Marine Le Pen is charismatic in a way that her father, Jean-Marie, was not. Eloquent, well-dressed, and composed, she offers a message of economic and national security that understandably resonates with diverse segments of the population. She seems to have successfully rebranded the French National Front as a stern, even-handed right-wing party that advocates for policies like stronger border controls and a more independent economy. With her poll numbers closing in on challenger Emmanuel Macron’s as the May 7 election approaches, the reality of a Le Pen presidency seems closer than ever. However, if she is elected, her supporters should prepare for disappointment. Her government and policies will fall short of the expectations of some of her key demographics.
Le Pen’s strongest draw arguably lies in her anti-EU economic and political agenda. Labeled as “nothing less than the complete exemption for France from all four of the EU’s ‘fundamental freedoms,’” (freedom of movement for goods, people, services, and capital), her 144-point plan encompasses stronger border checks, reinstatement of the franc as the main currency, and restriction of travel in the Eurozone. But the radicalness of these proposals means that they face barriers both at home and abroad. For example, consider the Brexit-style referendum she proposes to institute within her first six months in office. France’s status as a member of the European Union is written into its constitution, so that such a referendum would require a constitutional amendment. Such an amendment would have to be submitted by the prime minister rather than the president. Given that 60 percent of the French population is still aligned with centrist Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen will likely face a liberal parliament and prime minister in the June parliamentary elections if she wins the presidency. In addition, any changes would also have to go through the “pro-European constitutional council.” These are significant hurdles to instituting such a dramatic measure.
However, Le Pen has already come up with a contingency plan in case winning the presidency, a parliamentary majority, and the constitutional council turns out to be harder than expected. If forced to work within the EU framework, Le Pen “would seek to build a coalition of member countries that also wanted to reform, or unravel, the EU,” like Spain, Portugal, Italy, Finland, and Austria. But even then, her attempts to move the needle in Europe are likely to face heavy resistance. Given the animosity her anti-EU sentiments would create among other major EU players like Germany, some EU officials have expressed confidence that most EU member states would actively work against the building of such a coalition, further thwarting her efforts. Therefore, some of her most ambitious promises of extricating France from the EU could fall flat in the face of institutional resistance, both at home and abroad.
Yet, the most interesting aspect of Le Pen’s rise in popularity comes not in the form of rooted anti-EU activists, but her younger support base. Frustrated by unemployment rates of nearly 25 percent, French youth see promise in Le Pen’s emphasis on economic security and a wealth of opportunities for advancement within the evolving National Front. Le Pen’s plans for keeping her promises are highly controversial. For example, she has said that her government will institute preferential treatment in hiring practices for French-born citizens over legal immigrants. She promises that policies like these will return strength to the economy and bring back jobs to French youth.
However, this enticing plan is also unlikely to be realized under a Le Pen presidency, for two main reasons. The first lies in the financial sector: the banking industry’s lack of confidence in Le Pen as an economic leader could lead to panic in stock markets, which could even trigger a banking crisis if it becomes extreme enough. Although unlikely, even the possibility of such an event could potentially destabilize the French economy, leaving young people even more frustrated. A second roadblock comes in the potential side effects of Le Pen’s moves. As president, Le Pen would tax imports and low-paid labor from Eastern Europe, a move that would prove highly damaging to the Eurozone single market. For young job-seekers in France, this has two implications: higher prices on imported goods, as well as more jobs in lower-paid professions. When pledging their support to Le Pen, this is most likely not what these young voters in mind. The jobs in growing and attractive industries that they seek are unlikely to come to them on the basis of Le Pen’s increasing economic isolation from the Eurozone’s single market, which means that they will be left even more frustrated and paralyzed.
No one should discount the significance and influence of the growing numbers of angry, mobilized young French voters. Given the National Front’s rebranding, there is a wealth of opportunities for young people to become involved and advance quickly through party ranks: 20 percent of its local councilors across France are under 34, compared to only 13 percent of left-wing councilors. Her young supporters are more likely than other young people to turn out to vote on May 7, and British and American examples in 2016 have proven the potential of such mobilized subpopulations in their national elections. As the energetic force behind Le Pen’s recent rise in popularity, this growing movement is unlikely to die out under her presidency or following her campaign. Rather, it will continue to grow and evolve as more of its younger members continue to take on positions of power within the party, local, and national governments.
Even if Le Pen loses to Macron, her campaign signifies a “political realignment” that will far outlast the election or even her presidency. It is not the extremity of her campaign promises, and their feasibility, to which we should be paying attention. Rather, it is the upcoming generation of politicians and policymakers who will watch, evaluate, and modify the National Front’s policies and the French nationalist movement that demand analysis.
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