For 18 years, I have sat in the European Parliament and looked on in wonderment at Jean-Marie Le Pen’s regular lunchtime table. Politics aside, when it comes to a good lunch with food, wine and company, he is certainly a true Frenchman.
At no point in time did I want Ukip to do a deal with the French National Front (FN). The party’s roots were deep in Vichy and I believed anti-Semitism was embedded in its DNA. All this made it the wrong place for Ukip to be. I’ve always seen Jean-Marie Le Pen as the modern-day Chauvin.
Then, in January 2011, an overwhelming vote of FN members saw Marine Le Pen become leader – beating Holocaust-denying Bruno Gollnisch. From the start, she wanted the FN to be more like Ukip than the BNP. I was told that this would be a nightmare for me.
In response, I said Marine needed to make many fundamental changes if I was ever to work with her. And in the passing years I have watched, met and spoken to her many times. I told her she needed to change completely and rebrand the image of her party. Sure enough, she has made real changes, the biggest of which was to get rid of her own father.
It was always monstrous that she should be judged in the image of her father – an accusation many still make today. I wonder whether, had her surname not been “Le Pen”, she might now be ahead in the polls. There is nothing she has said in this entire election campaign that I find unreasonable or extreme. Indeed, she has a more rational line on Islam than many Eurosceptic parties across the Continent. She is a sincere Eurosceptic, and under her the FN is about sovereignty, not race. Marine has met virtually all of my previous conditions.
On Sunday, the French people have a clear and decisive choice. Emmanuel Macron, who is standing as an “independent”, despite serving as minister for economics in the socialist government, is a cardboard cut-out creation of the political class. Schooled (of course) at L’École Nationale d’Administration, and backed by Establishment figures the world over, he is the former investment banker and self-styled globalist who wants more power to go from member states to the European Union. The Le Pen campaign is about French sovereignty and a renegotiation with Brussels, followed by a referendum on EU membership. This is the same tactic used by David Cameron, but the key difference is that his negotiation was to keep Britain in the EU, whereas she wants France to leave.
From a UK perspective, as we enter tough negotiations, what is best for our country? I have no doubt that a Le Pen victory would give the EU an even bigger headache than the UK voting for Brexit, which is why the European Commission is openly backing Macron. I recently interviewed Le Pen on LBC Radio. She wants a positive relationship with Britain and was enthusiastic about a bilateral trade deal in the future. She is being grown-up on the issue of trade post-Brexit. If Macron wins, all Britain will see is more of the current bullying and unreasonable demands being made by Juncker and his crew.
My real ally in French politics for years has been Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a member of the Assemblée Nationale and leader of Debout La France. He’s a middle-class conservative, a Gaullist moderate who is firmly Eurosceptic. I have shared many platforms with him in France over the past few years. To his credit he managed to gain 5 per cent of the vote in the first round. He has now, for the first time in his career, decided that the time is right to back Le Pen and has done a deal with her. She has stood down as president of her party, and, if she wins on Sunday, he will become prime minister of France.
This alliance pleases me. It shows Le Pen is able to reach out, make deals and join forces with others that in the past the FN would have regarded as mortal enemies. And the time has come for me to get off the fence and say that I do want to see Marine Le Pen win on Sunday. She would make a good leader of France and is the right candidate for Brexit Britain.
Her victory would take much of the pressure off our negotiations. She will put France first and take her country out of the euro, which has damaged their competitiveness. A Le Pen victory would be the beginning of the end for this failed project.
The polls put Macron 20 points ahead but, win or lose on Sunday, Euroscepticism will have made a dramatic advance in France. I will make one absolutely firm prediction now: if Le Pen does not win this Sunday, she will become the French president in 2022.