Marine Le Pen Is Seducing France’s Business Elite

Leading France’s opinion polls, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National looks closer than ever to power. Now the far-right party’s top officials are trying to seduce business leaders — and show them that Le Pen’s agenda isn’t a threat to the wealthy.

Marine Le Pen speaks with officials of the Rassemblement National party in Paris, France, on March 20, 2024. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

Buoyed by excellent poll scores, Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National is today laying the groundwork for its potential arrival in power. We see the change in its leaders’ lunches with top French entrepreneurs, in its increasingly Atlanticist geopolitical stance, and in its softening of its past opposition to free trade. Its hobnobbing with business chiefs is surely turning the page on the past era when Le Pen’s advisor Florian Philippot pushed the call to abandon the euro.

Still, whether the Rassemblement National leadership is meeting with these figures, changing its program, or reworking its alliances with other far-right parties, it remains rather discreet about these developments. It knows that its working-class electorate will be the first victim of this shift.

Operation: Seduction

Key in this sense is Jordan Bardella, the Rassemblement National’s rising star and lead candidate for this Sunday’s elections to the European Parliament. While Bardella is the clear front-runner for the French part of this EU-wide election, he has skipped all TV debates in recent weeks, instead sending his lieutenants to appear on his behalf. Doubtless, if he had accepted the invitations, he would have been the target of all manner of attacks — so, he had more to lose than to gain from taking part. And he surely did also hold a few meetings and shoot some videos for his social media. But Le Pen’s second-in-command seems above all to have been busy convincing a group hitherto rather reticent about his party’s arrival in power: entrepreneurs.

In addition to official speeches to the employers’ federation Medef, and bodies representing small and medium-sized businesses, Bardella and Le Pen have been holding secret lunches with a number of key figures from the French business world. From Pierre Gattaz, former president of the Medef, to Henri Proglio, former CEO of energy giant EDF and Veolia, not to mention members of the Dassault clan (billionaires in the world of aeronautics), ever more business personalities are keen to exchange views with the two Rassemblement National leaders. Sophie de Menthon, head of the employers’ organization Ethic, Bardella’s own campaign manager, Alexandre Loubet, and Rassemblement National MP Sébastien Chenu, are in charge of arranging meetings and reserving chic, discreet restaurants.

Doubtless, the motivations of those involved differ. Some are disappointed by Emmanuel Macron, though he spent the last decade redoubling his efforts to appeal to this social group.  Others are making contacts “just in case.” Used to not putting all their eggs in one basket, major business leaders have long maintained contacts with both the Parti Socialiste and the center-right Les Républicains (formerly known as UMP), before Macron brought these two stables together around his own person. But this era seems to be coming to an end: Macron cannot stand for reelection, and the head of state is facing a war of egos between his potential successors.

There are many potential candidates in his camp, from former prime minister Édouard Philippe to the current one Gabriel Attal, or interior minister Gérald Darmanin — but none of them really stands out from the crowd. For France’s top bosses, who have always made much of their living from public orders, it would be risky to bet everything on the Macronist camp. For them, joining forces with the Rassemblement National is a way of making sure their interests are protected.

But the far-right party is also building its efforts to seduce them. Firstly, it is resolutely opposed to wage increases, even though it claims to defend French people’s purchasing power. It has systematically opposed raising the minimum wage or indexing wages to inflation, instead promising to boost incomes by lowering social-security contributions. This is in fact identical to the position of the Macron camp. Le Pen’s party also opposes the price freeze proposed by France Insoumise and its allies, and abstained from a vote on introducing a minimum price for agricultural products — this being a central demand of the farmers who mobilized in early 2024. We could also mention the party’s opposition to the Net-Zero Artificialization law and to environmental rules more broadly, which bosses constantly complain are holding them back. The Rassemblement National has also repeatedly adopted the demands of lobbyists, for example in the health care, construction, and automotive sectors. Finally, despite declaring itself in favor of a partial return to retirement at sixty, it never supported last year’s union mobilizations against Macron’s pension-age rise.

Burying “Economic Populism”

As well as this constant defense of big business interests, the Le Pen camp is also sending out major signals to French bosses. Telling in this sense was her recent article on public debt in superrich Bernard Arnault’s business daily Les Echos, in which she repeats all the neoliberal clichés we’ve been reading for decades. Above all, the party seems finally to have garlanded itself with various advisors with well-rounded CVs. This so-called “Circle of Horaces,” comprising senior civil servants, former ministerial advisors, and corporate executives, provides the party’s leaders with notes that oscillate between civilizational warfare and pleas for economic liberalism.

This secret cabinet is headed by François Durvye, managing director of Otium Capital, the investment fund of ultraconservative billionaire Pierre-Édouard Stérin, a tax exile in Belgium who is today bidding to buy the weekly magazine Marianne. Durvye welcomed Marine Le Pen to his Normandy country home to prepare for the second-round debate in 2022, along with a number of key advisors, including Jean-Philippe Tanguy, who is a Rassemblement National MP for the Somme. An alumnus of both the ESSEC business school and national-conservative party Debout la France, Tanguy is one of the Rassemblement National’s most active members both in parliament and in the media, particularly on economic issues.

With this team of big money-men and deregulation-obsessives, Le Pen and Bardella have finally turned the page on the era of Philippot’s influence. A loyal lieutenant of Le Pen’s until 2017, Philippot not only aided the famous “de-toxification” of the party’s image, but also swung it toward a programmatic “sovereigntism,” which explicitly sought to overcome the left-right divide and rally all those who had voted no in France’s 2005 referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty.

Hence up to the 2017 election, the party then known as the Front National backed a form of euro exit, a referendum on Frexit, and withdrawal from NATO’s integrated command. If it did not explicitly support a break from the European and Atlanticist framework, in that era Le Pen’s party was — along with France Insoumise — highly critical of France’s loss of monetary, military, economic, and political sovereignty. This legacy has now been all but dropped. As soon as Philippot and his troops left, euro exit and the referendum on Frexit were abandoned. Such positions had frightened off voters from the traditional right, particularly stability-obsessed pensioners whose votes Le Pen was trying to capture.

The Rassemblement National’s opposition to free trade, which has always been a major reason for business leaders to fear the party (especially the export-oriented), has also been considerably softened. Admittedly, the party is forced to perform something of a balancing act on this issue, which is so important to the working-class losers of globalization. In its EU election program, the Rassemblement National advocates “fair competition” within the European market, without specifying what this actually means, as well as “national priority” in public procurement, which is formally forbidden by the EU treaties.

A major reform of the treaties would thus be needed before these promises could be fulfilled. Le Pen’s party certainly has no shortage of ideas on this front, including a referendum to restore the priority of the French Constitution over European law, and the transformation of the European Commission into a secretariat of the Council that brings together the various member states’ heads of government. These are intriguing proposals for turning the EU into a genuine “Europe of nations” rather than a supranational proto-state — but they can only succeed if other member states also back them.

Far-Right Realignment

While the Rassemblement National can theoretically rely on its far-right allies across the continent, not all of them support a protectionist policy. Note that some 60 percent of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the Identity and Democracy group, to which Le Pen’s party belongs, voted in favor of the recent free trade agreement between the EU and New Zealand. Similarly, during the vote on the agreements with Chile and Kenya in late January, right amidst of the farmers’ mobilization, the Rassemblement National abstained, while its European partners largely approved both texts. This cast serious doubt on the party’s protectionist promises.

On the geopolitical front, this party has also considerably shifted. Indebted to the Russian government, which granted her two loans in 2014 for a total of €11 million, Le Pen has long defended a rapprochement with the Kremlin, as has her Italian ally Matteo Salvini. This position materialized in particular through support for the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and a series of meetings, including one between Le Pen and Vladimir Putin in March 2017, just before the French presidential election. Long an admirer of the Russian dictator, Le Pen has finally been forced to pay lip service to supporting Ukraine over the past two years.

Still, while she has criticized the ineffectiveness of economic sanctions against Moscow and the “politicized” use of the conflict, her proposals on the subject remain vague and full of contradictions. These hesitations doubtless reflect Bardella’s war of influence with his boss: on several occasions, he has explicitly positioned himself in the Atlanticist camp and in favor of remaining in all NATO structures, while Le Pen is more nuanced on the issue.

Ironically, for all the talk of the party’s mainstreaming, this Atlanticist, pro-European turn is a return to the Front National’s original line when it was led by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Describing himself in the 1980s as the “French Reagan” and espousing a free-marketeer economic program, he was also a fervent supporter of NATO and European integration, which he saw as ramparts against the Communist-ruled Eastern Bloc. Indeed, this frontal opposition to the Left allowed the Front National to emerge briefly from political isolation between 1986 and 1988. In that period, it not only elected its first MPs but also gave decisive support to traditional-right governments in five French regions and was in turn offered a smattering of regional vice presidencies. Still, apart from this brief interlude, the “cordon sanitaire” preventing the union of all right-wing forces still officially holds, though it has continually weakened since the time of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency (2007–12).

In this respect, the June 2024 EU elections could mark a turning point. The far right is on the rise across Europe, and governments based on agreements between the traditional right and the far right are spreading (Italy, Sweden, Finland, Croatia…). Weakened by a number of scandals, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, a member of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), is not ruling out an alliance with the far-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) to stay in power. For over a year now, she has taken every opportunity to demonstrate her closeness to Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, whose Fratelli d’Italia party is one of the main ECR forces.

Also bringing together Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS), the Sweden Democrats, and Spain’s Vox, ECR differs from Identity and Democracy in main two respects: foreign policy and the willingness to ally with the traditional right. While ECR parties have always insisted on their Atlanticism and their openness to right-wing unity, the ones in Identity and Democracy are more pro-Russian and often isolated by their radicalism. This second group includes the Rassemblement National and Salvini’s Lega. It had until May also included the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), but then the group’s other major parties broke ties with it: already in hot water after revelations about a secret meeting to plan the “remigration” of two million people of foreign origin living in Germany, the AfD then further distinguished itself by attempting to rehabilitate some of the SS…

But a broader shift within the far-right space was also on display at a major rally in Madrid on May 19, where the leaders of this camp were joined by Argentine president Javier Milei and a minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government. Entitled “Viva 2024,” this show of force strengthened ties around a common reactionary agenda. Le Pen’s conspicuous presence there indicates her desire to forge closer ties with notoriously Atlanticist parties such as Fratelli d’Italia and Vox, which may reassure a certain section of the electorate hitherto worried about the Rassemblement National’s Russian ties.

Less Working-Class, but Broader

This strategy of seeking respectability is also embodied by the arrival of several personalities on the Rassemblement National’s list for the EU elections, notably Fabrice Leggeri. An alumnus of elite schools and formerly a senior official at the French Interior Ministry, he was from 2015 to 2022 director of the EU’s external border agency Frontex. His widely publicized rallying to the party was held up by the Rassemblement National as further proof of its ability to govern thanks to experienced and thus supposedly “serious” figures. Still, this “experience” raises questions: Leggeri is the target of a lawsuit over alleged complicity in crimes against humanity and torture, because of Frontex’s cooperation with Libyan coastguard forces, many of which belong to militias involved in human trafficking. There’s also the fact that the Rassemblement National itself called for the abolition of Frontex, which it described as a “subsidiary of the smugglers,” when Leggeri was himself its director.

Still, despite the Rassemblement National’s huge inconsistencies — notably between its posturing in defense of the working-class French against the rich, and the reality of its program and votes in parliament — the gamble seems to be working. In addition to retaining its popular base of protest voters, the far-right party is attracting ever more middle-class and retired voters. This last category is often decisive: while the young and the poorest vote little, senior citizens turn out en masse. This split is especially pronounced during intermediate contests such as the EU elections, when fully half of the electorate abstain. With this increase in the number of pensioners supporting the Rassemblement National, it seems Bardella could break through the “reinforced concrete ceiling” that has long prevented his party from winning elections. While a Le Pen victory in the next presidential election is not yet a foregone conclusion, it is becoming ever more likely.

A visceral rejection of Macronism plays an important role in this vote, as does the claim that “we’ve never given the Rassemblement National a try.” But the rallying of both working-class and more bourgeois votes behind this party can hardly be reduced to the rebellious hope of “shaking things up.” As researcher Félicien Faury, who interviewed Le Pen voters in southern France, explains, the party manages to unite different classes around a common discourse aimed at shifting the pain of neoliberal reforms onto foreigners, said to be “living off our handouts.” For example, it is against building more social housing, but wants to expel immigrants from such homes so that more French citizens can benefit. Even beyond racism as such, the growing popularity of these kinds of arguments is directly correlated with people’s resignation to neoliberal reforms: no matter what you do, they’ll be pushed through anyway.

The Left has its work cut out to convince French people that another society is possible. With Bardella and Le Pen’s ideas so popular, it is no longer enough to speak of the fear of the unknown and the party’s disreputable history. More than ever, the Left needs to point out the contradictions of the Rassemblement National and its anti-social agenda, to demonstrate what interests it will really stand up for if it comes to power. But for this to happen, the “Left” in question has to be credible. In this sense we have nothing much to learn from the paragons of “happy globalization,” the “European dream,” and the alleged glory days of François Hollande. For their betrayals and their attacks on the French social model were the main reasons why the Rassemblement National vote took off to start with.