Le Pen has a habit of turning up at protests when the optics might benefit her – joining for example a major demonstration against anti-Semitism in Paris in 2018. But Le Pen has avoided the huge protests over pension reform, as have other senior RN figures like the party’s de jure leader Jordan Bardella.
When he disrupted French politics with his 2017 presidential victory, Macron ran as someone “neither on the left nor on the right” – a stance characterized by his trademark expression “en même temps” (at the same time). This is the apt phrase to encapsulate Le Pen’s approach to the strikes, as she has distanced herself from the protests while excoriating Macron for his pension reforms and his short-circuiting of parliament to pass the law.
Le Pen ran against Macron in the 2022 presidential elections opposing his policy of raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, proposing to keep it the same except for lowering it to 60 for those who started work before the age of 20. Over recent months she has called for a referendum on pension reform.
When Macron used the French constitution’s contentious Article 49.3 to evade a parliamentary vote on his pension reforms on March 16 – turning a tussle with the unions into a crisis – Le Pen demanded the dissolution of the National Assembly. She railed against Macron for amplifying the turmoil, telling AFP the following week that the president “chose to give the French people another slap in the face by saying: ‘look, everything that’s gone on will achieve nothing, nothing; there’ll be no dissolution of parliament, no cabinet reshuffle, no U-turn, nothing; we’ll just carry on as if nothing happened’”.
Alongside this fierce opposition to Macron, Le Pen condemned the setting on fire of Bordeaux town hall and a police station in Brittany’s Lorient during the protests on March 23.
Le Pen has also suggested there should be limits to the rubbish collectors’ strike and condemned the refinery blockades that have caused fuel shortages throughout France: “As soon as the rubbish collectors’ strikes causes health problems for the French population, I think the interior minister must intervene to ensure there are no health problems. It’s not possible,” she told BFMTV on March 20. “The same goes for the refineries. Blockades shouldn’t be allowed. […] I tell people they must express their opposition while respecting the law.”
This en même temps stands in sharp juxtaposition to the strategy of NUPES, the bloc of left-wing parties dominated by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed or LFI). RN and NUPES were both beneficiaries of Macron’s malaise in the 2022 parliamentary election campaign – with RN becoming the opposition’s largest single party and NUPES the opposition’s largest inter-party alliance in the National Assembly.
RN and NUPES are at opposite ends of the political spectrum on cultural issues. But they share leftist economic stances couched in populist style – meaning they are competing for many of the anti-system voters who detest Macron’s liberal economics and aloof manner. Whereas RN displays ambivalence, NUPES vociferously backs the protest movement.
During the weeks of caustic parliamentary debate preceding Macron’s use of 49.3, NUPES MPs hurled fierce, sometimes incendiary rhetoric against Macron and his party. One LFI MP even called Macron’s Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt a murderer; Dussopt subsequently described Le Pen as “more republican” than NUPES MPs.
The leftist bloc tried to obstruct Macron’s bill by putting forward nearly 18,000 of the almost 20,500 parliamentary amendments tabled. But RN MPs were a quiet presence; even Macron’s Ensemble (Together) bloc put forward more amendments than they did.
‘Letting NUPES do all the shouting’
RN’s approach to pension reform is a strategy to “create a contrast with NUPES”, noted Sylvain Crépon, a lecturer at the University of Tours specializing in the French far right. “Staying calm while LFI MPs go off on one gives RN an air of managerial legitimacy.”
Since her party’s seismic breakthrough in the legislative polls last year, giving it 88 MPs compared to eight in the previous vote, Le Pen’s strategy has moved from the “de-demonization” of her party to “normalization” – a shift illustrated by her rule that all male RN MPs must wear a tie in the chamber
“Le Pen herself has been pretty much invisible from the debate, beyond making very few contributions, saying the retirement age should be kept where it is,” said Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University. “She’s letting NUPES do all the shouting and screaming while she sits back and lets them do all the work for her.”
Polls show RN is the party benefiting most from France’s crisis. RN’s leadership seems “trustworthy” on pensions for 40 percent of the population, the best score for any party, according to a Harris Interactive poll published on March 22. If early parliamentary elections took place, RN would gain the highest vote share at 26 percent, seven points up from their performance last time, according to an Ifop poll for Le Journal de Dimanche published on March 26.
“Le Pen’s strategy has paid off in terms of broad public appeal,” Smith put it.
On paper, her en même temps could be a difficult balancing act given that RN’s two core constituencies – bourgeois voters near the southeastern Mediterranean coast and working-class voters in the deindustrialized north – have divergent class interests and attitudes to the upheaval over economic reform.
“There is an uneasiness there about the strikes amongst that southeastern constituency; many traditional right-wing and far-right voters don’t like it,” Smith observed.
“But it’s not very difficult to square by saying the troublemakers are just anarchist black blocs, regardless of whether or not that’s the case,” Smith continued. “So keeping those two constituencies together is not so problematic for RN at the moment. It could well be a problem if they were elected.”
At the very least, Le Pen has four more years in the comfort of opposition before the 2027 presidential polls. But she certainly seems to think the pension reform crisis will benefit her – repeating over the past weeks of turmoil the same mantra: “RN are the real alternative! After Emmanuel Macron, it’ll be us!”
This article was adapted from the original in French.