Global financiers line up to engage with Le Pen

Michael Stothard
President of French far-right National Front party Marine Le Pen delivers a speech at a campaign rally on March 11, 2017 in Chateauroux, France.
Chesnot | Getty Images

Fund managers, bankers and foreign diplomats are hurrying to meet France's far-right National Front to learn more about its programme, in a sign of how seriously the party is being taken six weeks before the presidential election.

Analysts at banks and funds including UBS, BlackRock and Barclays have met FN officials to discuss its economic plans, according to people close to the party. Representatives from dozens of governments including the US, Argentina, Sweden and Denmark have also met FN officials or attended party events, many for the first time.

"We have had people queueing up to talk to us about our programme," said Mikael Sala, an economic adviser to Marine Le Pen, party leader and presidential candidate.

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The interest underlines how markets and governments are considering the possibility that Ms Le Pen might win power, potentially putting her in a position to take the eurozone's second-largest economy out of the single currency and hold a "Frexit" referendum on leaving the EU.

While polls still suggest the FN leader will lose the second round in May, investors have been pricing in the increased likelihood of a victory as a rival on the centre-right, François Fillon, is weakened by a scandal about jobs for his wife and children.

The US, Argentine, Swedish and Danish embassies in Paris confirmed that either their ambassadors or domestic political specialists had held meetings with senior FN officials in recent months.

The embassies said the meetings were part of their role to speak to all big parties in France. The Argentine embassy said its ambassador's meeting with the FN was a chance to discuss its "vision" for Europe.

Their approach is in sharp contrast to the line taken by the UK and Germany, neither of which talk to the far-right party. "We have a policy of not engaging. There is a longstanding policy," Ed Llewellyn, the UK ambassador to Paris, told a UK parliamentary committee in January.

A spokesperson for BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager, said: "As part of election fact-finding research conducted earlier this year, a team of investment strategists from the BlackRock Investment Institute met the economic teams of the main French presidential candidates to better understand their economic policy proposals."

Barclays and UBS declined to comment.

Florian Philippot, the FN's chief strategist and one of Ms Le Pen's main advisers, has met diplomats from five European countries and three from Asia in recent weeks, according to Bertrand Dutheil de La Rochère, a member of the FN's strategic committee.

"People want to talk about our programme to leave the euro as well as our immigration policy," said Mr de La Rochère. "They see that victory is now likely."

Three weeks ago Ms Le Pen also laid out her international vision in a speech attended by representatives of 42 countries, according to the FN.

While Ms Le Pen is almost certain to get through to the second round, most pollsters assume she will then be beaten by any opponent — just as her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was defeated by an anti-FN coalition when he reached the second round of the election in 2002.

However, Ms Le Pen is seen as likely to do much better than Mr Le Pen because she is more moderate, while French politics has become more unpredictable. Voters in the largest centre-left and centre-right parties chose surprise candidates during the primary elections.

Thomas Guénolé, a lecturer at Sciences-Po university, said diplomatic and investor meetings with the FN showed the growing fear of a victory by Ms Le Pen. He said he had also been contacted by several "major US investors" to ask about the chance of a Le Pen victory. "The meetings do not show that the FN's ideas have more credibility . . . but that everyone is scared of Ms Le Pen winning," he said.