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France's Le Pen rebrands to face Macron

by The New York Times | May 17, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

LA TRINITE-SUR-MER, France -- A year before France's next presidential election, Marine Le Pen is expected to be President Emmanuel Macron's main challenger in a rematch of the 2017 vote. For the past four years, Le Pen has been trying to rebuild her credibility after a poor campaign that was marred by an incoherent message and punctuated by a disastrous debate against Macron.

She has tweaked her economic message, shedding the party's opposition to the euro and European Union, a stance that alienated mainstream conservatives. She now talks of forming a government of national unity by picking the most competent, seasoned individuals, including figures from the left, who would add gravitas to her party.

Even as she hews to the party's harsh nationalist, anti-immigrant vision, Le Pen has redoubled efforts to "un-demonize" her party, which has long been associated with the anti-Semitism, xenophobia, Holocaust denialism and colonial nostalgia of Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father and the party's founder.

"The National Rally, formerly the National Front, has gone from being a protest movement to an opposition movement, and is now a government movement," Le Pen said.

Nicolas Lebourg, a political scientist, said Le Pen, who is running for president for the third time, has struggled to bounce back from her shaky performance in 2017. While she projected a modern image when she took over the party from her father 10 years ago, she taps into fears running through French society without offering a positive vision for the future, Lebourg said.

"It's possible she'll earn very good results in the first round, maybe even come in first, and then lose in the second round," Lebourg said, adding that her projected strong showing owed less to her "charisma" than pessimism in France. "It's more about the French fear of decline."

The government's poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic has undermined faith in the state and deepened a sense of general national decline, Lebourg said.

Macron has also been bogged down in a series of crises, including the Yellow Vest movement. Attacks in recent months have also heightened fears of terrorism and accelerated Macron's shift to the right to fend off Le Pen.

To Le Pen, Macron was globalization's candidate, whose presidency was one of "disorder, fragmentation and fracturing of French society."

"Me, I'm the candidate of the restoration of the authority of the state," Le Pen said, adding that she would protect France's national interests.

She has shed part of her populist economic agenda, especially her proposal to drop the euro. She said she now believed that the stability offered by the common currency outweighed the negatives.

Keeping the currency is believed to help Le Pen court traditional conservatives, the same group targeted by Macron.

Her party has gained further credibility, Le Pen argued, in the local governments that her party controls, mostly in depressed areas in the north and south of France.

On immigration, Le Pen has said government policies were too lax, and she blamed immigration for fragmenting French society, and giving rise to Islamism and terrorism.

Le Pen wants to sharply reduce immigration and deport those who are in France illegally. Acquiring French citizenship should be made harder, she said, and contingent on respecting French "customs" and "codes."

She also said she had no problems with Islam, but vowed to crack down on Islamism, or any attempt to replace French Republican values with religious laws.

But her critics see a problem in how she defines Islamism. For Le Pen, the Muslim head scarf is inherently an expression of Islamism, and wearing it should be banned in public.

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