France's Le Pen sees opportunity in Yellow Vests

LePenPARIS - As the first French political leader to start campaigning for the European Parliament election, which will be held in France on May 26, Marine Le Pen is predicting “far better results” this year for her party and its anti-establishment, Euroskeptic allies.

Le Pen who is head of the former National Front party – now renamed National Rally – reckons the political balance in EU will be profoundly changed by the European elections in May, as voters continue to grow disillusioned with globalization and its failure to bring any economic benefits to ordinary people.

“The nationalist parties, the patriotic parties, the parties that want less European Union and are critical of the EU will record far better results than five years ago,” she said, speaking at her party’s headquarters in Nanterre, near Paris Friday.

“Will it be enough to form a majority in the European Parliament? I don’t assume anything," she added. "But the way the European Parliament works, the way the European Council works, will be upset by this powerful upswing,” she said.

The elections across 27 EU member states will be the most closely watched in decades as polls suggest that far-right and Euroskeptic parties are set to make significant gains.

As the head of France’s first opposition party, Le Pen is pitching her campaign against President Emmanuel Macron, the upstart pro-European centrist she lost to by a landslide in the runoff of the French presidential election in 2017.

Despite suffering a severe slump in popularity as the grassroots Yellow Vest protests flared across the country demanding economic justice since November, Macron has managed to claw back some approval. His rating in January rose to 27% in January, up 4 points since the previous month.

Political leaders like Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far-left France Unbowed have tried jump on the Yellow Vests bandwagon, without much success so far. The lack of appeal of these two parties, which usually attract people who feel marginalized, signals that the Yellow Vest protesters are wary of the political establishment.

"The influence of nationalist parties, first in Eastern Europe and then in Italy, which shares a border with France, has been increasing – this cannot be ignored,” said Paris-based lawyer and political commentator Arnaud Touati. “And some of the Yellow Vests’ claims, such as immigration, are the same as those of the National Rally. But at the same time, the latest polls show a tie between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, so it’s not game over yet.”

The Yellow Vests rebellion, which started in November, was sparked by protests of the rural poor and small-business owners as well as laborers and public sector employees disillusioned by mainstream parties and government policies. Protesters adopted the yellow high-visibility vests all French drivers are required to carry in their vehicle to protest initially against rising fuel prices.

Faced with repeated demonstrations, Macron launched a “Grand National Debate,” a three-month nationwide series of consultations with the public aimed at calming anti-government protests and convince protesters he’s not out of touch with French people.

The move seems to be working so far, with a recent Elabe poll showing for the first time that 56 percent of the French think the Yellow Vests should call off their weekly protests since they began more than three months ago.

According to January’s Ifop-Fiducial poll, the governing party has once again overtaken Le Pen’s National Rally in support in the European elections.

Still, Le Pen is convinced the Yellow Vests crisis is not over yet.

“The Yellow Vests … are the expression of the lower middle classes who have been squeezed by a spectacular tax hikes in the last 10 years. There is also a malaise, the feeling that they are not represented by political institutions in our country,” she said.

After the shakeup of the French political landscape during the last French elections, when the Socialist party and the mainstream conservatives reported heavy losses, Le Pen said she’s not afraid of the emerging movement and the voting intentions of its supporters. Some Yellow Vest leaders hope to enter politics by running in the European elections in May. But for the most part, the movement remains fractured into several groups that display often diverging views that range from far left to far right.

Le Pen thinks some may end up voting for her party, some will prefer far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, while others will abstain.
Cajoling disillusioned voters into the ballot box will be a key challenge in the run up to the elections for political leaders in France, where abstention has often been called the country’s main political party, particularly among the young and the less affluent.

“I’m not sure I will vote this time around. I still haven’t made up my mind,” said Agnès, a young mother of two from Nanterre. “The Yellow Vest movement has given voice to ordinary people who struggle to make ends meet, but I don’t think these elections will change anything for us.”

Photo: Marie LePen during a public meeting in Saint-Paul-du-Bois, France asking French voters to vote on the European Union Parliament elections on May 23, 2019. In her official Twitter account, she posted: "I say to the French: your power is the vote! Every vote placed in the urn is a useful contribution to pave the way for the liberation of the people!" #On Arrival"
Credit: Courtesy of Marie Le Pen's official Twitter page. (02/17/19)

Story/photo: 02/19/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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