France’s political elite will have heaved a collective sigh of relief this week as MEPs stripped Marine Le Pen of her parliamentary immunity.
It leaves the icy Front National leader, whose supporters liken her to Joan of Arc, open to prosecution for her outrageous comments about Muslims in 2010, and rightly so.
But the EU’s move could backfire for ministers hoping to take Le Pen out of the picture by making a martyr out of France’s most bellicose political figure.
This is because, whether they care to admit it or not, Marine Le Pen will be a threat in next year’s European elections. She is no longer the far-right outsider of yesteryear, skulking around the margins of society and mopping up votes from a handful of the nation’s most deluded and disillusioned voters. Au contraire.
The 44-year-old has gradually transformed into a formidable opponent of France’s dominant political parties and a mouthpiece for mass outrage against the government, which initially surfaced over Hollande’s pledge to legalize gay marriage and has not backed down since.
This is clear in Le Pen’s polling figures. A remarkable survey from Ifop reveals the Front National leader is neck-and-neck with her Parti Socialiste and UMP rivals, with all three of them scoring voter intention ratings of 21%.
Imagine that as many voters intended to vote BNP as Labour or Conservative in the last European election and you wouldn’t be too far from the very dangerous situation these figures present – a situation made all the more dire by France’s unpopular President and worsening economy.
Le Pen still struggles to distance herself from her reputation as France’s political black sheep and her loss of parliamentary immunity is by no means the first scandal to hit the Front National. But the former lawyer has a curious habit of turning PR disasters into an opportunity to gain popularity.
This is exactly what happened after a recent interview with France Inter, when Le Pen denied claims that her father had condemned Nelson Mandela in South Africa. He had in fact branded Mandela a terrorist on the L’Heure de Vérité programme in 1990.
The exchange brought the Front National’s chequered history of racism and violence back to the surface. But not everyone seems to have been deterred by Le Pen the younger’s fleeting case of amnesia.
The Daily Telegraph published a glowing endorsement of her four days after that interview, which praises the Front National leader as “triumphant” alongside a photo depicting her as a messianic figure, arms spread out majestically to embrace her audience.
It is the kind of effusive coverage of the Front National that Le Pen’s father and predecessor Jean-Marie could only dream of. The height of his power came in the 2002 presidential election after gaining 18.6 per cent of the vote in the first round; after that the party all but fell into obscurity, until his departure in 2010.
Meanwhile Marine Le Pen is tipped to make strong gains in the May 2014 European elections and she has seized on her chance to exploit the anger and bitterness of voters in a divided France. Likewise the black cloud of criminal charges could draw even more support to Le Pen’s cause, with voters seeing her as the plucky woman of the people who dared to speak out against a political establishment from which they feel utterly alienated.
If such minor victories over France’s tired government continue, it is feasible she could scale political heights which make her father’s achievements small bier by comparison.