2013 was a rough year for French President François Hollande. After a humiliating downward spiral, which included fissures within his Socialist Party (PS), a wildly unpopular gay marriage bill, and a hit-or-miss economic policy, Hollande became the country’s most unpopular president in modern history, creating plenty of opportunity for his political opponents along the way. And no one has taken greater advantage of Hollande’s missteps than far-right leader Marine le Pen.
Her Front National (FN) party was once a pariah movement at the fringes of French politics. But since taking over the FN presidency in 2011 from Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father and party founder, Le Pen the younger has engineered a remarkable turnaround that intensified in the wake of Hollande’s fumbles. The party has moved away from its anti-Semitic past, concentrating instead on Islam and immigration — hot button issues in a country that hosts Europe’s largest Muslim population.
Le Pen has also shaped her strategy around another issue foremost on French voters’ minds: the economy. Thanks to her focus on jobs — as well as efforts to paint Brussels as the devil behind France’s economic ills — Le Pen has broadened the FN’s cross-party appeal, drawing in voters from right and left. Though her support base remains the south of France, the FN has made significant gains in northern France, i.e., in post-industrial towns hard-hit by the 2008 global crisis, as well as among younger voters frustrated with France’s high youth unemployment. (The maneuver is familiar: in the 1990s, Le Pen’s father cultivated young supporters with few job prospects.) Le Pen has done all this with a candid, approachable air that contrasts with her father’s harsher demeanor and deeply problematic baggage (which includes a conviction for Holocaust denial.)
Thanks to Le Pen’s party reboot — dubbed the “Marinisation” — the FN has muscled a place for itself among France’s leading parties: Hollande’s Socialists (PS) and the center-right UMP. The FN’s approval ratings are mounting — one third of French voters agree with Le Pen’s ideology, according to a September poll — even as its opponents are seeing their numbers crumble. In 2013, for the first time in two decades, French voters who view the party as a “danger to democracy” are no longer the majority: 47% who do, versus 47% who don’t. (Here, Le Pen owes a heartfelt “merci” to former president Nicolas Sarkozy, whose efforts to co-opt FN voters in the 2012 presidential election contributed to the far-right party’s normalization.)
The FN phenomenon is mirrored across Europe, where populist parties in countries such as Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Greece have increasingly outmaneuvered the political mainstays. Cognizant of the growing tide of Euroskepticism, Le Pen announced in November that her party was creating a Franco-Dutch alliance with Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the hopes of forming a new Eurosceptic bloc in the European Parliament. Elections are scheduled for May 2014 and the FN, for the first time in its history, is leading voter intentions for a national race with 24%, compared to 19% for the Socialists, and 22% for the UMP.
Not that Le Pen’s ascent has been without setbacks. Her recent efforts to force French media to stop labeling the FN as an “extreme right” party were met with ridicule. Her October 31 remarks following the liberation of four French hostages after three years in the captivity of African Islamists elicited an even greater furor: Le Pen intimated during a radio interview that because two of the men had long beards, they must have converted to Islam during their detention. In December, the high-profile defections of three FN candidates in as many weeks, as well as embarrassing departures from the new, tempered party line by FN members, compounded the gaffes.
Nonetheless, Le Pen remains France’s third-most-popular politician, behind Interior Minister Manuel Valls and Nicolas Sarkozy. A strong FN showing in municipal elections in March 2014 — the party is expected to win 16% of votes, tripling its 2008 showing — and in European elections two months later could have broad consequences, not only on E.U. policy, but on the rightward swing of French politics as the UMP and PS both scramble to offset the far-right’s gains and woo its supporters. That said, the Front National is far from having the numbers needed to occupy the Elysée presidential palace – for now — and remains largely dependent on protest votes.
But since taking the reins of the FN, Le Pen has shown herself to be an inveterate chameleon blessed with consummate political timing. And she has France’s highest office in her crosshairs. Hollande and company need to adjust course in time for 2017.