PARIS — A little more than a month ago, France’s far right seemed on the cusp of power.
But the populist fervor that swept Britain and the United States never reached the same pitch in France, and the National Front fell into disarray when Emmanuel Macron crushed Marine Le Pen in May’s presidential election. Now, the party is facing the reality that it will have minimal representation in Parliament.
While Le Pen had hoped that her party might serve as the principal opposition to Macron’s majority, the National Front earned only eight of the 577 parliamentary seats, according to totals from Sunday’s second round of voting. The result was particularly stunning given that the party had gotten more than one-third of the votes cast in the final round of the presidential election.
There was, however, a silver lining: a seat for Le Pen herself, a small but symbolic victory that some said would enshrine the far-right leader in France’s political establishment.
In her victory speech, Le Pen, elected in the northern, industrial constituency of Hénin-Beaumont, insisted that her party retained an important role. “Facing a bloc that represents the interests of the oligarchy, we
are the only force of resistance,” she said.
Le Pen has been a presence in French political life for decades, although she has never held a major office in the national government. While her father, the convicted Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen, and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, have both served in France’s Parliament, she never has.
For political analysts, her victory strengthened her personal brand and her chances of remaining party leader. The National Front’s total number of parliamentary seats also rose from two to eight — an expansion but far short of what the party had expected.
“The victory of Marine Le Pen is an important thing for her personal image,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a leading expert on the radical right. “If her leadership is contested, she can say she was very comfortably elected.”
The National Front had approached the presidential election in a confident mood, with polls showing Le Pen at No. 2 in a crowded field of aspirants. She had vowed to “de-demonize” the party, long associated with anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
But during the campaign, she denied France’s complicity in an infamous World War II roundup of Jews and named as an interim party head a man who once reportedly challenged the fact that Zyklon B was used in the Nazi gas chambers. She also performed poorly in a critical pre-election debate, and proved incapable of capturing the kind of anti-establishment zeal that contributed to the election of President Trump and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
Her crushing defeat by Macron led to a crisis in the National Front, with party aides — and even members of the Le Pen family — pointing the finger at one another in public.
After that debacle, there were those — even among the party’s supporters — who said that the National Front would perhaps be better served by a total transformation, including a new name and a leader from outside the Le Pen family.
Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, minced no words Tuesday when he insisted that his daughter should step down as party leader following the disappointing parliamentary results. “You outlive your usefulness when you start harming your party by your policy stances or your stubbornness,” the elder Le Pen told reporters, having been locked out of a party meeting at National Front headquarters outside Paris.
The party’s co-founder, now 89, was expelled from his party in 2015 after reiterating, in an interview, his view that the Nazi gas chambers were a “detail of history,” and is nominally estranged from his daughter. But the elder Le Pen retains an honorary title, and the organization he controls contributed significantly to his daughter’s 2017 campaign.
Yet with Marine Le Pen’s ascent to Parliament, any such “transformation” is unlikely to come anytime soon, Camus said.
“It gives the party a new voice in the National Assembly,” said Camus, referring to the Parliament’s lower house. He said that the party leader “has been playing a long game for victory.”
Le Pen had unsuccessfully tried four previous times to win a parliamentary seat.
In interviews with The Washington Post during the presidential campaign this spring, both Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, 27, emphasized that regardless of election outcomes, a majority of French voters agreed with their program. “We won the battle of ideas,” Maréchal-Le Pen said in April.
But election results would suggest otherwise.
Marine Le Pen, in her victory speech, suggested that the National Front represented a silent majority of voters, if not any kind of significant parliamentary presence.
“It is scandalous that our party — which won 7.6 million votes in the first round of the presidential election and 3 million more in the second round — cannot obtain a group at the assembly,” she said Sunday.
A “group” in France’s Parliament requires at least 15 seats. Such groups help set the parliamentary agenda and are entitled to certain resources, such as extra office space and larger shares of public funds. Initially, pollsters had said Le Pen could win as many as 50 seats in the legislative elections.
In the end, she received about one-sixth of that number.
But if the political prospects of the National Front remain unclear, the party will have at least some kind of future, Camus noted, especially with Le Pen in Parliament.
As he put it: “It’s a party that’s going to last for a while.”