Prizes abound for Le Pen's far right in historic French legislative elections

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The duel between Emmanuel Macron's incumbent majority and Jean-Luc Mélenchon's pan-leftist NUPES coalition duly dominated the spotlight on Sunday after the first round of France's legislative elections. But far-right National Rally flagbearer Marine Le Pen had a red-letter night at the ballot box. Even at the low end of seat projections for next Sunday's run-off, Le Pen will have shored up party finances, seen off a pesky political foe and guaranteed herself a gilded soapbox for five more years.

The far right is rarely a focal point in French parliamentary polls. It has long been a political truism in France that the legislative elections – 577 individual seat races in two rounds, majority wins, for the lower-house National Assembly – favour parties that can cast a wide net and cultivate parliamentary alliances, leaving the country's predominant go-it-alone far-right party, founded by Marine Le Pen's rabble-rousing father Jean-Marie half a century ago, out in the cold.

But on Sunday night Le Pen's National Rally (RN) dented that conventional wisdom with a historic showing, pending next week's run-off. Standing for re-election in northern France, Le Pen herself fell just short of winning outright in the election's opening round with 53.96 percent of the vote. She'll wage a comfortable run-off next Sunday while her party vies for dozens of new parliamentary seats. And she has managed it all despite running a conspicuously casual campaign – once she'd returned from a long holiday after April's presidential election, that is.

"The second round offers us the opportunity to send a very large group of patriotic deputies to the new National Assembly," Le Pen declared Sunday, smiling in the wind on an outdoor stage in Hénin-Beaumont, northern France, pledging to represent "honest folks" in the chamber with a far-right group vast "as never before in the political history of our country".

After all votes were counted on Sunday night, Le Pen's RN scored 18.68 percent of the vote, up from the 13.2 percent the party managed in the first round in 2017. RN candidates advanced to the run-off in more than 200 races across the country, up from 120 five years ago. Pollsters project the National Rally is likely to win enough seats to form an official group in parliament – Ipsos-Sopra Steria projects 20 to 45 RN seats, well above the minimum 15 for a group – unlocking funding and powers at the pulpit that the party hasn't enjoyed in decades.

Stacked odds

All of which counts as a triumph for a far-right party in French legislative elections. Indeed, the National Rally and its predecessor, the National Front, have only won 10 legislative races this century, despite strong showings in presidential elections scheduled only weeks before. Despite her appearance in the May 2017 presidential run-off against Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen's RN only won eight National Assembly seats that June. Apart from a political exception in 1986 – when an experiment with proportional voting saw 35 far-right National Front candidates win seats – the far-right faction had never had the numbers to form a group in parliament. Indeed, the far-right threat has long been a key argument in France against any permanent shift to a proportional voting system.

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"It's the first time the National Front, now the National Rally, can hope to have a parliamentary group in the majority two-round French system, which was supposed to prevent it from obtaining that. So, on a historical level, it's clear that Marine Le Pen has succeeded in doing what the National Front (National Rally) never managed until now," explained political sociologist Erwan Lecoeur, a far-right specialist at the Grenoble-based Pacte social science laboratory. "So that seawall has 'exploded', washed over by a very strong vote in favour of the National Rally and Marine Le Pen," Lecoeur said. "She has managed something her father and the party never did before."

But beyond that new notch on the family-business leaderboard and Le Pen's lyrical remarks about stumping for honest folk, there were more pedestrian reasons for the RN leader's wide smile in Hénin-Beaumont on Sunday. And they start with money.

Goldmine election

Winning legislative seats is, quite literally, gold to a French political party, with each seat bringing in €37,280 annually in state subsidies over a five-year term. Individual ballots, too, are a virtual goldmine in these elections: A party that scored more than 1 percent in 50 districts can count on €1.64 for every vote cast in its favour. On Sunday, Le Pen's party earned more than 4.2 million votes – some 1.25 million more than it managed in 2017's first round – guaranteeing nearly €7 million per year in public funds. Meanwhile, forming a parliamentary group unlocks powers not simply of influence (more speaking time for questioning the government on the house floor) but also of access (dibs on parliamentary offices and facilities) and financing (public funds to take on parliamentary staff).

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That sort of funding is more than petty change for the cash-strapped National Rally, on the hook for millions from Russian and Hungarian banks. "The National Rally is more than €20 million in debt. It is the most heavily indebted political party in the country," explained Lecoeur. Why? "Because the French system has it that the legislative elections decide how much money [a political party] has and they are very bad elections for the National Rally. That mode of distributing public money has always been a catastrophe for the National Rally because it had very little public money, even though it scored well in the presidential, European, and other elections," the far-right specialist explained.

Political vengeance

Remarkably, the National Rally's legislative reversal of fortunes on Sunday came amid supposedly stiff competition from far-right newcomer Éric Zemmour. The hardline pundit-turned-politician spent this year's presidential campaign poaching talent away from the National Rally – even parading Le Pen's niece Marion Maréchal like a trophy on the campaign trail – before falling to defeat with 7 percent of the presidential vote in April.

Far from harming Le Pen's long-established party, Zemmour's neophyte outfit and its "ideological radicalism ... helped the RN to appear as if it had moved toward the centre", far right specialist Jean-Yves Camus told Agence France-Presse. Zemmour's talent poaching, meanwhile, "allowed the RN to clarify its internal landscape", he added, seeing the party shed uncommitted associates.

For these legislative elections, Le Pen declined appeals from Zemmour to join forces and there is little doubt the split vote on the far right cost the side a chance to collect even more seats. "It's clear that she had wanted a large group in the National Assembly, she'd have been better off allying with Reconquête to hope for 10, 20 or 30 more seats," said Lecoeur.

But seeing off a bitter rival in stark fashion – no candidate from Zemmour's Reconquête ("Reconquer"), including Zemmour himself, made it past the first round on Sunday – is arguably the bigger prize for Le Pen.

"She wanted to put a nail in [Zemmour's] coffin, clearly. And it is a success, from that point of view. Reconquête finds itself at around 4 percent of the vote nationally. Most of its candidates won't be reimbursed (with campaign subsidies). None is in the second round. Not Zemmour, not Marion Maréchal. It's a disaster," Lecoeur said. "She wanted firstly to kill Zemmour and didn't really give a damn about having more deputies, especially if those deputies were Zemmourists and therefore unmanageable. It would have been a catastrophe for her."

Low ceiling, low expectations

But what about that matter of more? After battling the far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon to a place in the presidential run-off against Macron with 23.15 percent of the first-round vote just nine weeks ago, Le Pen again finished as runner-up for the French presidency with 41.45 percent of the vote – an unprecedented score for the far right. But amid record-high abstention in these parliamentary polls, she couldn't hold onto that same mass of votes on Sunday.

"The National Rally's results are disappointing compared to what it could have envisioned two months ago. It's a long way from the more than 8 million votes received in the presidential first round," said Ugo Palheta, a sociologist at the University of Lille. "Le Pen didn't succeed in finding a response to the (pan-leftist) NUPES dynamic and will have to make do with a National Assembly where a very large left-wing block will apparently play the role of principal opposition to the government," Palheta added.

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Far right specialists note that, beyond any fine points of the voting method, there is an upper limit on how well the National Rally can plausibly do in French legislative elections owing to a chronic personnel problem. Simply put, the party doesn't have a deep bench of talent to draw hundreds of presentable lawmakers from.

"To campaign in the legislative elections, one needs executives all over the country and the RN is short on those. But its good results in the first round nevertheless show that its political and electoral roots are quite solid in several areas, with a capacity to achieve very high scores, even when its candidates don't really hold water," said Palheta, alluding to a series of gaffes on the campaign trail by RN legislative candidates during local TV debates.

The issue is one of quality but may go hand in hand with what is, fundamentally, a particularly top-down party.

Le Pen "can count on 50-odd deputies, maybe a little less (next Sunday). But she doesn't need more and doesn't want more, very concretely, because for her it becomes complicated to manage beyond that," noted Lecoeur. "There can't be too many because she knows she has to take care of them afterwards and has better things to do than babysit new deputies who don't understand anything," he said. "Moreover, it could give rise to vocations or urges to become the chief and that's never very good for her."

Not that the party has any great affinity for the lower-house chamber. French parliamentary elections have historically been unfavourable to the far right (which, paradoxically, places bigger bets on European Parliament elections, where proportional voting gives the Europhobic RN more of a fighting chance). But the hostility is mutual: The party isn't particularly wedded to the ideals of parliamentary democracy, its arcane grunt work or all those committee meetings.

"LePenism doesn't believe in parliamentarianism. It is practically even anti-parliament, fundamentally. It doesn't believe the National Assembly is an important place," said Lecoeur. But neither, arguably, does its electorate. "Its voters know they are voting to have a few deputies who will very rarely be present, who won't work on laws or bills. It's not their thing." As a lower-house lawmaker, Le Pen herself only cast a vote in 9.5 percent of the chamber's ballots during the last legislature, by one Le Monde count.

"It won't change much for her to have a parliamentary group. She'll just have a bit more financial means, a little more means for speaking time to cultivate her image as a permanent opponent to Emmanuel Macron. That's her plan, her only plan," said Lecoeur. When her father's National Front had a parliamentary group in 1986, the sociologist recalled, it used that pulpit to create buzz. "They are folks who want to disrupt the system, that's the objective. So Marine Le Pen will likely use it that way. Her objective is to be Macron's primary opponent media-wise, not policy-wise."

Yet another warning for Macron that, after polls close on these legislative elections next Sunday night, the French president may well be in for a wild ride over the next five years.

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