This Time, French Conservatives Are ‘On the Move’

Marine Le Pen, otherwise known as the ‘Donald Trump of France’, lost the presidency to Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Republique En Marche! in 2017. Since then, Le Pen has continued to transform her party away from the leadership of her father and his anti-Semitic rhetoric and has even changed its name from The National Front to The National Rally. Despite the rebrand that Le Pen called a “historic moment”, her party remains focused on immigration, leaving the EU and French patriotism. In recent years, Macron has faced violent protests, the most notable being the Yellow Vest movement. If the 2022 presidential election were held today, analysts predict Le Pen could outperform Macron in the first round of the elections if they were held now.

So how has Le Pen achieved this?

National Rally’s rebranding has caused a pivot away from the toxicity associated with her father’s tenure. Second, Marine Le Pen is appealing to the Yellow Vest movement and France's youth. But ultimately, Le Pen and right-wing Macron sceptics are poised, ready for the incumbent presidency to self-implode.

But do not be fooled. Le Pen is presiding over a period of renewal that extends far beyond a simple name change. Jean Messiha, a senior member of National Rally, has left the field. According to Messiha, “she [Le Pen] dissociates the Muslim religion from radical Islamic ideology”. Le Pen’s main focus in 2017 was immigration and the fear of Islam, however it seems with Messiha’s departure, the main electoral focus of French conservatism will shift once more towards the failings of the EU and President Macron.

Le Pen’s party made headway in the polls during the Yellow Vest protests. In a bid to appeal to those angry with Macron and his apparent elitism, Le Pen said that she stands by the “poor workers, admirable single mums and needy pensioners”. Le Pen has preserved her status as a viable representative for anti-establishment populists across France and has maintained that this fight is “a battle between nationalist and globalists”. She is however, not alone in seeking to garner the anti-establishment vote. The far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is also working to wed himself to the Yellow Vest movement by framing the issue around capitalism. This suggests the next election may be a competition between the two extremes.

In the UK, there is a tendency to generalise young voters as being committed leftists, yet the largest demographic for National Rally support comes from voters aged between eighteen and twenty-four, where Le Pen polls at forty percent. This is in large part, thanks to Le Pen’s promotion of Jordan Bardella to the party’s vice-presidency. Bardella, a 23-year-old master of soundbites, was elected a Member of the European Parliament in 2019. Through Bardella, National Rally has worked to highlight the high levels of youth unemployment and reduced social mobility as key talking points for the next presidential election. The future of French conservatism is its youth.

It seems the future of centrism is dying in France with Macron’s party, Rassemblement National, having faced devastating defeats at municipal elections. Macron’s inability to lead and fix the problems of terror attacks, high taxation, the cost of living and ever-growing fuel prices shows that centrism in France has a due date and it says 2022.

French Conservatism has remained Eurosceptic, anti-immigration and nationalist. Le Pen will continue to draw upon France’s youth and may well become its president in 2022.

Haydn studies Politics and History at Loughborough University and is interested in American Politics and political theory. He Tweets @Haydn_mill.

Image: Franck Dubray / Zuma Press