Marine Le Pen’s visit to Viktor Orbán in Hungary aroused great domestic and French interest, despite the fact that in the Hungarian and European contexts, in fact, little or nothing material happened at this meeting. If something did happen, we, the viewers, were not informed about it at the press conference, where the parties said things that were already generally known. It is clear that Orbán and Le Pen spoke in private about more than what they said in public. But this is not a bold analytical statement, just logic: They don’t organize international meetings for nothing.
Orbán meeting came at the right time
Despite appearances, the international excitement was justified. The significance of the Orbán-Le Pen rendezvous for the French presidential election campaign, for example, cannot be overestimated. Marine Le Pen’s campaign is at a low point. Since the summer, Le Pen has lost at least a third of her supporters, with her support falling below 20 percent, so she needed the momentum.
Viktor Orbán is capable of at least partially providing this momentum, since for French sovereignist and anti-migration voters, the Hungarian prime minister has become an important point of reference, a kind of symbol, since 2015.
In other words, Le Pen received a campaign gift, a gesture from Orban.
This great courtesy is also a kind of stamp of approval on Le Pen’s credentials from Orban. Beyond the ideological show of force, it was also important for Le Pen to meet an incumbent leader, i.e., to hold the kind of high-level international talks that a French president holds on a weekly, or sometimes daily, basis. A few days earlier, the French radical right leader had also met with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, albeit with less pomp.
However, in both cases, Le Pen, who has no public office outside of the National Assembly, now benefits from any meeting where she can demonstrate that she is working with people who are already in public office at the international and European level and who are sympathetic to her own base.
A competence deficit in the background
This is needed, as the President of the National Rally (RN) has serious foreign policy deficits: In the presidential debate between the two rounds in 2017, she showed a surprising lack of preparation on European policy, and the Frexit program was, to put it mildly, overly ambitious. Moreover, in the 2017 campaign, Le Pen only managed a truly spectacular and memorable meeting with Vladimir Putin, and she didn’t even come close to meeting the newly elected Donald Trump, despite a trip to New York. This time, Le Pen could proudly disseminate in the press the fact that the incumbent Orbán had rolled out the red carpet for her.
Regarding the growing sovereign-radical adversary, now questioning Le Pen’s participation in France’s second round of elections, Le Pen’s team didn’t fail to note that Éric Zemmour only came to the Carmelite library a month earlier.
In relation to this, Le Pen handled things with a corresponding smile and communicative discipline, not deviating much from the predefined messages and panels.
In the shadow of De Gaulle
It is understandable why it was a good thing that Le Pen was able to benefit further from her visit to Hungary, i.e., in writing a letter of thanks to the Hungarian prime minister. The content of the letter in question was made public by the Hungarian prime minister’s staff. The message contained a lot of things that are also campaign issues for the Hungarian government, constantly on the agenda and repeated. So it was a mutually beneficial thing, as it allowed Orbán’s staff to repeat the messages that Fidesz wants to plant in the minds of voters. Interestingly, however, this letter seemed to be less, or not at all, interesting to the French press. It was obviously not newsworthy.
Its publication coincided with the 51st anniversary of the death of General De Gaulle, considered by many to be the father of French sovereignty. There was a whole campaign, so many politicians on the left and in the center commemorated the event. (De Gaulle’s legacy is now claimed, at least in part, by almost all political forces.) And on the right, indeed, almost everyone made speeches, worshipped, and demonstrated strength. It was obviously more interesting and newsworthy that Éric Zemmour was not among the “almost everyone,” after General de Gaulle’s grandson sharply criticized him for his historical views on the role of Marshal Pétain. And certainly of more interest was the state of play between the historically anti-Gaulle National Rally (RN) and Marine Le Pen’s Gaullean turn.
The RN president’s speech in Bayeux was, moreover, greeted by protesters, which was also understandably more exciting to the press than another message about Orbán, which had nothing really new to offer in terms of content.
At a turning point?
So the meeting was important, but it should not be overrated. Clearly, it is not a meeting like this that will turn the tide of the French presidential election campaign.
But it is also true that the Zemmour-Le Pen duel has come to an important moment, as Zemmour’s rise seems to have come to a halt and Le Pen seems to have caught her breath.
After the early media successes, interest in Zemmour seems to have waned a little. (Perhaps due also to the fact that Zemmour, at the time of this writing, is playing a very risky, hardball game; he attacked President Hollande on terrorism, accusing him of doing nothing to prevent the Bataclan attack, which not only outraged his political opponents but also Bataclan victims). Such “lucky” moments offer up opponents like Marine Le Pen a chance, and if a meeting with Orbán can be timed to coincide with such a moment, it is certainly not a disadvantage. The sovereignist right-wing parties will next meet in Warsaw in early December to discuss their plans for a new European alliance of the right.
So that could be Le Pen’s next international moment, if the trend of Polish Law and Justice opening up to the French party continues and manifests itself in another invitation.
Perhaps then we will know more about the concrete details pertaining to their alliance that the parties have not yet provided.
Open European issues
But what are the specifics? For example, what should the international party alliance that is constantly being talked about look like? Should it have a stable organizational form? (If so, the best place to argue is over statutes. In a sovereign community, the really important question is what the role of majority decision-making should be, or what structure should ensure that decision-making is not paralyzed by a series of vetoes.)
Then, once the organizational questions have been overcome, the question of who should be the formal or informal leader of this alliance, what symbolic message should his or her person send, who should be elevated, who should be deposed, and even who should be given possible political advantages? Finally, even if all these ego issues are settled, it is not entirely clear how these hard-right parties could unify their priorities on sensitive issues such as economic policy, minority policy or even the different national relations with Russia. (Here, for example, the Polish PiS and the National Rally think very differently.)
Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen and others tried and failed to create this unity in the European Parliament in 2019. Now the Hungarian prime minister and his party, which is leaving the People’s Party, are involved in the negotiations, but the international situation has changed dramatically.
For example, after the relatively friendly Donald Trump, Andrei Babiš also failed. And if all this were not enough, this alliance would have to come together at a time when the German CDU, which has a strong influence on national interests in Central Europe, is going into opposition, Matteo Salvini’s party is in government with Mario Draghi, and Poland is being assessed as under hybrid attack from Belarus and, by extension, Russia.
The Hungarian Prime Minister has mentioned that he would speed up the process of „organization” — but in such a delicate situation, how much faster can it be, and what time horizon are the parties thinking about?
So, the situation is that Marine Le Pen, who has dipped below 20 percent in recent months, faces a major — not so simple — political challenge and a tough campaign in the 2022 presidential election. But the formula she discussed with Viktor Orban behind closed doors is probably not so simple either.