Marine Le Pen hailed her result in France’s presidential elections on Sunday as a “brilliant victory”, despite her defeat to Emmanuel Macron.
Promising to “carry on” her political career, the hard-Right leader pledged that she would “never abandon” the French.
A torrent of booing erupted among her supporters at a chic pavilion on the western edge of Paris as preliminary results showed that centrist Mr Macron had taken an estimated 58 per cent of the vote to her 42 per cent.
Ms Le Pen may have failed in her third bid for the French presidency, but her party is already looking ahead to the 2027 election after a result that brought her closer than ever to power.
“To all those who wanted to see our party disappear, I would just like to say that I see a new form of hope,” she told a crowd of flag-waving party faithful, to chants of “Marine, Marine!” and strains of La Marseillaise.
Party activist Gilles Claud compared Ms Le Pen to a top athlete who had spent the past five years in intense training.
“Sometimes they make the podium and sometimes they don’t,” he said. “But we’ve never been so close. The manifesto has been refined, and the candidate too.”
In an interview with Le Figaro in February, Ms Le Pen said this election would “in theory” be her last run at the presidency. But she stressed that this certainly wouldn’t mean retirement – she is, after all, only 53.
Fringe to the mainstream
Despite Sunday night’s defeat, even critics acknowledge that Ms Le Pen has succeeded in taking her party from the fringe to the mainstream and was taken seriously as a candidate by French voters and the media alike.
It’s a far cry from 20 years ago when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, first made it into the run-off against Jacques Chirac. That moment came as a national political shock – and in the end, the elder Le Pen only managed to win 18 per cent of the vote.
By 2017 his daughter had almost doubled her father’s score to 34 per cent, and this time she looks to have added around another eight points – far closer than Mr Macron would have liked.
“Whatever happened tonight, Macron is the real loser; he’s won by a very, very reduced margin. For him, that’s a failure,” said party official François Lenormand.
The five years after these five years
A lot can happen between now and the next presidential election in five years time, but a couple of factors already lean in Ms Le Pen’s favour.
Mr Macron will be out of the picture, as French presidents may only serve two consecutive terms.
His centrist En Marche! movement has swept away the mainstream parties of Left and Right – the Socialists and the Republicains – by poaching voters from both. Combined, they won just seven per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election on April 10.
Either of these traditional parties of government has a lot of rebuilding to do if they are to retake the presidency in 2027. And it is hard to imagine a successor to Mr Macron emerging from En Marche!, which revolves around him personally to such an extent that it intentionally shares his initials.
Sunday night’s results, meanwhile, show that Ms Le Pen’s years-long effort to transform her party’s image – from a haven for jack-booted thugs under her father to a credible nationalist party of government under her own leadership – are paying dividends.
Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on European nationalist movements at the Fondation Jean-Jaures, said Ms Le Pen’s 2022 campaign had been light years away from her 2017 performance, when she stumbled badly in a televised debate against Mr Macron.
She moved beyond her usual talking points of immigration and Islam to present herself as the candidate who best understood how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting ordinary French voters.
And she successfully fought off competition from a new rival on the hard-Right, Eric Zemmour, who crashed out in the first round of the election on April 10 on seven per cent of the vote.
“It’s not such a negative record,” said Mr Camus, suggesting that many in Ms Le Pen’s National Rally would want her to stay on.
It is hard, in any case, to think of a plausible figure who could lead the party to success in her place.
The heir to Le Pen?
Ms Le Pen’s 32-year-old niece, Marion Marechal, is sometimes mooted as a possible heiress – and it would be in keeping for a party that has been dominated by the Le Pen family dynasty for its entire existence.
Ms Marechal, however, has had a very public falling out with her aunt, and supported her rival Mr Zemmour for the presidency, even taking on a role as his party’s vice president.
Jordan Bardella, the acting National Rally leader, is another rising star of the hard-Right. He is again intimately connected with the Le Pen clan as the boyfriend of another of Marine’s nieces, Nolwenn Olivier.
But like Ms Marechal, 26-year-old Mr Bardella would make for a young and inexperienced candidate in 2027. “That’s their handicap,” said Mr Camus. “But it could also be a chance to shake the coconut tree, as we say in French” – an expression that means overthrowing the old to make way for the new.
Whoever leads the National Rally into the future, Mr Camus predicted that Ms Le Pen’s party would continue to wield significant influence as an opposition party – even if the French political system makes it difficult for it to win more than a handful of seats in parliament, let alone the presidency.
And, he added, Ms Le Pen has cemented her position in the French political scene as the candidate of working-class voters who feel forgotten, many of whom previously voted for the Left.
“I don’t see how the traditional parties could win them back,” he said.
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( Information from telegraph.co.uk was used in this report. To Read More, click here )