Marine Le Pen shrugs off yet another scandal — but it's not hurting her much

by Tim Hume
Mar 3 2017, 11:39am

National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s bid to become France’s next president will not be derailed, even after the right-wing firebrand shared Islamic State group execution photos on Twitter, and despite her immunity from possible prosecution being stripped Thursday.

The withdrawal of her immunity follows a French inquiry into whether the tweets breached laws prohibiting the distribution of violent images, or those inciting terrorism. The move, voted for by her fellow members of the European Parliament, is just the latest development in a tumultuous presidential race more notable for legal sideshows than policy debates.

The bizarre ISIS tweets scandal is one of two ongoing investigations troubling the fringes of the far-right candidate’s campaign. She is also facing an inquiry into the alleged misuse of nearly 300,000 euros ($317,000) in European Union funds that an EU watchdog says was illicitly paid to party staff between 2011 and 2012.

But analysts say that unlike her rival presidential candidate Francois Fillon – a onetime front-runner whose campaign is reeling over allegations he gave his wife a trumped-up job as his parliamentary assistant – Le Pen has largely managed to shrug off the scandals, citing them as evidence the system is stacked against her party.

“So far it’s not undermining her support, and she’s even able to use it to her favor, by saying she’s under persecution,” Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, a Paris-based senior policy fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News.

Le Pen tweeted the images in December 2015, in response to a reporter who had compared her populist anti-immigrant, anti-EU party to ISIS. “Daesh is this!” Le Pen tweeted, using the Arabic acronym for the terror group. One of the photographs she shared was of the beheading of American journalist James Foley.

Under French law, the maximum penalty for distributing violent images is three years in prison and a fine of up to 75,000 euros ($79,000). But if Le Pen was concerned by her European colleagues’ decision to render her vulnerable to prosecution, she didn’t show it.

“I notice that freedom of expression of an EU member of Parliament who denounces the actions of ISIS allows the French government to take her to court,” she told CNN. “I will express myself in court and say what I think of all this.”

The French prosecutor – who Le Pen had previously refused to meet with for questioning, citing her immunity ­– has not indicated how the case will proceed. But analysts say any resolution is unlikely before the election in April and May, and polling predicts Le Pen will make it at least as far as the second-round knockout vote.

“Enquiries and legal proceedings are long,” Marc Pierini, an analyst at Carnegie Europe, told VICE News. “There is little chance that Le Pen’s ISIS tweet will derail her campaign in the short term.”

He said that Le Pen and Fillon had responded to the different allegations against them in similar ways – that they are “plots” that “only ‘the people’ can judge.” “This is sadly reminiscent of Trump’s campaign and presidency,” he said.

But while that line had failed for Fillon – a conservative former prime minister who is now facing increasingly strident calls to be replaced as the center-right Republican party’s nominee ­– it seemed to work for the anti-establishment Le Pen, who hasn’t suffered any noticeable drop in her support.

Lafont Rapnouil said the verdict among political scientists was still out as to why Fillon’s scandal had proved more damaging. But for Le Pen, Fillon’s woes had likely made the allegations against her seem less extraordinary and disqualifying to undecided voters, while helping to mobilize her traditional base by stoking their “rage and frustration.”

An anti-establishment outsider who is campaigning against the “tyrannies” of globalisation, Islamic fundamentalism, and the EU, Le Pen has attempted to strike a more presidential stance as she tries to win the country’s top job, in what would prove a shocking upset to France’s political establishment. Her campaign has included concerted efforts to reach out to women and gay voters as she attempts to rebrand the party founded by her estranged father, and push it into the political mainstream.

This rebranding has also included notable attempts to position herself as a stateswoman in the Gaullist tradition, said Lafont Rapnouil. This included a trip to Lebanon last month where Le Pen had her first public meeting with a head of state, and created headlines when a meeting with the country’s grand mufti was cancelled after she refused to wear a headscarf.

Polls predict Le Pen will face off against independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former economy minister, in the second-round run-off on May 7, with the latter expected to win comfortably. An Odoxa poll released Friday was the first to show Macron beating Le Pen in the first round of voting on April 23, by 27 percent to 25.5.

But analysts predict that Macron’s momentum could be halted if Fillon is replaced as the Republicans candidate by Alain Juppe, as some within the center-right party are demanding. The Republicans hope Juppe, a former prime minister who was considered the favorite to become president until Fillon secured the party’s nomination in a late surge, will be able to win away some of the centrist voters credited with Macron’s rise.

Islamic State
Far right
Alain Juppé
Marine Le Pen
national front
Emmanuel Macron
François Fillon
French elections