PARIS (Reuters) - Support for French far-right leader Marine Le Pen was widely expected to soar in the wake of the deadly attacks on Paris by Islamist militants. In the event, the possible next leader of France was outmaneuvered by President Francois Hollande.
Along with other party leaders, Le Pen was invited to Hollande’s Elysee Palace as security forces hunted the two men who shot 12 people at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a third who would that day kill four in a Jewish supermarket.
But once inside, Hollande refused her pleas to overrule a decision by his Socialist party to ban her from a mass “unity rally” the following Sunday on the grounds her views were extremist, officials from her National Front (FN) party said.
“Despite appearances he’s a sly old fox,” FN party treasurer Wallerand de St Just told Reuters.
Le Pen attended a unity march in 2012 after Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah shot dead seven people in the southern city of Toulouse. It boosted her ratings, helping her anti-immigration party to striking local and European election gains last year.
This time, Le Pen’s score has barely budged while Hollande’s went from all-time lows late last year to as much as 40 percent approval in a survey by the Ifop group released on Monday.
A separate survey released this weekend by pollster BVA showed a similar rebound and noted that Hollande’s Socialist Party, on 30 percent, had now edged ahead of the FN on 28 percent for the first time since last September.
The ban, which Le Pen learned of via Twitter, has made life tough for the party and its leader and highlighted internal tensions over her efforts to appeal to the mainstream while keeping her distance from the “elite” she so vilifies.
“It’s been a difficult period,” said St Just, one of the eight officials present at a Jan. 8 National Front leadership crisis meeting, told Reuters. “Everyone wants to know what will happen to our little shop.”
FN vice-president Louis Aliot, who is also the partner of Le Pen, a 2017 presidential hopeful, told Reuters the 30-minute exchange she had with Hollande was frank but that the president refused to back down.
Hollande has dominated the post-attack agenda, and his tough-talking Prime Minister Manuel Valls, by declaring war on Islamist militants, has made it hard for the usually strident Le Pen to make her views stand out.
The unity march attracted 1.5 million people, an unprecedented street turnout since Paris’s 1944 liberation from Nazi rule and a defining political event for millions.
Le Pen and her party had no choice but to stage local rallies in their heartlands after the failure of her lobbying of Hollande, proposed by the party lieutenants she consulted on Jan. 8 after cancelling a trip to Brussels in the wake of the attacks.
Le Pen struggled to bring together more than 1,000 people in a march in the southern town of Beaucaire.
“For Le Pen, missing out on such a unique display of unity was a failure, no matter how it came about,” said Dominique Reynie, a political scientist at Sciences Po university.
Even so, the FN could reverse its fortunes and make new poll gains if the mood of national unity wanes, further attacks are carried out in France or the media spotlight shifts back to the economic crisis in Europe, analysts and FN officials said.
As the ruling Socialist Party ensured Le Pen was frozen out of a Paris march that made world headlines, someone closer to home managed to further undermine her - her father Jean-Marie.
A critic of his daughter’s efforts to clean up the image of the party he founded four decades ago, Le Pen senior remembered past conflicts between the FN and the left-wing Charlie Hebdo, which in 2012 called for the party to be banned and had even depicted Marine Le Pen as a steaming lump of excrement.
While the party around Marine Le Pen had, according to her EU affairs adviser Ludovic Dedanne, agreed to pass over its differences with Charlie Hebdo and mount a robust defense of free speech, Le Pen father had other ideas.
In a tweet which drew an avalanche of criticism, he mocked the “I Am Charlie” slogan used in solidarity with victims by tweeting “I Am Charlie Martel” - a reference to a Frankish king who halted an 8th century invasion of France by Muslims from the Umayyad Caliphate.
During the kosher supermarket standoff, he posted a photo of Marine on Twitter overlaid with “Keep Calm and Vote Le Pen”, drawing accusations of tastelessly trying to exploit the drama.
“He thinks using violent, provocative words is productive but I don’t, not anymore,” said St Just. “I’ve told him as much, and he wasn’t happy about it.”
The question for the FN is: where does it go now to build on the gain in support it has seen over the past two years?
In the run-up to local elections in March, one FN official Sebastien Chenu said the party would continue to court France’s have-nots by criticizing immigration, the European Union and the Socialist government for its failure to halt the attacks and stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in France.
But St Just said the rhetoric could be tailored to appeal to a new, elusive constituency: French Muslims who feel mistreated by left-wing governments and stigmatized after every attack.
“Muslims have suffered horribly, hugely, from all these failures and all these attacks,” he said. Asked if party officials would speak more about Muslim difficulties in coming weeks he said: “Absolutely”.
Attracting Muslim voters may be difficult for Marine Le Pen, who in a rare public slip was accused of incitement to racial hatred for a 2010 remark likening Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation of France.
Far-right specialist Sylvain Crepon said the open disagreement with Jean Marie Le Pen showed the fundamental split between Marine Le Pen’s smoothed-over FN and its hardline origins, still enshrined in policies such as limiting social housing and other benefits to French nationals and determining nationality according to blood-lines.
“The contradiction allows Le Pen to toggle between moderate sounding positions and provocations,” said Crepon. “But if she really wants to go mainstream she might have to make choices on such points.”
Additional reporting by Gerard Bon; editing by Mark John and Philippa Fletcher