Marine Le Pen: Is this the most dangerous woman in France?

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Niccolo and Donkey
Marine Le Pen: Is this the most dangerous woman in France?

Guardian UK

Russell Shorto

June 26, 2011


Step inside an office building in the town of Nanterre, just west of Paris, and you are confronted by what the nostrils register as an odour of the past, for it's a rare thing these days to encounter the lingering taint of cigarette smoke in public spaces. The trail of it leads upstairs to a corner office and to the woman who has, in the past few months, come to dominate French newspapers and chat shows, where she is depicted variously as the new face of European bigotry or a herald of a new European political realignment.

Marine Le Pen , the leader of France's far-right Front National party, greeted me with an aggressive handshake and the abrupt body language of a person who has a lot to do. It was spring. A flurry of polls had just come out showing she would beat Nicolas Sarkozy if the presidential election were held at that moment (the election will take place a year from now), and she was working hard to press her advantage. She wore a simple blue suit and no jewellery, and her hair was pulled back somewhat haphazardly, with stray wisps dangling. Her gaze is steely, but her eyes have humour in them. Her deep voice, with its smoker's rasp, carries authority.

Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen , was a founder of the Front National in 1972 and served as its leader, and perennial presidential candidate, until his retirement in January, at 82. Along the way, thanks in part to his penchant for crisply expressed opinions – that the Nazi occupation of France was "not particularly inhuman"; that the gas chambers were "a detail"; that "the races are unequal"; that someone with Aids is "a kind of leper"; that "Jews have conspired to rule the world" – he and his party became emblems of European right-wing extremism. The height of his popularity came in 2002, when he reached second place in the initial round of voting for president and won the right to enter a head-to-head contest with the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac. Le Pen was trounced in that election and his party faded as a force to be reckoned with.

Then in January, Marine – at 42, the youngest of his three daughters – won a battle to succeed her father as president of the party. Almost overnight, she brought the Front National not just back into the spotlight but also into outright competition. The polls that show her matching or outpacing Sarkozy have shuffled the French political game board. Of late, Sarkozy has fired his diversity minister, declared that multiculturalism has been "a failure" and staged a "debate on Islam " that French Muslims saw as a swat at them – all moves that are widely viewed as a direct response to Marine Le Pen's rise. She derided Sarkozy's support for the recently enacted ban on full-face veils as a pandering political manoeuvre that addressed only "the tip of the iceberg" of what she views as the Islamisation of French culture.

Marine Le Pen's sudden prominence draws attention to the contrasts between her and the man she hopes to replace. Where Sarkozy is stylish, Le Pen tends towards simplicity. Where he has become, to many, a classic say-anything-to-please-anyone politician, Le Pen's followers find her to be a straight-talker. Sarkozy is seen as representing the elitists who support the increasingly unpopular European Union , while Le Pen wraps herself in the mantle of the French republic. Even in derisive nicknames, she comes across as the stronger: Sarkozy is Monsieur Bling Bling; Le Pen has been called La Peste Blonde – a play on both la peste noire , the French term for the Black Death, and, more recently, La Peste Brune, which referred to the Nazi menace.

"Never in modern French history has the far right challenged like this," Frédéric Micheau, deputy director of the French polling agency IFOP, told me. "This is something totally new." This jump in support for so polarising a figure raises a question that has ramifications not only in France, but also in other places where the far right is resurgent. Is Le Pen fille a different person from her father, or has racism simply become mainstream?

When I asked Le Pen to identify something from her childhood that formed her, she said, "20kg of dynamite". In 1976, when she was eight, a bomb tore off the front of the family's apartment building in Paris while they were asleep. "I realised politics could cost you your life," she said flatly. As the daughters of a greatly reviled politician, she and her two sisters grew up in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation – taunted by other children and shunned by teachers. "Our childhood was marked by a sense of injustice concerning our father," her sister Yann Marechal told me in an email. "We were the victims of many forms of attack," Le Pen told me, "of virulent press campaigns and a lot of reprobation from the elites. That forged my character, and it also strengthened me."

The family has a closeness, and a dedication to an iconic ideal of the French state, that seems almost cultish. All three girls became party stalwarts, all married within the party. (One sister, however, Marie-Caroline, followed her husband after he broke with the Front National.) Marine's first two husbands were party officials, as is her current partner, Louis Aliot. Her 12-year-old daughter, Jehanne, is named after Joan of Arc (down to the medieval spelling); her son, Louis, 11, (whose has a twin, Mathilde) is named after "the whole series of great kings of France named Louis," Le Pen said. Marechal told me that despite the four-year age difference between her and Marine, the two of them "have always lived like twins" and that she and her children live together with Marine and her children "on the property of my father, so that we see each other and our children regularly". Le Pen said they all spend holidays together at their father's birthplace in Brittany.

Conspicuously absent from this family portrait is the mother. The other great scar on Le Pen's childhood besides the bomb, she said, was created by her mother leaving the family – and into the arms of her father's biographer, no less – and her parents' ugly divorce when she was 15. That period reached its culmination when her mother posed nearly nude in French Playboy and told interviewers that her ex-husband had a rabid hatred of Jews and privately referred to Adolf Hitler as Uncle Dolfie. Marine did not speak to her mother for the next 15 years.

About a decade ago, Marine began to emerge as the daughter with the guts and political skills to take over the family business. She became a lawyer and worked behind the scenes in the party, with her father's help, to become its vice president, edging past older male figures in the hard-nosed battle to succeed him. Jean-Marie Le Pen built the Front National out of a collection of fringe parties with overlapping but often conflicting agendas. The original core included avowed fascists, former members of the Vichy government that had been loyal to Hitler, anti-Jewish zealots, anti-immigrant nationalists and staunchly conservative Catholics. Jean-Marie held them together in part by using rhetoric that spoke to their fears and goals; that the same rhetoric kept the party isolated from the mainstream didn't matter, because governing was never his objective.

Marine Le Pen has bigger ambitions, as the pollster Frédéric Micheau puts it, "to refresh the image of the far right". Indeed she insists she is not a figure of the far right at all and has belittled its racism as something for "people with small brains". She has gambled that it is time for the party to leave the baggage of the second world war behind. Or, as she said, "I have damage to repair, damage between the French people and the Front National."

There are some obvious differences between Le Pen and her father, which partly account for her success and which she spelled out for me: "I'm a different person, a woman, a mother, in my 40s, of another generation." There is also her political astuteness. Before I met Le Pen, Claude Guéant, Sarkozy's interior minister, caused a stir by saying in a radio interview that "French people, in the face of uncontrolled immigration, sometimes feel they are no longer in their own home". The words went against the careful line Sarkozy had been taking and echoed sentiments that Le Pen expressed. That same evening, she appeared at a press conference brandishing a laminated Front National membership card printed with Guéant's name and invited him to join the party. The ploy made headlines across the country.

"Whose idea was the membership card?" I asked as we sat down. Le Pen shot up her hand with the sharp eagerness of a schoolgirl and smiled slyly. Then, clearly proud of her craft, produced the card and laid it in front of me.

Le Pen works assiduously at the fine political balancing act of remaining loyal to her father – and maintaining the support of the party's base – while distancing herself from the elder Le Pen's outrageousness. She has jettisoned her father's frank anti-Semitism, but she keeps the anti-immigrant policy plank as a central feature of the platform and will occasionally use headline-grabbing rhetoric, as in December when she likened the French having to endure Muslims praying on their streets to living under Nazi occupation.

She insists that her message on immigration is not xenophobic but commonsensical. She pointed repeatedly to the United States as a model: "In France, we often say the US is a multicultural society, but it's not. It's multiethnic, but one single culture. I don't say that nobody should enter our country. On the contrary, in the old days immigrants entered France and blended in. They adopted the French language and traditions. Whereas now entire communities set themselves up within France, governed by their own codes and traditions."

The economic crisis in the European Union has worked to her advantage as well. As a French nationalist and an anti-EU voice, she has called for France to drop the euro and return to the franc. The real secret to her success, however, may be in her adroit scrambling of traditional leftist and rightist positions. Signalling a clear break from her father and the right in general, she has come out with a detailed critique of capitalism and a position promoting the state as the protector of ordinary people. "For a long time, the Front National upheld the idea that the state always does things more expensively and less well than the private sector," she told me. "But I'm convinced that's not true. The reason is the inevitable quest for profitability, which is inherent in the private sector. There are certain domains which are so vital to the wellbeing of citizens that they must at all costs be kept out of the private sector and the law of supply and demand." The government, therefore, should be entrusted with healthcare, education, transportation, banking and energy.
When I pointed out that in the US she would sound like a left-wing politician, she shot back, "Yes, but Obama is way to the right of us."

Le Pen's mix of far-right nationalism and frankly leftist economics is related to the platforms of other fringe parties in Europe that have surged recently, and some critics see the combination as darkly reminiscent. "This appeared in the 1920s and 1930s," says Patrick Lozès, president of the Council Representing the Associations of the Black People of France (Cran), who has recently engaged in a public spat with Le Pen. "Those who a few decades ago saw the Jews as the enemy now use Muslims, saying, 'They are among us, but they will never be like us, will never share our values.' "

Some French intellectuals on the left have been watching Le Pen with a combination of awe and trepidation. "She has totally reoriented the party towards low-skilled, low-income people," says Laurent Bouvet, professor of political science at the University of Nice. Traditionally, he notes, blue-collar workers in public-sector jobs voted for the socialists, while blue-collar workers in industries might vote for the right, often the Front National. "But all of these people fear the change that comes with opening up the economy. And she is providing an answer to their fear."

In other words, Le Pen's economic stance is drawing interest from the left as well as the right. And she is doing something similar on immigration. Where the far right formerly adopted a clash-of-civilisations approach – Christianity versus Islam – Le Pen has donned the cloak of secularism as a value system that is under threat. "She is saying that the problem is not that they are Muslims but that they want to impose their values on our country," Bouvet says. "That is a big innovation. She pretends to defend gays, Jews, women. The Front National never defended Jews before. They were anti-Semitic – how could they? Now she says to Jews, 'You have to be careful about Muslims, and I am here to defend you.' And she says she is here to defend women and gays, in the name of freedom, secularism and the republic. This is really, really new. It's not a shift to the left, but to a third dimension for French politics."

Le Pen took over the reins of the party just as mass upheavals destabilised the Middle East. "It's kind of an Orwellian scenario," says Jean-Pierre Lehmann, professor of international political economy at the IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland. "You have the youngest population in the world on one side of the Mediterranean and the oldest population on the other side. And now you have mayhem in the Muslim countries, which will continue, so that there will be more pressure on people who want to escape. And Europeans will see their lifestyle in danger. Le Pen's party plays on fear, and this situation is easily exploitable."

Sarkozy's recent use of the military has given Le Pen another opening to exploit. She is opposed to his involvements in Libya and Ivory Coast and to globalist enterprises in general; she sees the uprisings in the Middle East to be partly a result of "policies put into place by the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation toward an impoverishment of the North African countries."

Sarkozy's aligning France with Nato might win support in the White House and 10 Downing Street, but it has done little for his popularity at home. For the country's disaffected, it only reinforces views of him as an elitist and a globalist. Where in America many of the disaffected might look to a return to Christian and free-market values, their counterparts in Europe find comfort in a turn towards nationalism, which includes state protection, and away from the institutions of globalisation. Le Pen is locked into that mindset.

After my interview with Le Pen, I wandered around Belleville, the Parisian neighbourhood long associated with North African immigrants, and stopped in a Tunisian restaurant for lunch. Not surprisingly, mentioning the name Marine Le Pen got everyone in the restaurant wound up. Much of what was said is unprintable, but one customer gave me his critique of Le Pen's immigration ideas. "I'm very lucky," he said. "My wife is an attorney and I am a teacher. We are welcome in Paris. But the unskilled Tunisians, the sort of people who historically built France, Le Pen wants to leave them behind." When I asked if he was Tunisian, he corrected me – "I am Franco-Tunisian" – a rebuke to the Front National's oft-voiced suspicions about the Frenchness of immigrants.

Few commentators think Le Pen has much chance of winning the presidency next year: for one thing, Sarkozy's party and the socialists have each indicated that, were she to win a spot in the final round of voting, they would band together to block her, as they have impeded the Front National in the past. Meanwhile, Sarkozy's perceived vulnerability has made the race for the French presidency extremely fluid. There are several other high-profile potential candidates, including Jean-Louis Borloo, Sarkozy's former environment minister, who threatens to fracture the centre-right vote, and Nicolas Hulot, a TV naturalist who is one of the most popular personalities in France.

Le Pen may not become president, but some would argue she has already succeeded. "Even if she never wins an election, when you release this kind of thinking into society, modernising the packaging of racism, the consequences go on and on," says Lozès.

The advances made by the Front National and other parties in Europe today – the Swiss People's Party, the Northern League in Italy, Geert Wilders's Freedom Party in the Netherlands – are all based on the combination of anti-immigrant stances plus economic populism and national patriotism. Mainstream parties across Europe have not found answers to this movement, for which the term "far right" seems increasingly inadequate.

"We could be looking at a great realignment of the political positions in Europe," says Bouvet. "It's a new populism. Marine Le Pen could lead it." Le Pen insists, however, that her interest is not Europe-wide but limited to her own country.

Le Pen told me she sees a new French revolution building against the mainline parties and she intends that she and her party will be on the frontlines of the battle. Then she hastened to add, "But, of course, I mean a peaceful and democratic revolution."
Niccolo and Donkey

The Socialists were the ones to take the Senate in the most recent elections and they're tipped to pose the greatest danger to Sarkozy - I think this woman is a non-issue to be honest.

Niccolo and Donkey
Polls tend to underestimate those candidates who are of a non-politically correct persuasion.

The fear is that she is much more popular than her father and will knock Sarkozy out of the first round and can possibly pick up labour votes that have traditionally gone to the Socialists.