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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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POLITICS

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

French President Emmanuel Macron will get a taste of public resistance to his second-term reform agenda this week during the first nationwide strike called since his re-election in April.

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

The 44-year-old head of state has pledged to push ahead with raising the retirement age having backed away from the explosive issue during his first five years in power.

But having lost his parliamentary majority in June, the pro-business centrist faces severe difficulties passing legislation, while galloping inflation is souring the national mood.

Despite warnings from allies about the risk of failure, Macron has tasked his government with hiking the retirement age to 64 or 65 from 62 currently, with changes to start taking effect next year.

“I’m not pre-empting what the government and the parliament will do, but I’m convinced it’s a necessity,” Macron told the BFM news channel last Thursday.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, the former investment banker argues that raising the retirement age and getting more people into jobs are the only ways the state can raise revenue without
increasing taxes.

On Thursday, France’s far-left CGT union, backed by left-wing political parties, has organised a national day of strikes, the opening shot in what is expected to be a months-long tussle.

Though the protests were originally planned to demand wage increases, they are now intended to signal broad opposition to the government’s plans.

“We’re against the raising of the retirement age,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, told the LCI broadcaster last week. “The government’s arguments don’t stack up.”   

Unpopular

Public opinion towards pension reform and the strikes is likely to be decisive in determining whether Macron succeeds with a reform he called off in 2020 in the face of protests and Covid-19.

An opinion poll last week from the Odoxa group found that 55 percent of respondents did not want the reform and 67 percent said they were ready to support protests against it.

But a separate survey from the Elabe group gave a more nuanced picture. It also found that only a minority, 21 percent, wanted the retirement age increased, but a total of 56 percent thought the current system no longer worked and 60 percent thought it was financially unsustainable.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to work for longer, but I don’t know anyone who thinks they are not going to work for longer,” a minister close to Macron told AFP last week on condition of anonymity.

“Maybe I’m mistaken but I’m not sure that the turnout will be as large as the unions and LFI are hoping for,” he said, referring to the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) political party that has backed the strikes.

The second decisive factor will be how the government introduces the reform in parliament where Macron’s allies are around 40 seats short of a majority.

Some favour slipping it into a social security budget bill that will be voted on in October — a stealthy move that will be denounced as under-handed by critics.

Others think more time should be taken for consultations with trade unions and opposition parties, even though they have all ruled out working with the government.

Macron prefers the quicker option, one senior MP told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In both scenarios, observers expect the government to resort to a controversial constitutional mechanism called “article 49.3” that allows the executive to ram legislation through the national assembly without a vote.

If opposition parties unite against the measure or call a no-confidence motion in the government, they could trigger new elections.

The reform was “ballsy but dangerous,” one ally told French media last week.

Macron II

Success with the pension reform and separate changes to the unemployment benefits system will help the president re-launch his image as a reformer, experts say.

Since winning a historic second term in April, he has been caught up in the Ukraine war crisis amid reports the parliamentary election setback in June left him disoriented and even depressed.

“We’ve slightly lost the narrative of Macronism,” political scientist Bruno Cautres, a researcher at Sciences Po university in Paris, told AFP recently.

The challenge was giving the second term a “direction” and showing “how it builds on the results of the first”, he said.

“The essence of Macronism, which does not have a long history, is the leader and the programme,” added Benjamin Morel from Paris II university.

Since being elected as France’s youngest-ever president in 2017, Macron has made overhauling social security and workplace regulation part of his political DNA.

“Emmanuel Macron can’t easily back away from a reform because burying a reform, it’s like disavowing himself,” Morel said.

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