Little Christmas cheer for struggling France's far-right Marine Le Pen

By AFP/Anne Renau, Katy Lee   December 14, 2017 | 07:06 pm PT
Little Christmas cheer for struggling France's far-right Marine Le Pen
French far-right Front National (FN) party president Marine Le Pen attends a press conference on the launch the 'Forum Ecole et Nation' (Forum School and Nation), a new political structure dedicated to teaching, at the party's headquarters in Nanterre, northwest of Paris, on December 8, 2017. Photo by AFP/Stephanie de Sakutin
Claiming she's fighting for the French, Le Pen now faces a bunch of problems that analyst says will be difficult for the far-right advocate to bounce back. 

Criminal charges, banking problems and the loss of her right-hand man: French far-right leader Marine Le Pen insists she is not going anywhere after her presidential defeat, yet her woes are mounting.

In a sign of the questions swirling six months after she lost to Emmanuel Macron, the National Front (FN) leader was forced into an angry declaration Wednesday that she is staying put.

"I will not stop," she told TF1 television. "I'm fighting for France and for the French."

The FN has been riven by infighting since Le Pen lost the presidency with just 33.9 percent of the vote in May, in an election that had been seen as a bellwether of support for populists in Europe.

The far-right are not the only ones soul-searching: France's mainstream left and right have also struggled to pick up the pieces after Macron's new centrist En Marche party bulldozed its way to victory on a promise to get France working again.

But Le Pen, who worked hard to "detoxify" the FN brand but stumbled badly in a final TV debate with Macron, notably on Europe, has had a particularly difficult few months.

The National Front won far fewer seats than hoped in June's parliamentary elections -- just eight out of 577.

Both she and her party face criminal charges over allegations that Members of European Parliament illegally claimed millions of euros in EU expenses to pay France-based staff.

On the financial front, meanwhile, the party has also been in hot water, with HSBC and Societe Generale banks last month shutting several accounts belonging to the FN and its leader.

A furious Le Pen accused them of political discrimination, which Societe Generale denied.

On Thursday, she issued a video appeal for a "patriotic loan", urging supporters to "show your love of France" by lending her money at three-percent interest.

Flustered in parliament 

Both in parliament and on television screens, the usually media-savvy Le Pen has been a rare sight since her defeat.

At the foreign affairs committee in French parliament, which counts her as a member, her participation has also been sporadic.

When she did appear this week, the trained lawyer appeared confused, speaking about the wrong amendment and excusing herself by saying she was "lost in my documents".

Sylvain Crepon, a sociologist specializing in the far-right, said it was unclear whether Le Pen was just going through "a low point and if she will bounce back".

"This wouldn't be the first time the National Front has gone off the radar," he added.

In 1998, the party went into decline after some members quit to form a rival movement, he noted.

It rebounded in time for Le Pen's father Jean-Marie, the FN's founder, to win a historic place in the 2002 presidential run-off.

Down but not out? 

FN spokesman Sebastien Chenu acknowledged Le Pen "may have been disappointed" after the election but said it would be going too far to call her "despondent".

"Things have to be rebuilt little by little after a defeat," he said.

Yet FN members have been tentatively raising the question of whether it may be time to look for a new leader, although there has as yet been no open call for Le Pen to go.

"We have a leader whose image has been dented," admitted one party official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Is Marine Le Pen in a position to get her image back... or would it be wiser to ask the leadership question?"

Le Pen has been left vulnerable by deep splits over whether to drop the nationalist economic rhetoric she campaigned on and shift back towards traditional priorities such as identity and immigration.

Under fire as the architect of her unpopular pledge to leave the euro, her top aide Florian Philippot quit on bad terms in September and one of her MPs has since defected to Philippot's new party.

In a further blow, the new leader of the rightwing Republicans, Laurent Wauquiez, has rebuffed her advances for a potential alliance.

Troubles aside, Crepon does not see "who could succeed Madame Le Pen, because no one has the charisma or legitimacy to fight her for the leadership".

And while the presidential defeat was stinging, analysts point out Le Pen scored nearly double the number of votes her father won 15 years earlier -- a historic advance.

If the election was re-run, an Ifop poll in October found that 21.5 percent of voters would back her in the first round -- slightly more than she actually got.

Her electoral base is still there, says Joel Gombin, a political scientist who has studied the FN vote.

"It just needs to be mobilized," he said.

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