Marine Le Pen seeks political opening after teacher’s beheading in France

Her far-right party was running in circles, dogged by reruns of an old feud with her niece and a lack of energy heading into a new presidential bid.

But the context has changed for France’s Marine Le Pen.

In the wake of the beheading of a schoolteacher who showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed to his class, Le Pen is once again in her element — vowing to shut down borders and rain hellfire on terrorists as President Emmanuel Macron struggles through a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, the National Rally party president gave a press conference that was broadcast live on the website of Le Figaro, a right-leaning newspaper.

Seemingly energized, the black-clad politician intoned that France now required “wartime legislation” to combat what she called “an organized and already installed force” — presumably in reference to radicalized Islamists such as the suspect in the knife attack, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee shot dead after a standoff with police in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, near Paris.

Never mind that the assailant, a refugee born in Moscow, had been living in France with his five siblings for the past 12 years, had never shown up on terrorist watchlists, and had recently obtained permanent resident status in France.

Le Pen was not going to miss a chance to spotlight her hard-line views, which have varied little (with the exception of her calls to leave the eurozone, now abandoned) since she got her start in politics in 2010.

Nor would she fail to go after her opponent, Macron.

“Against an organized and already installed force … our president has proposed an inadequate and anachronistic containment strategy,” she said. “The situation calls for a strategy of reconquest.”

Yearning for a rematch

Three years after her defeat to Macron in the final round of a presidential election, Le Pen is now focused on her own strategy of reconquest: beating Macron in 2022.

A sitting member of parliament, she has steered clear of risky mid-term election runs. She has scrupulously avoided scandal. And she has promoted young and relatively inexperienced party members to prominent positions in the National Rally hierarchy, ensuring that her authority goes unchallenged.

The strategy has succeeded in maintaining her base of support. According to POLITICO’s running tally of polls, Le Pen has kept in a close second place to Macron in a hypothetical first-round of the presidential election for most of the past year, even briefly overtaking him at the height of the Yellow Jacket crisis.

But the result of her low-risk approach has also been monotony.

As Macron’s government battled the pandemic, Le Pen had little more than sniping criticism, and her party has faced familiar ills: failed efforts to join forces with other right-wing figures, internal criticism of plans to roll back pension reform and the resurgence of a long-standing — and somewhat stage-managed — feud with her popular niece, Marion Maréchal.

The Conflans attack puts Le Pen on the offensive while Macron is on the back foot..

Beset by a double-barreled health and economic crisis, the president now faces a third front on terrorism and Islamist radicalism which does not play to his strong suits.

In a speech earlier this month, Macron laid out his vision for dealing with what he called “separatism,” or the splitting away from French society of religious groups, namely the practitioners of hardline Islam.

But the move, which many criticized as insensitive, now appears unfitting to the severity of the Conflans attack, which has been received as a direct assault on free speech and France’s secular tradition.

Wary of appearing inactive, the president convened his defence council in the hours after the attack, and on Monday TV carried footage of police raiding groups of radical Islamists. Macron’s conservative interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, went so far as to propose dissolving the Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France (CCIF), a controversial activist group combating Islamophobia, and other groups, as being “enemies of the Republic.”

But Le Pen has long since laid claim to the most radical solutions. If Macron’s allies try to chase after her, dividing themselves in the process, they will run headlong into a riskier confrontation with the National Rally chief in two years’ time.

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