Recriminations fly in Marine Le Pen’s party over French election result

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A senior party official in Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National has stepped down, as recriminations fly within the French far right over its worse than expected election result.

Gilles Pennelle, an RN director-general involved in selecting candidates for the recent snap parliamentary election, submitted his resignation from the national leadership committee following internal party criticism over his choice of contenders.

The RN came third in Sunday’s run-off despite having won the first round, after leftist parties and President Emmanuel Macron’s centrists co-operated by withdrawing candidates to consolidate the anti-far right vote.

Le Pen and Jordan Bardella, the RN’s leader and prime ministerial candidate, have blamed the “unholy alliances” between the centre and the left.

But some in the party attributed the result to errors made during the campaign, including the choice of several novice candidates who made racist or xenophobic comments.

A first-time MP candidate in Normandy had to withdraw her candidacy last week when an old photo emerged of her wearing a Nazi Luftwaffe cap.

Another RN candidate drew derision when she argued in a television interview that the RN was not racist because it included people from all backgrounds. Citing her Catalan origins, she added: “My ophthalmologist is Jewish. And my dentist is a Muslim.”

Gilles Pennelle listens to a speech by Jordan Bardella in May
Gilles Pennelle, right, who helped choose the RN’s election candidates, resigned following criticism within the party over the selection of some contentious figures © Renaud Khanh/ABACA/Reuters

At a meeting of the RN’s national executive committee on Monday, Perpignan mayor Louis Aliot expressed alarm and anger about how such contentious figures made it on to the list of 577 candidates.

Pennelle submitted his resignation after the meeting.

“There were some casting errors that gave a bad image of our movement,” Bardella told TF1. On election night, he told journalists he took his “share of the blame” as campaign leader.

The campaign incidents have undercut Le Pen and Bardella’s strategy to portray the RN as ready to govern. They also dented Le Pen’s decades-long effort to “detoxify” the movement co-founded by her father, who was convicted of hate speech for downplaying the Holocaust.

On Tuesday, French prosecutors said they had opened an investigation into the financing of Le Pen’s unsuccessful 2022 presidential campaign. Le Pen and other RN officials are already set to go on trial in September over fraud allegations regarding EU payments.

Edwige Diaz, an MP from the Gironde region also on the leadership committee, said Pennelle was expected to step down to take up his seat in the European parliament and that his move had nothing to do with the election outcome.

“It’s being presented as if we experienced the legislative elections as a failure, when it’s just the doors of Matignon [the prime minister’s office] that we didn’t push open,” Diaz said.

With all political blocs far short of an outright majority, Macron will keep the current caretaker government and prime minister in place until negotiations among the parties play out.

RN officials defended Sunday’s result as historic, given that it is now the largest single party in the French parliament. The RN will remain in opposition, however, given that no one is willing to govern with it.

Bruno Bilde, a longtime ally of Le Pen from her northern fiefdom of Hénin-Beaumont, told Le Monde that the RN had to do better at selecting candidates. “We need to reassure, and instead we had people with divisive and worrying backgrounds,” he said.

On Sunday, as the election results rolled in, RN party activists and supporters were stunned with a few bursting into tears. Julien Hubert, an RN supporter, said he hoped the legislative setback would only help the party bounce back better, potentially in a year’s time if Macron is forced to dissolve a fractured parliament again. 

“I’ve seen [Le Pen] disappointed, like after her presidential loss in 2017. This was not the same,” Hubert said. “The people who voted are going to feel they haven’t been listened to. So I actually find this almost hopeful for next time.”

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