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PARIS — Marine Le Pen nabbed a high-profile handshake — and some international limelight — with Hungary’s prime minister on Tuesday as she seeks to prop up a struggling bid for the French presidency.
The French far-right leader, whose poll scores are at their lowest level in years, was granted a statesmanlike welcome in Budapest where Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, another right-wing populist, praised her as a “leading politician” whose party “always stood by Hungary.”
“Let’s say that the camp of the sovereignists has become an unavoidable force in European politics,” said Orbán, who shares many of Le Pen’s hardline views on immigration and the EU but had previously kept the French politician at arm’s length.
The encounter, which took place at the prime minister’s office, was a welcome distraction for the National Rally party leader, whose campaign has been plagued by the rise of Eric Zemmour, an author and TV personality who is challenging her from the right.
Zemmour was in Budapest last month and also got to meet with Orbán, although he got a more muted reception — in a library.
With French voters heading to the polls in six months’ time, Le Pen has been looking to burnish her international standing by showing she can hobnob with foreign leaders and establish links with like-minded politicians from other European countries.
The meeting with Orbán followed photo opportunities with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Slovenian PM Janez Janša on Friday.
It also marked an upgrade in her relations with the Hungarian prime minister, who had previously shown a marked lack of enthusiasm for Le Pen. He told The Atlantic in 2019 that French conservatives had told her she was a “red line” that should not be crossed. And he said he would not ally with her anyway as she was not in power.
Since then, Orbán and his party have left the mainstream center-right European People’s Party.
Le Pen’s camp sought to present Tuesday’s meeting as a sign that she was increasingly accepted internationally.
Jean-Philippe Tanguy, Le Pen’s deputy campaign director, argued that the meeting showed how she had become “a respectable politician” welcomed by “people in government.”
Another Le Pen adviser added: “Zemmour’s visit was a media stunt … We are on a different level, we are building something in Europe.”
Behind the scenes, Le Pen’s party has also been looking to build bridges with members of Orbán’s party, Fidesz, in the European Parliament, with the aim of finally forming a long-elusive Euroskeptic alliance.
Last summer, 16 right-wing populist parties, including several in government, joined forces to rail against the European Union, declaring the bloc to be “a tool of radical forces” trying to build a superstate.
The parties that signed the declaration include Fidesz, Poland’s governing Law and Justice, Le Pen’s National Rally, Austria’s Freedom Party and Spain’s Vox, along with Italy’s League and Brothers of Italy, led by Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni respectively.
The National Rally hopes to build on that alliance and create a new group composed of parties belonging to the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) faction in the European Parliament, along with Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice, which is currently part of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group.
“I’m intimately convinced that the meeting today heralds the creation of a new group,” said the Le Pen adviser. “Fidesz are isolated in parliament and I think that will change.”
“Orbán would not welcome her with all the official trimmings if he wasn’t intending to collaborate closely,” he said.
According to the same adviser, the French party would like to push through the creation of a new group by end of the year. This would increase their chances of getting more clout when a new slate of key positions in the Parliament is chosen at the start of 2022.
But for many on the Euroskeptic fringe, this is wishful thinking. Two MEPs from the ID group ruled out the creation of a single Euroskeptic, far-right group. One said he “could not see the Poles willing to give up their majority in the ECR group,” and noted that the Fidesz MEPs, who are part of the non-attached group, “seem quite comfortable where they are.”
A National Rally MEP admitted a new group appeared off the cards in the immediate future.
“Fidesz are too busy thinking about the [Hungarian national] election next year,” he said.
“Creating a big group is not the central issue right now,” he said, adding that like-minded parties could still cooperate informally and coordinate strategies even if they were not part of the same faction.