One of the frontrunners in the French presidential election earlier this year, Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultra-right party National Front, is now under siege from her partymates and there are mounting calls for her to step down as party leader.
On the surface, her colleagues want to get rid of her because the party performed poorly in the recent French parliamentary election under her leadership, and also because she is currently engulfed by a corruption scandal over her alleged misuse of European Union funds.
The truth is, there are much more deep-rooted reasons behind the growing disaffection and grievances against Le Pen among the party faithful.
Her declining popularity among partymates reflects an ongoing and bitter line struggle between two major factions within the National Front.
Marine Le Pen and Florian Philippot, the deputy chairman, represent the anti-EU faction of the party, which has found its audience mainly in northeastern France, particularly the upper northeastern region of the country (Hauts-de-France), which is Marine Le Pen’s political stronghold.
The region, mainly populated by blue-collar workers, used to be the industrial heartland of France, but has declined significantly in recent years as many French companies have moved their production lines either to Eastern Europe or Asia, thereby resulting in a relatively high unemployment rate among the locals.
People living in this part of France believe they have been victimized by globalization and the European single market, and are therefore very much drawn to Le Pen’s anti-EU and anti-globalization rhetoric.
In contrast, her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, who was elected to the French National Assembly in 2012 at the age of 22 and became the country’s youngest lawmaker ever, and who declined to represent her party and seek re-election this year because of her rivalry with her aunt, is the leading figure of the anti-immigration faction in the party, whose supporters are predominantly well-off and conservative French living along the southern coast of the country.
Dismayed at the influx of both legal and illegal immigrants as well as refugees from North Africa, these people have a strong feeling that their “French identity” and their traditional way of life are seriously under threat, and are therefore drawn to Marion’s anti-immigration and sometimes even racist stance.
Many of these southern French are getting increasingly disappointed with Marine Le Pen’s equivocal and evasive position on whether to halt the influx of Middle East immigrants and refugees.
As a result, while Marine Le Pen has been focusing on winning the hearts and minds of low-skilled and blue-collar workers in the north with her anti-EU and anti-globalization stance, her niece Marion has found a strong audience in the south with her anti-immigration pledges.
Over the years the two have been competing for leadership in the National Front, and the party itself is also split over whether it should adopt anti-EU or anti-immigration as its main party line.
To a certain extent, what is going on within the National Front bears a striking resemblance to the Republican Party in the United States.
While GOP supporters in the north, particularly in the so-called Rust Belt, which refers to states that used to be the industrial heartland of the US, think they have taken the brunt of globalization, Republican voters in the south, particularly in the state of Texas, believe their way of life and the American values are under serious threat by Latino immigrants, both legal and illegal, who have already outnumbered local white Americans.
And the fact that Donald Trump was able to appeal to both Republicans in the north with his anti-globalization rhetoric and Republicans in the south with his pledge to build a wall along the US-Mexico border at the same time has proven instrumental in his election triumph.
However, in comparison, Marine Le Pen just doesn’t have the same luxury of being able to have it both ways.
It is because she understood perfectly from day one that the National Front would have no future in French politics as long as it remained branded as a racist party.
That is why ever since she assumed party leadership in 2002, she has been working aggressively to airbrush her party’s racist image in order to turn it into a mainstream political party and appeal to a wider demographic.
However, by doing so, she has inevitably alienated conservative and anti-immigration National Front supporters in the south.
Recently there have been calls among die-hard National Front supporters for Marion Marechal Le-Pen to take her aunt’s place in order to prevent the party from continuing to deviate from its original cause of promoting “a France for Caucasian French only”. And due to their ideological differences, relationship between the two has remained poor.
Ironically, the person who is going to determine the future of the National Front could be neither Marine Le Pen nor her niece, but instead, President Emmanuel Macron.
If his centrist and pro-EU approach can continue to thrive over the next five years, the future of the National Front would definitely remain gloomy, no matter whether it is branded racist or not.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 7
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
– Contact us at [email protected]