News analysis

Can any rival pen in Le Pen's ambitions?

National Front leader has her broad appeal, weak competitors, global trends in her favour

European Union lawmakers have lifted the parliamentary immunity of leading French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, allowing prosecutors to investigate accusations that she violated a ban on the distribution of violent images or those inciting terrorism.

But although Ms Le Pen could face prosecution for tweeting uncensored pictures of people killed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, no legal proceedings are expected until well after the two-round French presidential elections, scheduled for April and May.

And all opinion polls indicate that the scandal over the terrorist pictures and separate accusations of alleged financial malpractices in her far-right National Front party would make no difference to the lead which she currently enjoys in the electoral campaign.

The 48-year-old EU parliamentarian is the daughter of Mr Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front in 1972 as a French nationalist, anti-immigrant movement.

For decades, the Front was considered just a fringe political movement composed of old fascists. Yet, since she took over in 2011, Ms Le Pen has transformed it into France's most resourceful, and Europe's largest, far-right movement.

She did so by being ruthless to anyone who defied her orders, including her father who was expelled from the party after he publicly dismissed the Holocaust, in which six million European Jews perished, as "a detail of history".

Yet, her biggest political asset is her ability to appeal to a broader audience. Unlike previous French right-wing leaders who played on their staid family lives and links with the Catholic Church, Ms Le Pen's private life is unconventional. She is a twice-divorced mother of three, cohabiting with another leading National Front politician.


Ms Le Pen's biggest political asset is her ability to appeal to a broader audience. She is a formidable public speaker - amusing, engaging yet combative - and she defies every other right-wing stereotype. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The platinum-blonde Ms Le Pen is a formidable public speaker: amusing, engaging and combative all at the same time. But she also comes across as a vulnerable woman, a working mother in a political world dominated by men.

And she defies every other right-wing stereotype. The National Front now has more high-ranking gay political figures than any major party in France.

Paradoxically, Ms Le Pen's current legal difficulties also work in her favour. Allegations that she circulated gruesome pictures of victims of terrorism play well with her core voters, who often equate Muslims with violence. And the more she faces investigations of financial impropriety, the stronger is her claim that she is merely hounded by a French political elite determined to halt her seemingly unstoppable rise.

Ms Le Pen can also count on the support of around 20 per cent of France's Jews, a remarkable figure for a movement previously accused of anti-Semitism. The party also appeals to the young.

Its standard-bearer is Ms Marion Marechal Le Pen, a cousin of the leader who became France's youngest-ever MP at 22.

Ultimately, however, Ms Le Pen's biggest asset is that all her current presidential competitors are weak.

Mr Francois Fillon, leader of the centre-right Republicans, is a wealthy grandee mired in his own financial scandals. Mr Benoit Hamon, leader of the centre-left Socialists, is an unknown figure presiding over a discredited party.

And Mr Emmanuel Macron, a popular centrist independent candidate, has no party organisation behind him and may not be able to galvanise the nationwide vote.

Global trends also favour Ms Le Pen. The election of Mr Donald Trump is presented by the National Front as an example of a major power entrusting its fate to a populist leader.

Paradoxically, Ms Le Pen's current legal difficulties also work in her favour. Allegations that she circulated gruesome pictures of victims of terrorism play well with her core voters, who often equate Muslims with violence.

And the more she faces investigations of financial impropriety, the stronger is her claim that she is merely hounded by a French political elite determined to halt her seemingly unstoppable rise.

The only obstacle to her march into the Elysee presidential palace is France's two-round electoral system, under which a candidate needs to secure more than 50 per cent of the vote to win outright in the first round.

If nobody achieves that, the two top candidates go into a second round, with the winner being decided by a simple majority.

All opinion polls indicate that she would come first in the first round but that she would lose the second ballot to whoever stands against her because she remains too much of a polarising figure.

Still, opinion polls also indicate that if enough women are attracted to the idea of France's first female presidential candidate, or can be otherwise persuaded by Ms Le Pen, she could still win.

She has no doubt that this is precisely what will happen.

As she said recently, she remains determined to "make the impossible possible in France".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2017, with the headline 'Can any rival pen in Le Pen's ambitions? '. Print Edition | Subscribe