France’s Le Pen launches EU campaign with appeal to ‘yellow vests’

French Member of Parliament and President of the Rassemblement National (RN) far-right party Marine Le Pen (R) greets Jordan Bardella (L) during a meeting to launch their campaign for the European Parliament elections at La Mutualite in Paris, France, 13 January 2019. Jordan Bardella is appointed party's leader for the 2019 European elections. [EPA-EFE/YOAN VALAT]

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen launched her campaign for the May 26 European Parliament election on Sunday (13 January) with an appeal to the broad “yellow vest” protest movement that has rattled the government.

Le Pen urged the tens of thousands of protesters who have staged weekly protests against President Emmanuel Macron since November to make the EU vote a referendum on his policies.

“In the context of the healthy popular revolt of the yellow vests, this election offers a chance to end this crisis born of the intransigence and contempt … of an incompetent president whose behaviour is disturbing,” Le Pen told an election rally for her National Rally (“Rassemblement National”) party.

Born from a grassroots protest against high fuel prices, the yellow vests have become a broad and sometimes violent movement demanding more social justice for low-skilled workers left behind by globalisation, deregulation and EU integration.

Although independent of parties and unions, the movement shares many of the RN’s demands: proportional representation in parliament, direct democracy through Swiss-style referendums, less European integration and – above all – Macron’s resignation.

“If Macron does not have the wisdom to go back to the people by dissolving parliament, then let the political arbitrage come from European elections,” said Le Pen, as her supporters repeatedly shouted “Macron, démission!” (“Macron, resignation!”).

2019 LOOKAHEAD: New brand of social upheaval takes shape ahead of EU elections

The yellow vests in France and Belgium may be only the tip of the iceberg of a major social upheaval ahead of the European elections, with a common denominator: people protesting their worsening living standards do not want to be represented by the existing political forces.

Political map redrawn

Both Le Pen and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon have publicly sympathised with the yellow vests – named after the high-visibility jackets they wear – and asked for their support.

Le Pen hopes the EU vote will advance a redrawing of France’s political map. The process began with the first round of the 2017 presidential election, when Macron’s upstart centrist movement and her own National Front, since renamed, eliminated the traditional big parties – the conservative Les Républicains and the Socialists.

“The battle is now between nationalists and globalists,” she said.

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Since the start of the yellow vest protests, Le Pen’s RN has gained in the polls. A mid-December Ifop poll gave it 24% support against 18% for Macron’s LREM.

The conservatives had 11%, Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”) 9%, the movement of former Le Pen ally Nicolas Dupont-Aignan 8% and the Socialists just 4.5%.

Le Pen herself is not running in the European election as she wants to remain in the French parliament, and on Sunday presented 23-year-old Jordan Bardella as the NR’s leading candidate.

“In Italy and Austria, our allies are governing,” Bardella said. “A better tomorrow is within our grasp.”

Macron himself will launch three months of national debate this week to air yellow-vest grievances in the hope of appeasing the movement.

An RN supporter at Sunday’s rally, Sebastien Lefevre, told Reuters he fully supports the yellow vests as does his party.

“And from what I understand from the polls, most of the yellow vests would vote for us,” he said.

France kick-starts 'grand national debate' to calm yellow vest protesters

From 15 January to 15 March France will hold what President Emmanuel Macron has termed the “great national debate”, a public consultation to discuss the “essential questions” facing the nation after nearly two months of violent so-called yellow vest protests.

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