The Beneficiary of Bedlam Marine Le Pen Surges as Macron's Star Fades

The intense protests against President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform in France have put him on the defensive. Right-wing populist Marine Le Pen is reaping the benefits.
By Britta Sandberg in Paris
Adviser Renaud Labaye together with Marine Le Pen: "Our strategy is to win over voters, not alienate them."

Adviser Renaud Labaye together with Marine Le Pen: "Our strategy is to win over voters, not alienate them."

Foto: Alain Guilhot / Divergence

Maybe the most notable thing about Marine Le Pen on this Thursday afternoon is her tone of voice. Calmly and earnestly, the right-wing firebrand accuses French President Emmanuel Macron of setting fire to the country.

In her raspy voice, Le Pen says that France is currently experiencing a deep political crisis: "This is a complete failure of the government. And a complete failure for Emmanuel Macron, since it is his reform.” She then demands the resignation of Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne.

Just a quarter hour earlier, Borne announced in parliament – her voice raised to be heard over the chanting and jeering from the left-wing alliance known as the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES) – that the government was not going to put the controversial pension reform plan up for a vote in the National Assembly. This would mean that it would be enacted without parliamentary support. The move, while seemingly undemocratic, is rooted in the country’s presidential democracy, as outlined in Article 49.3 of the constitution.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 13/2023 (March 25th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Since then, the mood in parliament has been feverish. Immediately after Borne’s announcement, representatives from the left-wing party La France Insoumise (LFI) called for protests against the government to take place that same evening. The conservative Republicans appear to be facing a potential split after a number of lawmakers from the fraction refused to follow the party chair’s instructions to support the reform. The Socialists, who have been in shambles for years, have virtually no more influence. The Greens, too, are trying to find some form of relevance. Some observers even believe that the political meltdown could herald the end of the Fifth Republic, as the current constitutional order, in place since 1958, is called.

But Marine Le Pen, the 54-year-old leader of the right-wing populist Rassemblement National (RN) who has lost three separate bids to be elected French president, is in a cheerful mood as she stands before the marble busts in the Salle des Quatre Colonnes, speaking to gathered journalists. When asked how she plans to proceed in the face of the government’s move, she confidently states that she intends to file a complaint with the Constitutional Council and fight for a referendum. "And when I become president of the republic, I will replace this reform with our pension reform. And it will be a fair reform.”

It is her new promise – that she will get rid of this misguided reform at the top of France’s government once she is elected four years from now.

Never before have the prospects of France’s right-wing populists been as promising as they are this spring. No other party has profited from the battle over Macron’s pension reform to the degree RN has. Evening after evening, garbage dumpsters are going up in flames in French cities, with the televised news showing a seemingly endless reel of unrest on the streets. In Strasbourg, Nantes, Rennes and Paris, adolescents and university students are pushing the police to their limit with unannounced protests. It is exactly the kind of anger and paralyzed political atmosphere that benefits Le Pen and the RN.

The pension reform – and the manner in which the president has imposed it – unites all the elements that have always provided nourishment to right-wing populist movements, giving the impression of an out-of-control elite at the top that refuses to listen to the people and only pursues its own interests. This time, though, it’s not just Le Pen who is promoting this narrative, but also the unions, NUPES and the protesters themselves.

Unsettling Results

"It has put the Rassemblement National in the convenient position of not having to do much. The party can simply wait and then harvest the fruits of this conflict,” says Bruno Palier, political scientist at Sciences Po, the Paris university. Together with a colleague of his, Palier recently released an analysis for Tera Nova, a think tank, the results of which even he finds unsettling.

The two researchers set out to identify the milieus in which resistance to the pension reform is greatest. Two-thirds of all French citizens are opposed to the Macron plan, with workers and members of the lower-middle class feeling particularly affected by the increase of the retirement age from 62 to 64. In the second round of presidential elections last April, Le Pen received majority support from the two groups (67 and 57 percent, respectively). But a about one-third of voters in each group declined to go to the polls, representing a potential reservoir out of which Le Pen could attract new followers.

Palier says the current political climate in France is clearly in favor of Rassemblement National. And there is another factor as well, he says: "The partially inaccurate portrayal of the reform by the government served to promote the cliché that the elite always lie anyway.” That, too, is a key part of the narrative promoted by populists.

Polls confirm his prognosis: Macron’s approval ratings have plummeted in recent days, with just 24 percent of the country now believing that he is a good president, his worst result since the yellow vest movement in spring 2019. Le Pen’s ratings, meanwhile, have ticked up by three percentage points – but among the working class, she is up 18 points and among conservative Republicans, she has seen a gain of 11 percentage points. That makes her the sixth most popular politician in France, ahead of the prime minister, Macron and the left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Macron puppet at a protest in Paris against the pension reform.

Macron puppet at a protest in Paris against the pension reform.

Foto: Gonzalo Fuentes / REUTERS

After yet again falling short as her party’s presidential candidate last April, Le Pen suggested that she might decide against running a fourth time, but now, she is full of confidence. It is apparent in every interview she gives and every televised statement she makes. In response to a question last week as to whether she would be prepared to take the post of prime minister in the event of a government shake-up, she answered: "I am not afraid of power, rather I am impatiently waiting for it.” Still, she said, the position of prime minister would not be the proper place for her, and that others from her party are a better fit, should it come to that.

There is one man who has long been working toward the day when eternally scorned Marine Le Pen can move into the presidential palace and her reviled colleagues from the Rassemblement National can become members of cabinet. His name is Renaud Labaye, referred to as the "eminence grise” by Paris newspapers. Labaye says that he works in the shadow, or the semi-shadow, of Le Pen – and that is how he prefers it.

The man who so loves to operate in the background has agreed to a meeting in Brasserie Bourbon, an institution located just a few meters from parliament and frequented by lawmakers and top government officials. The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman is sitting at the neighboring table. Politicians from the traditional parties and those from the RN have, since the last election, become used to crossing paths in the same establishments and greet each other politely. Only the Greens, says Labaye, still refuse to say hello.

The 38-year-old is a bit of an outlier in the ranks of RN politicians with whom Marine Le Pen has thus far surrounded herself. A devout Catholic, Labaye grew up in a bourgeois family in Versailles, attending the prestigious Saint Cyr Military Academy before earning a master’s degree at an elite university for economic studies. He speaks quickly, is self-deprecating and has an easy laugh. Along with his fine, horn-rimmed glasses, he is wearing a marine-blue suit, a pink-and-blue tie and matching socks.

"Our political aim is the dissolution of the current government."

Renaud Labaye, adviser to Marine Le Pen

Reserved rather than boastful, he says he has always felt close to the nationalist right, but he has never actually become a member of the RN. "It’s the small bit of snobbery I allow myself,” he says, adding that it hasn’t ever bothered anyone.

Before he became an adviser to Le Pen, Labaye worked for four years in the Economics Ministry, a job he says he found rather boring. Since then, he has been part of Le Pen’s campaign team for presidential elections. And since last summer, he can be found at 8:30 every morning in his parliamentary office. In Paris, they say that there is hardly a speech held by an RN parliamentarian nor a proposal to amend a law that doesn’t cross his desk first. Labaye, they say, controls everything. It is a claim that he denies – allowing, however, that he does play the role of temple guardian.

"Our political aim is the dissolution of the current government. That is why I remove every sentence that could damage us and give others an opportunity to caricaturize us. Our strategy is to win over voters, not alienate them. That is why we have to be like those wrestlers covered in oil who are impossible for their opponents to grasp.”

It doesn’t always work: When an RN parliamentarian last November shouted, "back to Africa!” as a black lawmaker from La France Insoumise was speaking, the oil was suddenly gone. In terms of content, he was correct, insists Labaye, since the RN representative, as he says, was referring to refugee boats and not his colleague in parliament. "In terms of form, however, it was a disaster. A misstep that caused a great stir and must never be repeated.” The incident brought back memories of the Front National, as the party used to be called, and of Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, who used to run the party with an authoritarian dominance. Back then, a bit of open racism was seen as on message. When Marine took the reins in 2011, she sought to cleanse the party of such overt bigotry – and it is now Labaye’s task to provide the party with a patina of respectability.

The Assemblée Nationale, French parliament, is now the party’s springboard to power, as French daily Le Monde writes. On that stage, the fewer mistakes the better. A lot has changed for RN since it became the largest opposition party last June, capturing 88 seats. The party is no longer on the fringes of the system: It is a central pillar. RN lawmakers hold positions on the committees, the party has a deputy parliamentary president, it can play a role in determining the parliament’s agenda and it receives guaranteed media time.

Right at the beginning of the legislative period, Labaye ordered male RN parliamentarians to always wear suits and ties and the women to wear dresses or pantsuits – and to consistently treat the institution of parliament with respect. This has resulted in recent months in a well-dressed RN fraction that largely sits in silence. During the battle over pension reform, they submitted fewer amendment applications than members of the governing majority, and they have rarely taken the floor in parliamentary committees. In numerous plenary debates, they have seemed surprisingly lackluster.

"We Are Making Strides"

But Labaye’s strategy isn’t so much about being involved in the creation of as many laws as possible than of proving the party’s leadership credentials. Of demonstrating that the RN can be just as serious and sensible as their opponents. "We have to convince voters that France will not plunge into chaos if we win the next election, and that we will simply push through our platform,” says Labaye. "We have long been lacking in respectability. But we are making strides.”

In numerous surveys, the RN is now seen as the most credible opposition party – because it has been able to set itself apart from the bickering left-wing populists of the LFI and because it sometimes even votes together with the conservatives or the governing party if it has to. The highest praise for the party recently came from the government’s labor minister, who said that Le Pen has behaved in a more republican manner than the lawmakers from the LFI.

As a next step, says Labaye, he intends to have the party add to its palette of political issues. Things like immigration, security and criminality, which used to be the RN’s bread and butter, have long since reached the political mainstream, he says. "Others are now taking care of them for us, even if everyone knows who holds the copyright. We will now start talking about the protection of children, continue the debate over the purchasing power of French consumers and speak about energy issues.”

He then grabs his two mobile phones from the café table, bids a polite farewell and returns to his office to read draft laws and amendment applications.

The party has been in the process of reorganizing itself for the past several months. In November, Marine Le Pen relinquished the position of party chair to 27-year-old Jordan Bardella so that she can focus exclusively on her parliamentary work. Under his leadership, Bardella pronounced, the Rassemblement National is to become more modern, more female and more professional. On the day of his election, he established new party committees and appointed their members.

It's early December on a houseboat diagonally across from the Eiffel Tower. Bardella is hosting an RN youth organization on this rainy Friday evening as they search for a new name. A long line of people is waiting at Quais de la Seine to board the vessel, among them a number of young women in short skirts and blazers, and men wearing white shirts and ties over jeans. Or dark-blue quilted vests like their new party leader.

Marine Le Pen together with party chief Jordan Bardella. He wants to make the party younger, more feminine and more professional.

Marine Le Pen together with party chief Jordan Bardella. He wants to make the party younger, more feminine and more professional.

Foto: Alain Robert / Sipa Press / action press
"When you get involved, our promise to you is that you will become part of a new elite."

Rassemblement National (RN) party chief Jordan Bardella at an event for young party members.

Inside, pink-and-gray cocktail chairs await the party’s young generation as tourist boats sail by outside, their spotlights – normally used to light up the city’s sights – trained on the RN up-and-comers as they prepare the future of their party.

The official segment of the event takes place belowdecks, beginning with an appearance by Bardella. As he struts up to the microphone, he almost hits his head on the ceiling – Bardella isn’t just tall, his shoulders seem to have grown much broader of late as well. Marine Le Pen’s brother-in-law is said to have advised him to add a bit of muscle to his upper body. And now he is standing there, urging the crowd to avoid becoming fatalistic in the current political situation.

"Everyone here, each and every one of you, can become active in changing something. And when you get involved, our promise to you is that you will become part of a new elite. We need you. We will have a huge number of appointments to distribute.”

Attracting Younger Members

In "Anéantir” (Annihilate), the new novel by writer Michel Houellebecq, a young candidate from the RN wins the 2027 presidential election – a hardly disguised reference to Bardella.

Since last summer, the party says, it has been receiving 30 to 50 percent more membership applications from people under the age of 30. "They are coming to us because they believe we have a future,” says Pierre-Romain Thionnet, 29, who heads the party’s youth organization. Two other factors have also been fueling the trend, Thionnet believes: "Our success in parliamentary elections last June, and the appointment of a 27-year-old to lead the party in November.” Bardella is now seen as living proof that young people can end up in positions of influence in the RN.

Head of the party's youth chapter Pierre-Romain Thionnet: "They are coming to us because they believe we have a future."

Head of the party's youth chapter Pierre-Romain Thionnet: "They are coming to us because they believe we have a future."

Foto: Denis Allard / Leextra / opale / laif

At RN party headquarters in the 16th Arrondissement, the offices of the two young politicians are adjacent, and they have known each other for years. Despite all of their protestations that they also focus on environmental policy, digitalization and housing shortages, the two of them pursue classic right-wing politics. Shortly after he became head of the party, Bardella moved to replace more moderate RN functionaries.

Furthermore, he has taken no steps to distance himself from the conspiracy theory known as the "grand remplacement,” which holds that there is a movement afoot to replace French people with other ethnicities. On the contrary: France, he said in his first speech as party chief, cannot become "the hotel of the world.”

Bardella skillfully serves two separate currents within the party, says right-wing extremism researcher Sylvain Crépon: "He is capable of advocating for radical, identitarian positions, while at the same time being seen as the young, modern face of the RN and, despite his young age, as a calming, balancing force. He intentionally plays both roles.”

Last Tuesday, the fifth day after Macron’s decision to push through pension reform without parliamentary approval, Marine Le Pen filed a complaint with the Constitutional Council in an attempt to block the reform. She is far from the only one to have done so. Because the government simultaneously cited several articles of the constitution when introducing this bill, thus reducing parliamentary debate to just 50 days, even moderate constitutional lawyers believe that an examination of its legality is justified.

That same day, hundreds again gathered in the city to demonstrate against the pension reform. By the time evening rolled around, the crowd on Place de la République had swelled to over 3,500. Police would later report that the propensity for violence among the protesters was even higher than within the yellow vest movement several years ago.

An anti-Macron protest in Rennes. Officials say that the propensity for violence is even greater than during the yellow vest movement.

An anti-Macron protest in Rennes. Officials say that the propensity for violence is even greater than during the yellow vest movement.

Foto: Jeremias Gonzalez / AP

At 6:30 p.m. that evening, the RN hosts an event to dedicate the party’s new training center, located in an 18th-century palace. The idea is to ensure that RN personnel are better prepared in the future. The guests include party members, parliamentarians and functionaries between the ages of 20 and 80. A lot of men, not so many women.

At 6:15 p.m., Marine Le Pen walks into the building in the company of her shadow, Labaye. She briefly greets party allies before heading for the corner of the entrance hall where three heavily armed officers of the Police Nationale are standing.

She asks them how things are going for them these days. The trio describe the situation on the streets, then they ask for selfies with the politician. Le Pen hands her overcoat to an assistant and gives him the mobile phones of the police officers so he can take a few pictures, then poses with each of them.

"I’ve heard that Emmanuel Macron has nightmares because I might succeed him as head of state. Is there anything better than knowing that you are in the nightmares of the president? I can tell you: There’s not much more I can ask for."

Marine Le Pen

When asked later why he wanted a photo with Le Pen, one of the officers says: "Because she listens to us, because she understands us and because she shows us genuine appreciation. Not just lip service like all the others. I have saved more lives than many others, and she knows how to show her appreciation.” The police and military are among the most reliable reservoirs of support for the right-wing populists. But they haven’t always been particularly open about it.

Le Pen is already on the way to the elevators so she can briefly freshen up before the event – an opportunity for a brief conversation with this season’s political profiteur.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you noticed that things are currently changing, Ms. Le Pen?

Le Pen: Of course. People are now coming to us who never previously wanted to be seen with Rassemblement National. Even our opponents see that we are closer to power than ever before.

DER SPIEGEL: One almost has the impression that you have been working specifically for this moment.

Le Pen: It’s not just an impression, it’s the truth. A road is now in place to lead us into the Élysée. Just that nobody knows, neither you nor me, how long this road will be. But at the end of that road is the Élysée Palace.

Le Pen stops in front of the elevators and then turns around.

"You know what is interesting? I’ve heard that Emmanuel Macron has nightmares because I might succeed him as head of state. Is there anything better than knowing that you are in the nightmares of the president? I can tell you: There’s not much more I can ask for.”

She then heads down to the basement – the woman who would so like to shake up this republic.

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