Marine Le Pen and France's Front National sense their time has come

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Niccolo and Donkey
Marine Le Pen and France's Front National sense their time has come

Guardian UK

Kim Willsher

January 21, 2012

Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader and National Front candidate for the presidential election, waves to supporters. Photograph: Francois Mori/AP

At the foot of the bronze statue of an armour-clad Joan of Arc, outside the Front National headquarters on the outskirts of Paris, someone had laid two wreaths of perfect white lilies to mark the 600th anniversary of the martyr's birth.

The French far right has long claimed the peasant girl who became the scourge of the English as its symbol, rebuffing recent attempts by Nicolas Sarkozy 's ruling UMP party to wrest her from them.

Today, six centuries on and exactly three months from France's presidential election, Joan's legend has never seemed so relevant to backers of the FN's charismatic leader, Marine Le Pen . Once again, France must free itself from unwelcome foreign intervention and national pride must be restored. Is this Le Pen's moment?

The conjunction of the eurozone crisis, the loss of France's triple-A credit rating, and rampant unemployment, currently at a 12-year high, has given unexpected credibility to Le Pen's anti- Europe , anti-immigration stance. The economic storm has created what political pundits and pollsters believe may be a now-or-never moment for the Front National after 40 years spent largely in the political backwaters.

Poll after poll places Le Pen third with 21.5%, hovering just behind Sarkozy at 23.5%, and with the Socialist party's François Hollande well in the lead for the first round of the presidential vote in April. If the opinion polls are accurate, it is perfectly feasible, allowing for the accepted margin of error, for Le Pen to reach the second-round run-off a fortnight later. Some surveys show support for the FN candidate to be considerably higher, topping 30%.

The days when the FN, then run by Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, now 83, could be dismissed as the loony fringe of French politics have long gone. Some of its policies have been anxiously emulated by Sarkozy's government as it shifts to the right, giving them a mainstream respectability.

Left Bank intellectuals, the luminaries of Paris's beau monde and members of the capital's chattering classes tend to crumple with a mixture of fear and loathing at the mention of Le Pen's name. In the gritty post-industrial areas of France, however, where families are struggling daily with the sharp end of the economic crisis – job losses, factory closures, rising food prices – Le Pen's message of patriotism, protectionism and state paternalism, wrapped up in what passes for common sense, falls on receptive ears.

Le Monde has described her economic programme as "unreal figures and a real threat", but she insists that her message is aimed at "ordinary French citizens". It is, at its most simplistic, that France must regain its former glory; it must reindustrialise to make things and create jobs; it must dump the euro and throw up barriers against immigration, cheap imports and external interference; France must come first. The campaign slogan is simply Marine Le Pen: Voice of the People, Spirit of France.

"I speak for the values of the people. I don't have to pretend to be one of them, I am," she told me in a recent interview. "My father was the son of a fisherman, my mother the daughter of a small businessman. That's the background I come from: where there is respect for the values of honesty, hard work, merit, patriotism, a sense of sacrifice, liberty, respect and discipline."

At the party headquarters, an uninspired architectural shoebox in La rue des Suisses in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, visitors are greeted with a computer screen relaying images of Marine Le Pen, 43, on stage, at rallies, on the campaign trail.

She is physically impressive; tall, strapping, a "big, healthy, blonde girl... an ideal physical specimen", as her father once described the youngest of his three daughters.

Asked if he is excited by the unprecedented poll ratings, the FN party treasurer, Jean-Michel Dubois, refuses to be drawn. "I have been in the party since 1986," he replies. "I am pragmatic." When pressed, he says: "Everyone knows Marine Le Pen will be in the second round." Dubois claims that the economic crisis has proved something extremely important: "What Marine Le Pen warned, what she said would happen, was right. Everyone now realises she was right. "

The French political elite was given a short, sharp lesson in not underestimating the FN in 2002. In a completely unexpected scenario, Jean-Marie Le Pen knocked the Socialist candidate out. He lost in the second-round run-off, but the incident provoked a bout of national shame and self-loathing that left deep scars.

Jean-Marie Le Pen's hectoring antisemitism and bullying rhetoric could not sustain the success. But in January 2010 Marine Le Pen was elected the FN's president and overhauled the party.

She dumped the shaven-haired bully boys nominally responsible for "security" at FN rallies for fresh-faced girls in jeans and crisp T-shirts, and abandoned the neo-Nazism and outdated references to the second world war. She even voiced support for homosexual marriage.

There were flashes of Le Pen senior in her railing against Muslims praying in the streets – which she likened to the Nazi occupation – "corrupt" politicians, European technocrats, and that old FN chestnut, immigration. And while it was generally agreed that she was softer and cleverer than her father, the fundamental ideology of the FN seemed to have changed little.

"She's a young woman and she plays on that softer image. She's also good at getting her message across, much, much better than her father," said Nonna Mayer, who is an expert on France's far right and a professor at the Paris Institute for Political Studies ( Sciences Po ).

"But it's the same politics of scapegoating that it always has been. It's still the extreme right. There's no getting away from it."

Veteran political commentator Alain Duhamel branded Le Pen "just as big a peril" as her father, but Jérôme Fourquet, of the pollster company Ifop, attributes her popularity to the parlous state of the global economy, which he says gives her views "credibility". "The evolution of this economic crisis will be very important to the Front National. If it gets worse, she could profit from the situation," he said.

Marine Le Pen has admitted struggling to amass the 500 signatures of support from French mayors needed to run for president, but says that it would be "scandalous" if she were excluded. She certainly believes her moment has come.

"The tectonic plates are shifting," she says.
Niccolo and Donkey
France's National Front: 'The party of poor people'?

By Christian FraserBBC News, Paris

The French presidential election, beginning in April, promises to be a close run thing and the right-wing National Front party are looking to gain votes out of France's social and economic unrest.


A market in northern France and the politicians are out pressing the flesh, of both fruit and prospective voters.

Market in France? - I know what you're thinking - camembert and croissants, home-made jam and tablecloths.
But this is post-industrial Abbevillle, a gritty town on the Somme where people are feeling the pinch.
The stalls are full of cheap electronics and drab clothes. The richest pickings are for the National Front (NF) politicians, on the prowl for votes.
Unemployment is running at 30% in Abbeville - non-coincidentally, the same figure as local support for the National Front.
Money and jobs are scarce in the town, which recently lost its prized sugarbeet plant, a source of civic pride for more than a century.
The people blame the closure on EU directives that sent their jobs abroad. They are angry about the eurozone crisis and the high price of food.
Christian MandosseNational Front
Little wonder then that support for the National Front, and its patriotic focus on French jobs, French pride and French money, is winning popular support.
Some who once voted Communist are now joining hands with traditional right wing voters.
Last week the party's modernising leader, Marine Le Pen, introduced the French media to her campaign group - it could scarcely be more culturally inclusive.
There is a mother whose family roots are in the Ivory Coast and a man from Guadaloupe, who used to support President Nicolas Sarkozy. A civilian police worker with Moroccan origins, a leading light in French Jewry and the director of human resources for the Marie Claire media group.
Gone is the neo-Nazi rhetoric that was a hallmark of the former National Front leader, her father Jean-Marie. Purged too, are the brutish skinheads who used to police entry to party meetings.

In Abbeville I meet a new model NF official, Christian Mandosse, a 40-something with a talent in new media.
"We are just normal people," shrugs Mr Mandosse, gesturing at his university lecturer clothes.
You cannot imagine the octogenarian Jean-Marie Le Pen taking to Twitter, or updating his Facebook status to "Ranting in Rheims", but Mr Mandosse is busy spreading the new party doctrine on social media.
"We refuse to be labelled 'far right'," he says. "In fact, we are turning a little bit to the left. We're the party of poor people."
Nonetheless, immigration remains a key preoccupation.
Ms Le Pen would give French citizens priority over foreigners for jobs, housing and welfare.
"Because we have five million French people unemployed and there's no reason for us to have overseas people arriving each year," Mr Mandosse told me.
"If we had a lot of work, I'd understand, but we have nothing to offer. Nothing."
There is consternation in liberal France that Marine, who was elected leader in January 2011 and has no ministerial experience, appears to attract so much support.
She is currently running third behind the president and the Socialist challenger, François Hollande, but neither man should underestimate the threat the NF poses.
That was the mistake made in 2002, when Jean-Marie - with just 18% of the vote - sensationally knocked out the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, to reach the second-round run-off.
Both leading candidates have their problems.
The president is seen as a Marmite politician - people love him or loathe him.
By contrast, the bland Monsieur Hollande is strictly vanilla - one of his nicknames is Flanby, a brand of pudding. Like Marine Le Pen, he has never had a ministerial job. Nonetheless, he leads "Sarko" in the polls with his crowd-pleasing pledges to tax the rich.
Privately, the president is said to accuse Monsieur Hollande of "péché d'arrogance", the "sin of arrogance".
That is "a little rich" say voters, referring either to the irony or perhaps the president's wealthiest friends.
Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, steals votes from both sides.
Critics insist she's a fascist with a nice face, pointing out that only last month she attended a far-right ball in Vienna, that was held on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
And in Abbeville, I could not help but notice that for all the amiable assurances Christian Mandosse had given me, there was a rather sticky moment when one market stall-holder asked "what will you do for us? The French gypsies?"
"Er, nothing," said Mr Mandosse with perhaps more honesty than might have been expected.
There is still a reluctance among voters to declare publicly their intention to vote for Marine Le Pen's party and she is still short of the support of the 500 mayors necessary to reach the presidential ballot.
Yet despite the reticence of elected officials, the polls suggest she is eating into Nicolas Sarkozy's slice of the vote and could yet supplant him in the second round.
Niccolo and Donkey
Ferdinand SweetLeftFoot

The French Far Right's Unlikely Quest for Jewish Voters


Niccolo and Donkey
Team Zissou

Wow. Le Pen is not a "fringe candidate." Not at all.

How does the French parliamentary system work? I assume the Socialists will align with the UMP to form a government. If that's the case, nothing much changes because the Socialists would see massive capital flight from their policies.

Steve Sailer has started documenting the variance between Jewish 'leaders' and Jews, who strike me as deeply woven into modern French society, notwithstanding the obligatory reference to the Dreyfus affair.