How has Marine Le Pen come within reach of the French presidency?

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen has surged in the polls and is likely to face incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron in a tight second round. Her journey to this point has been nothing if not turbulent.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen is within reach of the French presidency.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen is within reach of the French presidency. How did she get here? (Photo by Jean-Christophe VERHAEGEN / AFP)

Marine Le Pen has fought for years to make the far-right party she inherited electable, and now appears to have a real chance to challenge incumbent Emmanuel Macron for the French presidency this month.

Short of a major upset, polling suggests she will reach the run-off on April 24 against the centrist after Sunday’s first round vote.

And this time Macron is not assured of the support of the traditional united front of mainstream French voters that has seen Le Pen and her father off in previous elections.

Her strong performance is in large part thanks to her ability to soften her image in the 11 years she has led the former National Front, which she renamed the National Rally (RN) after expelling her father Jean-Marie in 2015.

Following a humiliating drubbing from Macron in a television debate before the 2017 election on Europe and economic policies, this time Le Pen has focused on cost of living issues in the face of rising inflation.

PODCAST Could Marine Le Pen become the next French president?

But the detail of her programme has changed little including measures like removing benefits from many immigrants, repudiating the primacy of EU law and closing the door on most asylum seekers.

The 53-year-old has also enjoyed cover from the emergence of Eric Zemmour, a bombastic TV polemicist who is still further to the right, and even more anti-Islam and anti-immigration.

“We’re within the margin of error to beat Emmanuel Macron,” National Rally interim president Jordan Bardella said Monday after the latest polls.

“The momentum in Marine Le Pen’s favour has never been this strong.”

But political scientist and expert on the extreme right Jean-Yves Camus cautioned that the final points to take a candidate to 50 percent of the vote “are the hardest to win”.

Family affair

Le Pen’s life has been marked by the legacy of her openly racist father, a veteran of the long war in Algeria that ultimately led to the former French colony’s independence.

French people forced to flee Algeria and their descendants — the so-called “pieds noirs” — remain a crucial base of support for the party in the south.

When she was young “it wasn’t easy for people to go out with Marine Le Pen” based on her family name, she told celebrity magazine Closer in an interview that aimed to present a more humane image.

“I remember one man chose to break up with me, the pressure from his social circle was so heavy.”

Twice divorced, she said she is now happy being single.

READ MORE 5 things you didn’t know about Marine Le Pen

After training as a lawyer, she began her career defending illegal immigrants facing deportation, but later returned to the family fold and to her father’s party.

Under her leadership since 2011, the party has enlarged its appeal to people in France’s formerly Communist-voting northern rust belt.

Her expulsion of the elder Le Pen, who once called the gas chambers of the Holocaust a “detail of history”, has also helped temper its toxic image.

The tough years following the 2017 defeat saw Le Pen purge still more senior RN members judged harmful to the party’s image, while her niece Marion Marechal — a former MP and popular figure on the French far-right  — has switched her support to Zemmour.

The Le Pen name remains touchy enough that most RN campaign posters refer to the candidate simply as “Marine”.

Radical programme

Experts have warned that the laws Marine Le Pen says she will pass would overturn historic French principles.

“This text represents nothing less than an exit from the constitutional framework France has lived in since the Revolution,” constitutional law expert Dominique Rousseau told Challenges magazine.

Le Pen’s plans include a so-called “national preference” for hiring French workers over foreigners, exclusion of non-citizens from some social benefits and opting out of parts of the European Convention on Human Rights.

READ MORE What are the candidates’ policies for foreigners in France?

That would mean “abandoning our (treaty) commitments and setting off a Frexit” — a French departure from the European Union said Serge Slama, a law professor at the University of Grenoble.

Meanwhile a backlash over Le Pen’s professed admiration for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who she met in 2017, has so far failed to materialise despite the war in Ukraine.

“For protest voters, international affairs, even if they’re among everyone’s worries, won’t be the first point of reference for their ballot,” said Anne Muxel, research director at Paris’ Centre for Political Research.

Le Pen has succeeded in playing on “great disruptions in our society”, Macron acknowledged on France Inter radio Monday.

“All this… creates fear. And those who play on fears are rising. I haven’t managed to hem them in,” he admitted.

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Newly appointed French Minister faces rape allegations

The final composition of the new French government was announced on Friday. A new investigation suggests that historic rape allegations against a newly appointed minister were ignored.

Newly appointed French Minister faces rape allegations

It didn’t take long for scandal to hit the France’s new government.

An investigation by Mediapart published the day after the final list of ministerial positions was announced revealed that two women have accused one of the appointees of rape. 

READ MORE Who’s who in France’s new government?

Damien Abad, the new Solidarity Minister denies the allegations and a police investigation into one allegation was dropped in 2017. But another could be about to open. 

Who is Damien Abad? 

Damien Abad is a 42-year-old son of a miner from Nimes in southern France who became the first handicapped MP to be elected in 2012. He has arthrogryposis, a rare condition that affects the joints.

Prior to his appointment as the Minister for Solidarity, Autonomy and Disabled People, he was the leader of the France’s right-wing Republicans party in the Assemblée nationale

What are the allegations? 

Two alleged victims, who didn’t know each other, told Mediapart that Abad raped them on separate occasions in 2010 and 2011.

The first woman described meeting Abad for dinner after having met him weeks earlier at a wedding. She said she blacked out after one glass of champagne and woke up in her underwear in a hotel bed with Abad the next morning fearing she had been drugged. 

A second woman who lodged a formal charge against Abad in 2017 said that he harassed her by text message for years. She eventually agreed to meet with him one evening. After initially consenting, she told him to stop – but her plea fell on deaf ears as Abad raped her. 

What does Abad have to say? 

The new minister denies the accusations.

“It is physically impossible for me to commit the acts described,” he told Mediapart – in reference to his disability. 

He admitted to sending “sometimes intimate” messages, but said he had “obviously never drugged anyone”. 

“I was able to have adventures, I stand by my claim that they were always consensual.”

Is he under investigation? 

The second alleged victim made a formal allegation against Abad in 2017. 

A subsequent investigation was dropped later that year after a “lack of sufficient evidence was gathered”.

Mediapart report that Abad’s entourage were not questioned by police and that the MP told investigators that he had no memory of the alleged crime. 

The first alleged victim flagged the abuse to the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics – an unofficial watchdog monitoring elected bodies – earlier this month. 

The Observatory has since brought the case to the state prosecutor, but it is unclear if another investigation will be launched.  

Who knew? 

The tone deaf appointment of Gérald Darmanin as Interior Minister in 2020 was controversial because at the time he was under investigation for rape. His nomination was met with street protests in Paris and elsewhere. Feminists accused (and continue to accuse) Emmanuel Macron of not taking sexual violence seriously. 

The investigation into Darmanin’s alleged crime has since been dropped.

Some will question whether the naming of Abad shows that lessons have not been learned. 

“Once again a minister  in the government of Emmanuel Macron accused of rape,” said Caroline De Haas, the founder of the #NousToutes feminist movement. 

The Observatory sent a message warning senior party figures in the Republicans and LREM about the allegations on Monday – prior to Abad’s nomination. 

France’s new Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne denied having any knowledge of the warning. 

“I am going to be very clear on all these questions of harassment and sexual violence, there will be no impunity,” she said during a visit to Calvados. 

“If there are new elements, if the courts are summoned, we will accept the consequences.” 

READ MORE Who is Élisabeth Borne, France’s new PM?

The Observatory meanwhile claims it has been ignored. 

“Despite our alerts, Damien Abad who is accused of rape has been named in government. Thoughts and support to the victims,” it tweeted