percent deficit rule, lower salaries, lower social protection and the Uberization of society,” the Mélenchon activist explained. (A European Union rule requiring national governments to keep deficits below 3 percent of their gross domestic product is detested by the left in France and other countries since it limits spending on social welfare programs even in times of crisis.)
In a nationally televised interview on Tuesday night, Marine Le Pen used exactly the same phrase as the Mélenchon supporter, claiming the tech-friendly Macron, whose new political movement has been compared to a start-up, wants “the widespread Ubérisation” of the French labor market.
Then on Wednesday, Le Pen seemed to tear a page from Trump’s playbook, by making a surprise visit to striking workers at a Whirlpool factory in Amiens, Macron’s hometown, and promising to save their jobs if she becomes president by preventing the company from moving its production to Poland.
Le Pen timed her visit to the factory to upstage Macron, who was meeting with union leaders from the plant nearby. When Macron emerged later to meet the workers, he was initially met with jeers and chants of “Marine! President!”
French journalists reported that the chanting had come from National Front activists who stayed behind after Le Pen’s departure to disrupt Macron’s visit.
But Macron got credit from some members of the press corps for staying with the workers much longer than Le Pen — she left after 10 minutes, he stayed more than an hour — and being willing to stream live video of the dialogue on his Facebook page.
In an exchange with one worker, Macron was asked if Le Pen’s charge against him was true, that he supported globalization. Globalization was a fact, Macron replied, and Le Pen’s promise to save France’s economy by withdrawing from the European Union was “a lie.”
The only way to save the jobs of 286 workers at the plant, Macron said, was to work to find a buyer for the factory after Whirlpool departs.
“The answer to what is happening to you is not to remove globalization or to close the borders,” Macron added, according to Le Monde. “Those who tell you that lie to you. The closing of borders is a false promise. Behind that, there is the destruction of thousands of jobs that need their openness.”