Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Rally (RN) party, talks to the press, a day after the first results of the parliamentary elections, in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, on June 20, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Paris: After decades of struggling to impose its political agenda, the far right under Marine Le Pen has cemented its place as a cornerstone of French political life, despite accusations of fostering a divisive extremist ideology.

Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) defied opinion polls by winning 89 seats in the lower-house National Assembly on Sunday, well above the eight it held previously and far beyond her own expectations.

“In our wildest dreams we were hoping for 60 MPs,” Le Pen told journalists Monday on home turf in Henin-Beaumont, part of the former industrial - and Socialist - heartland of northern France that has become a bastion of the far right.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the mobilisation of our fellow citizens and this desire that immigration, insecurity, and the struggle against Islamism do not disappear from the parliament debate,” she said.

The party can even rejoice over being the largest single opposition faction in the new National Assembly as the left wing NUPES alliance is an umbrella for various leftist parties, none of whom won as many seats as the RN on their own.

Despite winning millions of votes in her presidential contests against President Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen had never succeeded in transforming her influence into a viable legislative force before now.

Her party has eclipsed the traditional right and now qualifies for nearly 10 million euros ($10.5 million) per year in public funding - a windfall after years of financial struggles.

National Rally deputies will also be allotted more speaking time, and Le Pen said she would demand to lead the Assembly’s powerful finance commission, by tradition reserved to the largest opposition party.

That could seriously complicate Macron’s reformist agenda, not least his plan to push back the retirement age to 65 - Le Pen wants to keep it at 62 and even lower it for people who started working early.

“The National Rally has become a party with local roots... It has become the undisputed spokesman on social and territorial divisions,” veteran political scientist Pascal Perrineau of Sciences Po university told Le Parisien daily.

2027 in sight?

Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen created the party 50 years ago this year, but his convictions over anti-Semitic and racist hate speech had long kept the group on the fringes.

His daughter has softened her party’s aggressive image and played down its anti-migrant discourse, claiming instead to defend France’s traditional values and its “sovereignty” that has been traded away in the name of greater European integration.

By becoming a parliamentary force, an invigorated Le Pen could also be well poised to run for the presidency again in 2027, when Macron will be prevented from standing because of term limits.

She won nearly 42 per cent of the vote in April’s presidential contest, a score considered inconceivable just a few years ago.

In a bid to make sure the National Rally makes the most of its performance, Le Pen announced that she would no longer lead the party and would instead focus on spearheading its faction in parliament.

Unlike some other party leaders, Le Pen herself stood in the election, easily winning her constituency in northern France.

A meeting is planned in the coming weeks to elect her successor to lead the party full time, with all eyes on her de-facto number two Jordan Bardella, just 26 but already a high-profile figure in France.

“It’s the result of working very hard to establish its presence, with deputies of her own generation who were won over, but also by activists who have campaigned for her for several years,” said political expert Jean-Yves Camus of the Fondation Jean-Jaures think-tank.

For Camus, Macron paved the way for Le Pen’s gains by insisting that his “progressive” policies were the opposite of her “nationalist” ideas.

“This method of taking the French political life to the extremes ended up giving the National Rally its stature as the chief opposition group,” he said.