PARIS — Marine Le Pen unleashed a diatribe against Emmanuel Macron and the European Union on Tuesday but her own U-turns on Europe could be a problem in the election.
Opposition candidates are rounding on the French president as he prepares to address the European Parliament on Wednesday. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the right-wing former journalist Eric Zemmour are both expected to attack Macron on his pro-European stance during speeches the same day as the president speaks in Strasbourg.
During a press conference in Paris, Le Pen described Macron’s EU project as “unrealistic, dangerous” and “the antithesis” of her own. She also accused him of being “Mrs. Merkel’s flunky” and attacked him as being the only leader in the bloc who has not used the rotating presidency of the EU to push “his country’s interests.”
But Le Pen has lost much of her punch on EU issues since she backtracked on “Frexit” and exiting the euro after her defeat in the last presidential election.
She also faces a challenge from Zemmour, whose position on Europe isn’t vastly different but who is leading a very anti-EU campaign — his main bugbear is the European Commission — ahead of the presidential election in April.
Handbrake turn on the EU
Le Pen’s National Rally has evolved several times on key European issues in recent years. In 2017, Le Pen abandoned her pitch to leave the European Union and ditch the euro, admitting such prospects frightened the French.
Le Pen also backtracked on leaving the (non-EU) European Court of Human Rights and on suspending membership of the Schengen border-free travel area in what was seen as a move to appeal to more mainstream conservative voters.
On Tuesday, she brushed aside her reversals, explaining that these were in response to changes within the European Union.
“Reality is starting to catch up with the Brussels technocrats,” she said. “There are more and more Europeans who have understood that it is necessary to rework the European Union in depth.”
Her party now argues in favor of temporarily reintroducing border controls without leaving Schengen and of negotiating bilateral free movement agreements with EU members that limit non-EU immigration.
“Our external borders are sieves so we have to reintroduce national checks … until we have stopped immigration flows towards the EU,” said National Rally MEP Nicolas Bay in an interview with POLITICO on the sidelines of the press conference.
But it’s not clear what the party’s long-term plan to reform Schengen would look like.
Ambushed by Zemmour
Le Pen’s shifting attitude to the EU has exposed her to attacks from her rival Zemmour, who is also campaigning on a tough anti-immigration, anti-Europe platform.
He is expected to make a speech Wednesday in Calais, which is now part of the EU’s external border since the U.K. left the bloc.
Zemmour also wants to suspend Schengen, campaigns for ignoring ECHR rulings on immigration, and wants to roll back the powers of the Commission.
While his positions are very similar to Le Pen’s, Zemmour, a newcomer to French politics, is perceived as the hardliner who repeatedly promises to release the French from the grip of the EU. Le Pen on the other hand is seen as having softened her stance on the EU in a bid to build up her credibility, raising questions about her determination to fight the Brussels bureaucracy.
Ahead of Zemmour’s speech in Calais, a member of his team argued that his position on nations and sovereignty was “very, very clear.”
“[Le Pen] no longer wants to leave the ECHR and it’s not clear why,” the team member said. “Did she flip-flop on this for cosmetic reasons? Because it didn’t go down well with voters? Zemmour at least hasn’t changed.”
Central to Le Pen’s vision of Europe is the idea that she can now count on the support of allies in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, in what she has called “an alliance of nations.” But her loose coalition has so far failed to lead to the creation of a nationalist super-group in the European Parliament.
“The French will be asked to choose between two visions of Europe in the next presidential election,” she told reporters. “One vision that is supported by the pro-Europeans and that disregards people and the dominant nations, or the vision that I support with my European allies, of a European alliance of nations,” she said.
But it’s a pitch Zemmour’s team dismisses as wishful thinking. While Le Pen is busy building bridges in Europe, Zemmour is betting his inflammatory style will touch those who have turned their backs on the EU.