TIME France

Inside Job

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen speaking to thousands of people at her party's annual march to vote in European parliamentary elections this month to give her a platform for her anti-European Union cause.
Christopher Morris/VII for TIME Battle Cry Le Pen addresses supporters ahead of the European elections

France's Marine Le Pen wants to destroy the E.U.—by winning big at this month's European elections

When Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party, pulled into the tiny fishing town of Le Crotoy on April 28, it was the first time residents could remember a major political figure visiting the seaside community. So Henri Derosière, a 68-year-old fisherman whose family has lived in the northwestern town for generations, seized the moment. As Le Pen strode into a café in pressed jeans and black cowboy boots, Derosière cornered her, blurted out his message and barely paused for breath during a tirade that lasted 10 minutes. “All we get is European laws that are choking us,” he said, jabbing the air with his hand, his fingers inches from Le Pen’s face. “There were 1,250 boats three years ago. We are only 550 left now. There will be no fishermen left. The young are not even motivated anymore.”

Le Pen grinned with delight. She’s relying on this sort of anger to fuel what many observers believe will be an unprecedentedly strong showing for the National Front in the May 25 elections for the E.U. Parliament. Her populist, anti-E.U. campaign has been boosted by the economic challenges many French people are facing; France is suffering from a 17-year-high unemployment rate of 11% and struggling to maintain a fragile recovery from recession. The discontent felt by many French voters, Le Pen argues, positions the National Front to break the Socialists’ and conservatives’ decades-long dominance of French politics. The E.U. elections are important to Le Pen—but they’re just the first step in her plan to seize the Élysée Palace and bring an end to the E.U. itself. Sitting in her office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre the day after her visit to Le Crotoy, she makes a prediction that may be tinged with wishful thinking but nonetheless shows a confidence in the party’s prospects that would have seemed absurd even five years ago. “The National Front will be in power within 10 years,” says Le Pen, 45. “The National Front is the center of gravity in French politics. On both right and left, they are taking our ideas.”

To many French people, the very idea of Le Pen becoming a genuine force within French politics, let alone winning the country’s presidency or a majority in Parliament, remains both abhorrent and inconceivable. But the National Front’s rising poll numbers in France, and its recent success in local elections, suggest that what may once have come across as hubris now looks more like ambition. Two French opinion polls in late April predicted the National Front would come out ahead of all other French parties in this month’s E.U. Parliament vote, with a projected 24%. A third poll, on May 10, predicted a 28% vote for Le Pen’s party. Even if the party’s final share is lower than the polls suggest, it will likely win 10 to 20 of France’s 74 allocated seats in the E.U. Parliament, compared with the three it holds at the moment, two of them occupied by Le Pen and her father, the former National Front president Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Even that sort of surge is not enough to give Le Pen real power. But it’s likely that the National Front will have a significantly larger number of like-minded, non-French colleagues in the new E.U. Parliament—and that could change the shape of Europe. Right-wing parties look set to do well in several other European countries. A recent poll in the Netherlands suggests Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom could win more votes than any other Dutch party. Britain’s U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) could win a whopping 31%, ahead of the traditionally dominant Labour and Conservative parties, according to a poll conducted by the British research firm YouGov in late April. Anti-E.U. parties are also polling well in Austria, Belgium and Denmark.

Bloc Parties
The promise of a continent-wide surge in support for these parties has prompted Le Pen to plan the formation of what would be the first anti-Europe political bloc within the E.U. Parliament. The rules of the legislature require any transnational voting bloc to have at least 25 E.U. parliamentarians from seven or more countries. If Le Pen and her allies succeed in forming the new bloc, they would have the right to propose laws in the E.U. Parliament. That’s something the National Front has never been able to do in either the E.U. legislature or the French Parliament. (The National Front currently has just two seats in the French Parliament despite winning 17.9% in the last general election; the French electoral system favors larger parties.)

Le Pen has emerged as perhaps the key figure in piecing together a right-wing Europe-wide coalition, in large part because France has more seats in the E.U. Parliament than any other country except Germany—nearly three times the number of the Netherlands. Leadership of such a bloc would give her a far larger profile in Europe and increase her impact on French politics from inside the E.U. by proposing measures, which, if passed, would become law continent-wide—including in France.

“People keep saying, ‘If you don’t like the E.U., why are you participating?'” says Ludovic de Danne, Le Pen’s senior E.U. adviser, who has spent months negotiating partnerships with groups like the Lega Nord in Italy, the Sweden Democrats, Austria’s Freedom Party and the Belgian Flemish-nationalist party, Flemish Interest. “For the first time, we will have a strong opposition in the E.U.,” de Danne says.

Somewhat late, European politicians have grown alarmed at the potential damage Le Pen and her allies might do to the union’s longer-term plans. Having contested elections for years on a range of traditional issues, including environmental and labor protections, taxes and public health, mainstream parties across Europe are suddenly having to defend the existence of the E.U. itself, rather than simply specific policies. “For the very first time we are entering the European elections where there is no left-right cleavage,” the former center-left Prime Minister of Italy Enrico Letta told an audience of European politicians at a Madrid conference in February. “It will be a cleavage in favor of or against the E.U.,” he said. “These are elections that are, I believe, a risk to the future of Europe.”

Killing It Softly
For all their blustery rhetoric, the European politicians who would destroy the E.U. know they can only bring about their revolution in increments. Le Pen and her allies in other countries know they won’t win nearly enough seats in the upcoming elections to win passage of radical proposals like closing Europe’s internal borders or severely limiting immigration to E.U. countries. Yet if the bloc expands in the coming years, as Le Pen plans, it could, for example, succeed in pushing a few countries to hold referendums on E.U. membership—with the prospect of perhaps one member exiting. That would be a disastrous scenario in the eyes of many analysts.

Le Pen’s bloc would likely try to stifle all moves within the E.U. at increasing European integration, including sabotaging current plans for a new fiscal and banking union, which economists believe is key to ending the euro crisis and restoring growth. “We’ve transferred legislative, budgetary, monetary powers [to the E.U.],” she says. “Countries have fewer powers than each of the 50 states in the U.S.”

If Le Pen does put together an influential far-right bloc, then she will inevitably run the risk of becoming part of the Establishment—rather than fighting to topple it. Much like Wilders and Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, she has won votes and fame by rattling the gilded cage of those in power, with blunt talk and canny leadership. Her challenge now will be to change the French and European political systems from within while still appealing to voters who warm to outsiders.

Le Pen has recent experience of adapting to political realities while preserving the National Front’s reputation for tilting at the elite. She took over as the party’s president from her elderly father in 2011, and since then she has worked to tone down the party’s immigrant-bashing rhetoric and its patent racism (including her father’s record of anti-Semitic remarks). She has changed the party’s platform so that it focuses more on economic than social issues. Critics dismiss the changes as a PR makeover. And indeed, Le Pen, a compelling speaker who drives home her point without notes—she is a criminal lawyer by training—sometimes still laces her speeches with language that some might see as anti-immigrant. She told a predominantly white audience in the northern town of Abbeville on April 28 that France’s generous immigration policy was “a catastrophe,” and she told the Washington Post in April that France’s Muslim communities pose the real danger of anti-Semitism in the country.

Yet Le Pen rips into journalists who describe the National Front as far-right. “Ni droite ni gauche”—neither right nor left—is now a key slogan of the party. When the group began in 1972, many of the leading figures were French ex-paratroopers who’d fought in the brutal Algerian war, including Le Pen père. One generation on, the younger Le Pen’s energies are focused on building a base out of targeted constituencies wherever they are to be found on the political spectrum. It’s a strategy that’s beginning to work; in local elections in March, for example, the National Front snagged the traditional Socialist northeastern stronghold of Hayange. “Jean-Marie Le Pen was a kind of clown who instilled fear,” says Sylvain Crépon, a sociology professor at Paris Ouest–Nanterre La Défense University, who has written widely on the National Front. “Marine Le Pen’s strategy has been to normalize the party.”

The municipal elections in March made the fruits of that effort clear. The National Front fielded 597 candidates, in contrast to the strategy of her father, who neglected local races in favor of five doomed runs at the presidency. This time, the party clinched 11 mayoralties, including that of Hayange—almost four times its previous record haul in 1995. Eleven wins is still a tiny number, considering France has 36,682 municipalities. But it finally gives Le Pen the chance to prove that her party can hold executive office and put talk into action.

By shaving support from left and right, the National Front suddenly seemed a credible threat to both President François Hollande’s Socialists and the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) opposition party. The results also suggest that to some, voting for the National Front no longer seems a shameful act. Some of its policies seem positively mainstream. The party advocates lowering taxes and stopping foreign corporations from taking over French enterprises—proposals that some key figures in Hollande’s government support.

“You can’t say that the 21% of people who voted for us are all total morons,” says Patricia Chagnon, 51, a former tourism director in Abbeville, where 20.8% voted National Front in March. Chagnon, who won a municipal seat in the town, seems to embody the new-style National Front activist that Le Pen’s leadership has attracted—professional, middle-class and hardly marginalized. Chagnon is fluent in English and speaks Arabic well, spent years living in the U.S. and working in Sudan, and says she ditched her membership in the UMP after concluding that both of the main parties had disastrous economic policies. “Marine Le Pen is the solution for France,” she says. “She puts the common people first, not big business.”

The string of victories in March has left Le Pen with a ready-made network of activists across France who are, like Chagnon in Abbeville, plastering hundreds of towns with the National Front’s new E.U. election slogan, “Non à Bruxelles!” To voters like Derosière in Le Crotoy—he blames E.U. environmental controls and export quotas for devastating his trade—Le Pen’s message is a slam dunk: technocrats at the E.U.’s headquarters in Brussels control your lives and care little about you, France or French traditions. Le Pen says the E.U. is “a totalitarian structure.” The French Parliament, she says, now spends most of its time rubber-stamping E.U. directives.

Ready for Battle
At the National Front’s annual may Day rally outside Paris’ sumptuous opera house, Le Pen stands at a podium under a mammoth portrait of France’s sanctified teenage warrior Joan of Arc—the National Front’s cherished icon. In the 15th century, the Catholic young Frenchwoman helped lead the country in battle against the tyrannical English invaders and their European collaborators.

This time the foreign enemy comes in the form of Brussels. Le Pen tells voters France’s only option is to dump the euro and leave the union. That’s an appealing message to the millions of French taxpayers and other Europeans from the stronger E.U. economies who have helped foot the bill for the rescue of dysfunctional E.U. economies. Exiting the union, in her mind, is essential. “If we want to stay a free, sovereign country, we cannot remain in it,” she tells Time. “The E.U. is not reformable in its present form. It has to disappear and be replaced by a Europe of nations that are free and sovereign. You cannot reform it just by adjustments.”

But as Le Pen has herself adjusted her party’s strategy to help attract voters who might have been put off by her father’s National Front, so too could her opponents adapt. Le Pen says she has already seen French Socialists and conservatives adopt many of her ideas. The new French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in his previous job as Interior Minister, for example, advocated deporting illegal immigrants from the Roma minority, in an apparent echo of the National Front.

Le Pen could well lose ground if the lines between her party and the mainstream blur too much. Too radical, and the National Front remains marginalized. Too normal, and it loses its unique appeal. Her first high-profile decision after her party’s local victories in March was to reinstate pork on school lunch menus in National Front–controlled towns—a seemingly petty provocation of Muslims and Jews, but one that showed her base that she is still their champion. Balancing bigger power with the needs of angry outsiders will not be easy. “It’s a subtle equilibrium,” says Crépon, the Paris sociologist. For that reason, he believes, “Marine Le Pen will never be President of France.” He is probably right. Le Pen looks set to remain the rebel outsider. But even from the outside her power is clear. She is steadily nudging her foes—and possibly France and the rest of Europe—to the right.

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