After a fairly successful campaign for Marine Le Pen in her quest to master the art of shrugging off scandal and in her program of dédiabolisation (literally removing the devil) of her far-right party the Front National, Le Pen finishes her 1st round campaign in hot water. So is everything she has so far managed to dodge finally catching up with her?
With the first round of the French Presidential elections imminent, Marine Le Pen has caused quite a stir this week as she takes a leap into the ever-thorny issue of French history and national identity in World War II. She declared that France was in no way responsible for the rounding up of Jews at Vel d’Hiv, a Parisian stadium, to be later deported, reigniting accusations of extremism and anti-semitism at the heart of her party just a week before the presidential election.
Interviewed by RTL and Le Figaro Le Pen proclaimed, “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv…I think that more generally, if anyone is responsible, it is the people who were in power back then, it is not France per se.” Now this is exactly where the crux of the debate lies, is the Vichy regime viewed as representing France? Since President Chirac’s official appeal in 1995 to stop the ‘process of forgetting’ and to recognise that the anti-semitic operation had been carried out “by French people, by the French state” public opinion has been largely leaning into this reading. Current socialist president François Hollande went a step further by calling the Nazi-backed roundup, which resulted in the concentration camp deaths of thousands of Jews, a “crime” committed by the French state.
And yet Le Pen disregards this now widely held view and has attempted to excuse her comments through reference to the Godfather of modern French politics Charles de Gaulle. He claimed that the Vichy regime was not the true France, but that the real French Republican State existed within the framework of the Resistance movements who conserved French ideals and values. Why did De Gaulle push this message? Quite simply in an attempt to rebuild and reinstil national pride in France after the humiliation it suffered at the hands of the Nazi’s. The next thing to ask ourselves is therefore whether Le Pen was aware of the flurry she would instigate; parallels and links to De Gaulle could of course never hurt her chances. She went further: “France has been unfairly treated in people’s minds for years … We taught our children they had every reason to criticize it … So I want them to be proud of being French again.” In persisting that France should stop confessing shameful passages of its history, Le Pen may have been trying to reach out to historical party backers still loyal to her father, Jean-Marie, who repeated two years earilier that he still considered the Nazi Holocaust was a “detail” of World War II.
This is the dilemma Marine Le Pen has been facing: a battle to detoxify the FN whilst maintaining it’s founding support base. The widespread outcry such comments have provoked show her to have undermined some of her previous hardwork such as branding herself simply as ‘Marine’ to avoid the connotations that her father brought to the family name, and the choice of a blue rose as this campaign’s logo. For instance her main rival Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! was quick highlight this contradiction in Marine’s portrayed personality, ‘Nobody forgets that Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen.”
So we finally observe some signs of weakness from the far-right candidate who usually brushes aside all forms of allegation or scandal that are thrown in her direction. Crucially this is appearing virtually on the eve of arguably one of the most important Presential Elections seen in France since the establishment of the 5th Republic. Rubbing salt in wounds, the French prosecutor has asked the European Parliament to lift far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s immunity over allegations she misused EU funds in a fake job scandal. This would make Le Pen vulnerable to prosection which could ultimately compromise her path to the Elysée Palace. And to make matters even worse, candidate for the far-left party La France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has seen a surge in support, bringing him level in the polls with conservative candidate Fillon, a rise which could potentially see some floating voters drift away from Le Pen.
However, what we must keep in mind is the fact that it is in such hostile conditions that Marine Le Pen became the prominent force she is today. The (re)bringing into question of France’s role in WWII, brings her back into the foreground of media attention after a week where she found herself overshadowed by the carismatic Mélenchon. Evoking such a divisive topic, in a rather Trump-esque manner, it serves to resonate amongst the less-informed electorate an image of a politican who (in the words of such voters) ‘says what they want’ and ‘doesn’t care about bloody political corectness’. Her defiance in the face of the EU fraud investigation allows Le Pen to play the role of ‘victim’ of ‘le système’ (significant given the fact that in a survey for Libération, 52% of French people said they believed in the existance of a ‘system’). Similarly, outgoing President Hollande’s damning decalration thhat he would vote anyone but Le Pen contributes to her anti-establishment image and compounds her promise that she would bring change, appealing to vast swathes of the population who have been disappointed by the socialist President’s quinquenat.
So what impact will this late pressure on Le Pen have on the outcome of the elections? Only time will tell, yet it does appear that parts of the French electorate are beginning to wake up and smell the coffee, the question is, will it be enough.