A week to the day after the U.S. election, Marine le Pen was still smiling.
“I don’t feel isolated at all. In fact, I feel less and less politically isolated,” she told reporters this week, going on to list countries that she believes are like-minded. “The UK, Russia, the U.S., probably Austria tomorrow. There are starting to be a lot of us.”
The leader of France’s far right National Front (FN) was at Paris’s Hotel Napoléon this week to deliver the closing speech at a party conference.
The mere rustle of her arrival drew the media out of the main conference room and around her. By all measures, she was the event, as she has been almost daily since Donald Trump’s victory.
Le Pen has been making headlines across western media for being among the first to congratulate the U.S. president-elect and for declaring the emergence of a new world order that she says makes the impossible now possible.
“On peut rendre possible ce qui était présenté comme impossible : ce que le peuple veut, le peuple le peut.” #20hMLP
Despite the hype, not everyone is ready to hand her the reins.
“There are still very big differences between France and the Trump vote,” says Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on extremism and director to l’Observatoire des radicalités politiques in Paris.
First among them is a civic commitment to voting in France that makes the low turnout in the recent U.S. election almost seem like heresy here.
“In France, if you do not vote, you’re considered a second-class citizen,” said Camus.
Some European countries, such as Belgium, even have compulsory voting, he said.
According to Camus, it’s not just a matter of how many voters show up, but whom they support.
“Trump won with a majority of blue-collar votes and about 50 per cent of those with the highest incomes. So far, the National Front hasn’t been able to achieve that, mostly because of their economic policy.
“People in the highest income bracket are afraid of leaving the EU, of returning to the old French currency, of broader state intervention. That’s not what they want. They want a free market economy, and that’s not what [Le Pen]‘s selling.”
Upending the table
Le Pen has been hammering away at the “establishment” and the “elites” for decades and promoting her populist, nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-EU agenda.
Camus says in this regard, Le Pen, the consummate outsider, is in a good position.
“I really believe the French want to ‘renverser la table,’ as we say in French — upend the table, meaning change the elite, change the system, break with law, setting themselves free from any kind of previous commitments that appear to be flawed,” he says.
“When it comes to that, Marine Le Pen has a very big advantage.”
That impulse, and Trump’s win, appears to have changed the equation in the leadership race for France’s establishment right-wing party, les Républicains.
The first of two votes will be held this Sunday.
Seven people are running, but the three establishment candidates — former prime minister Alain Juppé, former PM François Fillon and former president Nicolas Sarkozy — have been trading off the top spot in the polls this week.
“Until Trump was elected, I really believed Juppé would be selected and elected,” says Camus. “He’s a moderate conservative and all polls show that he’s the best candidate against Le Pen.”
But since Nov. 9, Fillon and Sarkozy, the more conservative candidates, have surged, partly by tapping into their inner contrarian.
Fillon has suggested renewing France’s relationship with Russia so as not to be left out in the cold as the U.S. and Russia talk about closer ties.
Meanwhile, Sarkozy has broken away from political correctness on radicalization and immigration.
“Islam must integrate in the Republic, it’s not up to the Republic to adapt to Islam,” he tweeted in September.
According to Camus, Sarkozy is “the only one willing to say things similar to Le Pen.”
The FN’s traditional base of support is remote, rural and white, and so one of the party’s key strategies in the upcoming election is to try to make inroads in the suburbs.
Inside the overcrowded, overheated conference room at the Hotel Napoléon, National Front party members pitched their program for conquering France’s troubled banlieues.
Known for their poverty-stricken, crime-ridden housing projects — originally built for France’s immigrants — the suburbs have been the site of some violent confrontations, including the 2005 riots that saw Paris burn and last November’s shootout to take down Abdelhamid Abbaoud, the leader of the Paris attacks.
“Suburbs are key,” said Jordan Bardella, president of the citizens collective Banlieues patriotes, or Patriotic Suburbs. “We’re talking about five to eight million people. And, unfortunately, they’re plagued by all of France’s problems — but tenfold.”
Bardella has been a card-carrying member of the FN since the age of 16. Now 21, he’s an elected local official and part of Le Pen’s campaign team.
“The institutions there, the rule of law, the requirements of assimilation, have all been abandoned, leaving the suburbs disconnected from the Republic,” he said. “So the objective is to fully reintegrate them into the nation.”
Law and order comes first
The FN’s program includes economic and social strategies but re-establishing law and order is the first and “indispensable condition to solve the suburbs’ problems,” said Le Pen.
Under an FN government, police and military forces would have additional powers and be returned to their former strength and numbers. The same goes for customs guards, who Le Pen believes are essential to protecting France’s borders, which are “filled with holes like a piece of Swiss cheese,” she said.
Military service would be compulsory once again. School uniforms would be mandatory, and each of France’s administrative departments would get its own colour to better promote regional strength and character.
Camus agreed that it sounds a little like North Korea, “but it’s France, too,” he said.
“I want to stress that France was not built on immigration. We had lots of immigrants from North Africa, China, Spain, Italy, but we are not a country built on immigration,” he says.
“And so we have this very strange way of saying, you have to assimilate, which means you have to leave everything behind. To me, it’s totally unrealistic. But that’s the way the we are,” he sighs.
The second round
Camus believes the suburbs are out of Le Pen’s grasp because her party has little to offer immigrants there.
“If you’re a working-class Muslim and really on the fringe of society, and you want to change the system, you still would not vote for a party which is so opposed to immigration and Islam that it wants to ban the hijab and refuses to build new mosques.”
The suburbs are ground the FN needs to breach if Le Pen is going to have a chance in the second round of the presidential election next spring.
“That’s her big problem,” says Camus. “The FN is very good at the first ballot, but gets nothing on the second, simply because they don’t have any allies. No other party accepts them as a partner. They are alone.”