Marine Le Pen’s New Look
Detest her politics as one must, one also has to admire the way Marine Le Pen has played her cards. After her disastrous performance in the final presidential debate, she seemed to have no cards left. Rather than fight a losing battle with the seemingly invincible Macron, she withdrew from the field to bandage her wounds, regroup, and await the enemy’s inevitable misstep. Her patience has been amply rewarded. The Gilets Jaunes appeared as the answer to a prayer: out of nowhere emerged a movement not instigated by the now-renamed Rassemblement National but wholly in harmony with its anti-elitist message. Still she waited, aware of the danger of mounting the back of an unpredictable beast. Better to let it trample the adversary while remaining above the fray.
Eventually, she knew, a leaderless movement would feel the vacuum and seek a leader. Instinctively, she recognizes that her moment has arrived. But still she holds herself aloof from the always dangerous crowd–“une foule haineuse,” as no one will forget Macron called it. The last thing Le Pen wants is to appear as the leader of a howling mob. She still has to win over the 66% of the French who, despite their doubts about her opponent, harbored still greater doubts about her.
So hers is the strategy of serenity. Panic swirls all around her, but Madame Le Pen remains calm, even studious with her new glasses with their sober black frames. She confronts the incurably unserious Anne-Sophie Lapix, who asks, with her schoolgirlish smile, whether Mme Le Pen condemns the violence against LREM deputies. Working hard to suppress the smirk that rarely left her lips during the electoral campaign, Le Pen responds soberly that she condemns all violence against the deputies of the Republic, from whatever party they may come.
The tone has been set. Mme Le Pen’s mien is as presidential as possible, as if she were already filling le lieu vide where once Jupiter sat enthroned. She continues in this vein, proposing a “three-stage exit from the crisis” predicated on “institutional reform,” including full proportional representation (thus guaranteeing dominance by the RN), dissolution of the parliament, and new elections as the only way to restore the necessary “confidence” of the People in its government–a pronouncement Gaullian in its grandeur and thoroughly Le Pen-ist in its chutzpah. But still one had to guess at the smirk of contempt behind the imperturbable mask of authority. She addressed the interviewer as “Madame,” not Madame Lapix, as if to underscore the impertinence of being interrogated by a woman whose carefully made-up face and permanently vacant smile lacked the gravitas appropriate to a moment in which the Republic finds itself in such danger. The contrast between the two women allowed Le Pen to recoup most of her losses in the debate. Not only is she back, but she is ready, steady, and fully in command of the situation.
She even–unkindest cut of all–had a counter to the “but Europe” objection. Without mentioning the utter collapse of Macron’s ambitious European rhetoric, she noted that Europe was already moving in her direction. She would escape from “carceral Europe” with the assistance of “Matteo Salvini and the Austrian FPÖ.” And yes, she said, “We are preparing for an early election. Going back to the ballot box is the only way out of this crisis.” Whether this meant an early presidential as well as an early parliamentary election was left unclear.
Or was it merely the “popular referendum” she had in mind–that nebulous panacea that seems inexplicably to be gaining traction on all sides. Even Bruno Le Maire said the other day that “referenda are in the spirit of the Fifth Republic.” Yes, but it was a referendum that drove de Gaulle from office, and if Macron gives in to the sirens on this he will rue the day as much as David Cameron rues his foolhardy choice. Le Pen is now holding the high cards, however, so she can afford to place her bets in several pots at once. And she’s likely to win the next few hands, even if she isn’t quite ready just yet to break the bank.