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POLITICS

‘Combative’ Le Pen re-elected as head of France’s far-right

Marine Le Pen won re-election as head of France's far-right National Rally Sunday at a party congress, where she is seeking new impetus for her 2022 presidential bid after performing badly in regional polls.

'Combative' Le Pen re-elected as head of France's far-right
Marine Le Pen stands on stage during a congress of the party in Perpignan on July 4ht. credit: VALENTINE CHAPUIS / AFP

The National Rally (RN), which had been tipped for strong gains in last month’s regional elections, was left floundering after failing to win any of the 13 regions in mainland France.

The results raised questions about Le Pen’s strategy of trying to detoxify her party’s brand and position it as a more mainstream right-wing force.

But she faced no challenge for the party leadership, with her quest for a fourth term winning the backing of 98.35 percent of members in an online and postal ballot, RN announced on the second day of its congress in the southern city of Perpignan.

Addressing reporters, the 52-year-old trained lawyer said she felt “extremely combative” about her chances of winning the presidency on her third attempt.

“I have no doubts about what needs to be done for France,” said Le Pen, who will use a keynote address later Sunday to rally party faithful for the 2022 campaign.

Polls show the election coming down to another duel between Le Pen and centrist President Emmanuel Macron, who defeated the anti-immigration candidate handily in the second round of the 2017 vote.

But that scenario is no longer seen as a foregone conclusion.

Macron is also seen as being weakened by the poor performance of his Republic on the Move (LREM) party in the regional election.

LREM, which was founded in 2016, finished last of the big parties, winning just 7 percent of second-round votes in a contest characterised by record low turnout.

‘Virility’ call

Both Le Pen’s and Macron’s parties have downplayed the significance of the regional elections, saying they are a poor predictor of the presidential vote.

The big winners were the traditional parties of the right and left, the Republicans and the Socialists, which were quashed by Macron’s centrist insurgency in 2017 but appear to be regaining ground.

National Rally leaders have rejected suggestions that Le Pen’s strategy of toning down the party’s once strident rhetoric against immigration and the EU have cost it support.

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It was Marine Le Pen’s unabashedly extremist father Jean-Marie who sent shockwaves through France in 2002 when he beat a Socialist to land a spot in the run-off of the presidential election against the ultimately victorious Jacques Chirac.

Jean-Marie Le Pen was thrown out of the National Front (since renamed the National Rally) in 2015 after a series of anti-Semitic remarks and has loudly complained about its so-called “de-LePenisation”.

In a recent blog post he warned that  the RN needed to re-discover its “virility” and refocus on immigration and crime in order to mobilise its base.

In a sign that the party is nonetheless behind Marine Le Pen’s strategy of trying to soften the party’s image, one of her proteges, Jordan Bardella, was chosen on Sunday to stand in for her as party leader during her presidential campaign.

The media-savvy 25-year-old, who flopped in the regional elections in the greater Paris region, is currently the RN’s deputy leader.

Resurgent right

Recent opinion polls have made unhappy reading for Le Pen, showing that Macron would lead her in the first round of presidential voting and then easily win the run-off.

The latest survey by polling firm Elabe for BFMTV said that Macron would pick up 29-31 percent in the first round, compared with 23-25 percent for Le Pen, with the incumbent then winning the second round on 60 percent.

The emergence of a strong candidate on the traditional right could however cause an upset, both for Macron and Le Pen.

Former minister Xavier Bertrand, who won reelection as head of the northern Hauts-de-France region last month, has already announced plans to run for president.

But he faces several challengers for the support of mainstream conservatives.

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JOHN LICHFIELD

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

As the French government and unions continue their increasingly bitter struggle over pension reform, John Lichfield looks at who is winning the battle for public opinion and which side will back down first.

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

Over one million people took to the streets of France again on Tuesday to protest against the “cruelty” and “brutality” of a modest pension reform.

The crowds – 1.27m  in total –  were probably the biggest of their kind since December 1995 when the late President Jacques Chirac was eventually forced to dump a similar (but more radical) change in the French retirement system.

On the other hand, a second 24-hour strike against the wicked notion of working to the age of 64 was substantially weaker yesterday.  Trains, schools, oil refineries, power stations and government offices were disrupted but much less so than on the first “day of action” on January 19th.

Who is winning the war?

The government has certainly lost the communications battle. It had hoped that opposition to its pension reform would be melting by now. The numbers opposing the change have grown on the street and in the opinion polls.

And yet President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne show no signs of giving way.

Cold feet among the government’s parliamentary troops and allies on the centre-right will no doubt grow colder. There will be some extra concessions for women who have broken their careers to start families and, maybe, for people who started work in their teens.

But Macron is determined to stand by the “cruel, brutal, unjust” proposal that by the year 2030 French people should work officially until they are 64 – when most Europeans  already work until they are 65 are older.

He has little choice. He has painted himself into a corner.  His second term, scarcely begun, will be a domestic wasteland if he gives way.

We are therefore only at the start of the conflict. There will be two further days of action, or inaction, on Tuesday, February 7th and Saturday, February 11th. The text of the reform will go before the National Assembly on Monday.

The country is likely to be disrupted, periodically and maybe continuously, until the end of March.

Both sides now face awkward decisions on strategy.

The eight trades union federations have been unusually united so far. They have agreed a pattern of one-day strikes and marches of increasing frequency in the hope that rising numbers on the streets will somehow convince Macron that he cannot reform France against its will.

The small increase in the size of marches nationwide on Tuesday was a victory for the unions of sorts. But it fell short of the kind of mass revolt – 1,500,000 or more on the streets – that some union leaders had hoped for.

Radical voices within the union movement, including Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) now suggest that it is time to shift to a strategy of continuous strikes in key industries, from railways to oil refineries to power plants. Some sections of his federation are already threatening open-ended stoppages to try to bring the country to its knees.

It was, they point out, long strikes on the railways and elsewhere which forced Chirac to back down in 1995, not the scale of the marches on the street.

The more moderate union voices, led by Laurent Berger of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), say such a strategy would be a calamity. Long queues at petrol stations or a long shut-down on the railways and Paris Metro would anger public opinion.

The February holidays are approaching. A collision threatens between two French popular obsessions: the right to go on holidays and the right to retire early.

If the unions disrupt holiday travel, Berger points out, they will lose the support of part of the public on the sanctity of early retirement.

There is therefore a strong possibility that the united union front will shatter in the next couple of weeks.

Macron also face a strategic choice between soft and hard lines. That choice may already have been made.

Macron and especially his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne have tried so far to make the consensual argument that reform is needed to make the state French pension system more “fair” and to protect it from eventual collapse. That may be true but it is not immediately true.

Their hope was that voters of the centre and moderate left could be persuaded reluctantly to support a just and necessary reform. That approach has failed.

There are signs that Macron is switching to a different argument.

The French pension system is in permanent, massive deficit – €33 billion a year, equivalent to half the defence budget, is taken from general taxation to stop the pensions system for retired public workers from going bust.

The present system is a kind of official Ponzi scheme which only survives if active workers and their employers  pay the pensions of the retired. But there is a  permanent imbalance, which will grow worse in the years ahead. Only massive subsidies from the taxpayer keep the Ponzi scheme alive.

The pension system therefore acts as a ball-and-chain on the French economy, Macron and his government argue. It needs to be reformed, not just for the sake of future pensioners but for the sake of creating jobs now.

There is a great deal of truth in that. But it is, in French terms, the kind of unashamedly “right wing” or liberal argument, which Macron and Borne had hoped  to avoid.

The new government communications strategy abandons all hope of persuading the broad Left. It is aimed at centre-right voters and especially at centre-right opposition deputies whose votes the government needs to push the reform through the National Assembly.

The centre-right Les Républicains have long made exactly the economic argument about pension reform that Macron is now making. He hopes to galvanise, or embarrass, the waverers in their ranks.

Whether that works any better than the previous “just reform” argument remains to be seen. The French centre-right has never been celebrated for its consistency.

In any case, the government appears to be preparing not just one but two constitutional “jokers” or “trumps” to ensure that it wins the parliamentary card game on pension reform.

On top of Article 49.3 (which allows some legislation to be approved by decree without a normal vote), the government is considering cutting debate in the Assembly to 20 days by using the rarely employed “guillotine” powers under Article 47.1.

Either would be cue for much shrieking by the opposition and much anger, and some violence, on the streets. Macron’s popularity, already shrinking, would doubtless collapse.

In a sense, he has nothing to fear. He cannot run again. Après moi le déluge. It would be left to his potential centrist successors to pick up the pieces in 2027 against an emboldened Far Right.

But what a mess. What extreme methods – and what potentially extreme consequences – to enact what is, in all conscience, a sensible and modest reform.

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