Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s has issued a 144-point manifesto on her ambitions for government, pledging to make France “free, safe, prosperous, fair, proud, powerful, and sustainable”.
Not many people will have the inclination to read the lot, but I did. And what I discovered was a candidate who plans not so much to take France out of Europe as cut it free of the whole continent.
The key themes of the weighty manifesto are for France to leave both the eurozone and the EU and to prioritise national interests over global forces. Le Pen wants to lead a strong, interventionist and muscular state and to reduce immigration to virtually zero. Along the way, she wants to combat multiculturalism and reinforce secularism, to the point of banning outwards signs of religious belief in all public spaces, as one of the antidotes to fundamentalist Islam.
The very first promise in Le Pen’s manifesto is a “Frexit” referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union, and major institutional reform. She envisages a recentralised, presidential regime, where a reform of Article 11 of the constitution would give the president much greater scope to consult the electorate directly, by referendum and without referral to parliament.
President Le Pen would also dramatically reduce the size of the French parliament and jettison 30 years of local government reform and devolution to abolish France’s regions. The French can also look forward to a law whereby their personal data would be forcibly repatriated to servers based in France (digital patriotism?) and to closer state oversight of trades unions, among other measures to guarantee their freedom.
Heavy hand of the law
To make France safer, Le Pen intends to recruit 15,000 law enforcement officers and to establish a presumption of legitimate defence for the police. This may not mean much in practice but is clearly intended to let the police know that they can expect support, at least in the first instance, from the state in cases of, for example, brutality.
There will be tougher sentencing and 40,000 extra prison places created, but Le Pen has rowed back from her advocacy of the death penalty, preferring full life sentences.
The safety of the French is, naturally for Le Pen, linked to France taking back control of its borders (exiting the Schengen area) and bringing “rampant immigration” to an end. Le Pen aims to recruit an extra 6,000 frontier police and reduce net migration from 140,000 people per year to just 10,000.
A whole raft of measures will make it more difficult for immigrants to be naturalised or to bring their families to France (Le Pen underplays how difficult it already is) and asylum seekers will have to make their applications at French embassies and consuls outside France. The fight against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism will be ramped up, with the creation of a new anti-terrorist agency.
France’s prosperity, Le Pen argues, depends on ending globalisation and replacing free trade with “a new patriotic model” of “intelligent protectionism” that will radically reduce unemployment.
Globalisation will be tackled with state-led re-industrialisation. Expanding on the document, Le Pen has explained that she would, for example, use tariffs of up to 35% to force French motor manufacturers to bring construction back into France – an idea very obviously borrowed from Donald Trump.
To help French industry and agriculture, the doctrine of national preference will be written into the constitution. So French workers will be favoured in the job market and French companies in tendering for public contracts.
To obviate the need for migrant labour, the state will pursue a policy of promoting the birth rate among French families and help to reduce the cost of living with special allowances for low-income families. With no cheap supply of migrant labour and French industries repatriated and protected, the virtuous circle, as Le Pen describes it, will be complete. By the same token, to help rescue the French health system, the number of students admitted to study medicine will be increased “to avoid the massive recruitment of foreign doctors”.
Le Pen will outlaw surrogacy and same-sex marriages will be abolished (although this will not be retroactive). There is no mention, however, of reforming the law on abortion.
To restore French prestige, the military will take on 50,000 new recruits and the defence budget will be significantly increased. Most importantly, France will leave NATO.
The requirement to protect France’s cultural and historical heritage will be written into the constitution. Furthermore, the “national story”, an official version of French history, will be reintroduced into schools and the politics of historical apology will be abandoned. The state will promote French influence throughout the world, in military, cultural and diplomatic terms (which, of course, already happens anyway).
A nationalist shade of green
Under the heading of sustainability, Le Pen focuses on replacing the EU’s common agricultural policy with a French version and encouraging local chains of supply and consumption as a practical form of environmentalism. To address France’s massive power generation deficit, she intends to keep nuclear reactors and boost renewables, but not wind power.
The cost will be partly met by a return to productivity and lower unemployment but also, as has Le Pen explained, by ending benefit fraud and tax evasion by multinational companies.
On the face of it, there are not many surprises in Le Pen’s programme. That her vision for the future of France involves pulling down the shutters is not a scoop. Students of far-right movements in other countries might be surprised, however, at just how much “big government” will be involved in her policies. But this is France, and the state remains a key player.
What stands out are the far-reaching implications of Le Pen’s programme for the political institutions that will to move the Republic away from the devolved partnership between president, parliament and local government. It has been evolving towards this model over the past two decades but Le Pen would bring that project to an abrupt halt. This element of Le Pen’s planning has been little discussed among international onlookers, who have tended to focus on immigration, law and order, Europe and the economy.
Le Pen may well be disappointed, however, that launching her programme hasn’t given her much of a poll boost. Despite her opus, she continues to hover around the 25-26% mark regarding intentions to vote in the first round of the presidential elections.
For now, most of the polls put Le Pen in the lead after the first round of voting, but then losing in the second to Emmanuel Macron (by something like 60% to 40%), or to François Fillon, if he stages some sort of recovery. The latter is not beyond the realms of possibility.
It is said of the French presidential election that in the first round, you vote for the candidate you want, in the second, you vote against the one you don’t. Le Pen will probably be in the second round. But she still needs to persuade a very large portion of the electorate that she is not the candidate they do not want.