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March 10, 2021

Europe

FRANCE: The Le Pen risk – Part II: Not-so-moderate policy

BY Antonio Barroso

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( 3 mins)
  • Following last week’s piece on Marine Le Pen’s electoral chances, this note covers the policy risks attached to a potential victory of the far-right politician.
  • Although little is known about Le Pen’s policy platform, the National Rally (RN) leader has progressively softened her views on issues such as France’s European Union (EU) membership.
  • Despite this strategic moderation, however, Le Pen could still cause significant disruption at home and on the European level if elected.

With 13 months to go before the 2022 presidential election, Le Pen’s policy positions remain unclear, especially on economic matters. However, judging by some of her statements, the RN leader is trying hard to show she is moving to the center on several issues. For instance, she recently wrote an op-ed stating that France should repay all of its public debt, in clear contrast with her previous views. She has also seemingly ditched the idea of France leaving the Euro and/or the EU, and her party is not even talking about getting rid of the border-free Schengen area anymore.

Le Pen’s progressive moderation aims to attract a larger share of the center-right vote, especially older individuals that might have been put off by the far-right politician’s radical ideas in 2017. The RN leader’s positions also contrast with those of other prominent candidates such as far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, who continues to say debt defaults are inevitable. Overall, Le Pen is following a strategy of “presidentialization” since her defeat of 2017, trying to remove from her image all the potential elements that might limit her ability to grow electorally beyond her strong core of far-right supporters.

Still Le Pen

Le Pen’s “normalization” does not mean she is unlikely to wreak havoc if elected, however. Regarding the EU, the idea of a referendum on France’s membership seems to be off the table. But RN’s program for the 2019 European elections still proposed radical changes such as the European Commission’s dissolution and devolving powers to member states. While such an outcome is unrealistic, Le Pen could become a constant disruption by blocking EU decision-making to obtain specific concessions (such as revising the Posted Workers Directive or the Schengen Agreement). Rather than a breakup of the bloc as feared in 2017, the biggest risk attached to a Le Pen victory in 2022 would probably be a deadlocked Union.

As for domestic policies, the impact of a Le Pen administration would not be straightforward. First, RN would have to obtain an absolute majority in the legislative elections that will follow the presidential poll, which is not a given. Second, it is unclear whether the far-right candidate has enough qualified policy experts around her to form a competent cabinet. Le Pen is allegedly being advised by a group of anonymous high-level technocrats who call themselves “The Horatii.” However, little is known about the team’s size or the actual policy ideas of its members. While they are allegedly pushing Le Pen to abandon some controversial proposals, such as bringing the retirement age back to 60, the RN leader continues to favor a fiscal mix of significantly higher spending and lower taxes.

Overall, it seems unlikely that a Le Pen administration would implement a “centrist” policy platform. After all, she would still have to be responsive to her core electorate, composed of voters with lower education levels who reject President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-market policies. The same applies to a candidate like Jean-Luc Melenchon. In fact, the worst-case scenario in terms of political risk would be a Melenchon-Le Pen runoff in 2022, given both would probably generate significant disruption both at home and in Brussels.

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