PARIS—After securing her party’s biggest-ever gains in elections to France’s National Assembly,
Marine Le Pen
is now reflecting on whether she can steer the country toward what she calls a strategic midpoint between the U.S., Russia and China.
Her hard-right National Rally party is now the single largest opposition party after securing 89 seats in June’s election, helping to deprive President
Renaissance party of a majority. That makes her one of the more prominent voices in Western Europe to question the way the region’s security arrangements work.
Specifically, Ms. Le Pen said in an interview she now wants France to adopt a policy of “equidistance” between the U.S., Russia and China that allows France to maneuver independently on the world stage. She has called for France to withdraw from the unified command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In doing so, she echoes right-wing leaders to the east, such as Hungarian Prime Minister
in questioning whether Western military support for Ukraine risks drawing the West into a direct confrontation with Russia over a war that she says Kyiv has no chance of winning on its own. Ms. Le Pen said France and other Western powers should instead push for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.
“I think Russia is a great military country,” Ms. Le Pen said. “Few people actually believe that a military victory is possible against Russia.”
There is little short-term prospect of France changing direction. While Mr. Macron warned that NATO was undergoing “brain death” in 2019, the alliance has strengthened more recently, particularly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the past week, the French president has announced fresh funding for Ukraine’s war effort and pledged to deliver new air-defense systems.
Ms. Le Pen, however, is hopeful of building on her party’s political gains this year. National Rally, she said, can now use the additional funding to pay off a Russian loan that has haunted Ms. Le Pen in election after election. The party can also now afford to recruit hundreds of new staff members after qualifying for about 10 million euros, or $9.8 million, in state funding on the back of June’s election performance. Just having more legislators visible will help push its agenda, which also includes limiting immigration, she says.
People “can watch them every day on TV, defending our ideas,” said Ms. Le Pen. “Maybe it wasn’t the case before, and that’s what we lacked in the presidential elections,” she added, referring to her loss to Mr. Macron in April’s vote.
Ms. Le Pen now aims to cast off the party’s reputation for rabble-rousing, exhorting her new lawmakers to avoid controversy. For years, she has tried to play down the legacy of her father, firebrand
Jean-Marie Le Pen,
who once described Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history.” She recently marked the 50th anniversary of National Rally with an understated gathering in the basement of the National Assembly. Her father didn’t attend.
One question looming over the party is whether Ms. Le Pen intends to follow through on comments she made before the presidential election, saying she wouldn’t run again if she lost. Mr. Macron won by a 17-point margin. Whether she runs in 2027, she said, depends on whether there are “exceptional circumstances that would mean I am the only one who can possibly win.”
During the election, Mr. Macron painted her as a puppet of Russian President
Mr. Macron hammered Ms. Le Pen over a €9 million loan the party contracted with the Moscow-based First Czech-Russian Bank in 2014, saying the debt made her beholden to the Kremlin.
The party has so far repaid around €2.5 million of the loan, which is now held by Aviazapchast JSC—a Russian company that supplies military aircraft and parts across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. It took over the loan in 2016 after First Czech-Russian Bank went bankrupt. But with more state funding, the party has more options to pay off the remainder.
“Getting rid of this loan is a priority,” said Kévin Pfeffer, National Rally’s 32-year old treasurer.
Ms. Le Pen says the loan hasn’t influenced her stance on Russia or its invasion of Ukraine, which she condemns. Her party was forced to borrow from Russia because no bank in Europe, North America or Asia would lend to it, she says.
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The party pays a relatively high 6% interest rate on the loan, which it repays under the supervision of the government’s political-funding watchdog. French law forbids banks and other companies from making campaign contributions, but they can lend money to political parties.
Moving on from her father’s legacy is perhaps the toughest challenge facing Ms. Le Pen, analysts say.
National Rally’s old guard—many of whom cut their teeth with Ms. Le Pen’s now 94-year-old father—still holds sway over the party while many of its new lawmakers have little political experience. The group includes a housekeeper, a retired grocer and a delivery driver.
“They have to make these people act as a cohesive group, and that will be very difficult,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist focused on Europe’s nationalist movements.
Ms. Le Pen expelled her father from the party in 2015. In 2018, she changed the party’s name from National Front to National Rally and dropped her opposition to the euro.
But she stopped short of changing the party’s logo: a French version of the tricolor flame initially adopted by the Italian Social Movement, a party founded by supporters of the former dictator
“The flame was chosen at a time when the National Front was created and was looking for an emblem. Jean-Marie Le Pen found it pretty,” Ms. Le Pen said, adding there was no reason to change it today. “This flame of the National Front, which became the National Rally, also belongs to its militants who every day have been on the ground, putting up posters for the past 50 years.”
The question of who will succeed Ms. Le Pen as party president if she decides to drop out of front-line politics, meanwhile, is a delicate matter. Candidates include 27-year-old Jordan Bardella, and Ms. Le Pen’s ex-boyfriend Louis Aliot. Marion Maréchal, Ms. Le Pen’s niece and previous heir-apparent, left the party and backed far-right rival Éric Zemmour in France’s presidential elections in April. Ms. Le Pen and her niece haven’t spoken since.
“It’s sad but it’s not for good,” Ms. Le Pen said. “In a family, things are never final. Look with my father, we fought a lot, I had to make extremely difficult decisions, but he’s still my father, I am his daughter.”
—Nick Kostov contributed to this article.
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