While campaigning to become the Front National’s new leader, Marine Le Pen dismissed Nazism as “an abomination”, launched a new, antiglobalisation economic policy and spelled out very clearly that FN ideology is born of a love of France, not a hatred of everyone else.
But in case you thought the next generation Le Pen may not be a chip off the block of her father, Jean-Marie, she did get herself embroiled in rows over halal meat and depicting a Muslim “occupation” of France.
As the new face of the Front National, she has already broken her father’s popularity record of 26 per cent, with 27 per cent of French holding a favourable opinion of her.
Her problem, as she awaits the leadership announcement in mid-January, is that members believe that she is the sort of soft, populist politician of which they have no need. While her party may need some persuading (her opponent, Bruno Gollnisch, may not have the advantage of the Le Pen name, but he is a party veteran and politically much closer to the retiring leader), MPs across the political spectrum believe that a Front National under Marine Le Pen could redraw France’s political landscape.
Her recent remarks, combining both Islamophobia and the Second World War, have fired up Front National supporters, but are not so typical of Marine Le Pen.
While Jean-Marie Le Pen has been easy to depict as an elderly right-wing reactionary, preferring to shout from the sidelines, his daughter cannot be so easily caricatured and actively seeks power for the party, pushing its message
beyond immigration, to economics, crime and globalisation.
Her blonde hair and blue eyes may match an Aryan archetype, but she is keen to distance herself, and the far-right, from the rhetoric of Nazism, the Second World War and the fascism of the past: at least when she talks to the general
public. At 42, 40 years younger than her father, she is a new generation of far-right politician, not fixated on the war, Jews or France’s colonial conflicts.
She supports homosexuality on the principle that, in a free society, people should be able to choose their relationships and abortion, a women’s right to choose, on the same principle.
While her father created uproar by referring to Nazi gas camps as a “footnote” of the Second World War, Marine Le Pen distances herself from these remarks. Although careful to not criticise her father outright, she has made it clear that she does not share his view of history, or his anti-Semitism. Nazism, she said in a recent TV interview, is “an abomination”.
Today’s far-right can not only dispense with the anti-gay, anti-Jew, anti-feminist rhetoric of the past, it can even draw them on board, aligning them all against the new enemy – Islam.
“I increasingly hear about the fact that, in certain areas, it’s not good to be a woman, or gay, or a Jew, or French or white,” she said in a recent speech to party members, in which she compared the call to prayer to an “occupation” of France. Her politics in this respect follow that of the openly gay leader of the Dutch far-right Pym Fortuyn, who described Islam as a “backward religion” that had yet to go through the “laundromat of humanism”, while otherwise professing himself liberal on issues like drug use.
Le Pen is not so liberal. She would reintroduce life imprisonment, hold a referendum on the return of the death penalty and build more prisons. Like Fortuyn, (whose assassin claimed he did so to stop him using Muslims as a scapegoat), Le Pen is keen to paint an un-nuanced picture of Islam at its most intolerant, lumping together religion, race, culture and people into one block that threatens typical, traditional French freedoms.
(Of course, those who attempt to do the same thing to her party, pointing out the presence of violent thugs and links with openly-racist groups, are given the explanation that a few bad apples are giving an otherwise progressive party a bad name.)
Islam is the target of the new far-right, and of Le Pen, who will seize on any opportunity to show how it is incompatible with Western values and that traditions and the rule of law are under threat from invading foreign cultures. The reality, through far-right eyes, is that whites and the native population are in danger as Islamic enclaves spread.
No chance to play the victim is missed. Her recent argument over halal food came from her insistence that everyone involved in its preparation must be Muslim: direct discrimination against whites and non-believers. Even though the president of the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, Mohammed Moussaoui, pointed out that only the animal executioner must be Muslim: the treatment, preparation and distribution of halal food is open to all. Le Pen stands by what she said, causing predictable uproar.
She took the opportunity on A vous de juger, a prime-time TV show, to further the message of victimhood, extending the FN’s politics into the sphere of economics. Le Pen announced an economic programme that would seal the borders against globalisation. Her 12-step plan includes leaving the euro, devaluing the franc to reduce France’s debt, balancing the budget by 2016, and for France to raise funds from its own bonds, not the open market. Her message is clear: mainstream political parties have failed to run the country for its people.
The FN is seizing the votes of anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, disenchanted voters of France. Not only that, but it is talking about the future (even if some would argue its vision is a step back to the past).
Marine Le Pen is far more photogenic and mediafriendly than her father, hence magazine spreads in Paris Match talking about her role as a single mother (twice-divorced) of three children and prime-time TV appearances. It is all part of her dédiabolisation campaign to remove the stigma of voting FN.
Her first electoral victory came in 1998 and it was only in 2002 that she came to prominence as her father reached the second round of the French presidential elections. As Jean-Marie Le Pen has edged towards retirement, she has positioned herself as heir apparent.
While the FN’s fortunes, both political and financial, dipped steeply between 2007-09, her presence has ensured that rumours of its demise were always premature.
For Socialist MP Pierre Moscovici, Marine Le Pen is “more dangerous than her father.”
“Jean-Marie Le Pen spent nearly 60 years in politics on the fringe... She is very different... She is just as extremist in ideas but furthermore, she wants to participate in power and to push French politics to the right.”
Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit has even predicted an alliance between the National Front and the UMP sometime after 2012. With recent policies such as the burqa ban, the expulsion of gypsies and the debate on national identity, President Sarkozy and the UMP have tried to absorb and contain the policies of the Front National, but FN voters see them as a pale imitation and mainstream voters have been put off.
Le Pen began her career in law, where she admits helping illegal immigrants, the sans papiers, to remain in France. Where her cleverness lies is that, even then, she claimed that the misfortunes of the sans papiers were the result of poor, lax immigration laws. The sans papiers were themselves victims of moderate government policy, something she will certainly seek to end if she gets into power.
1968 Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine
1986 Joins Front National (age 18)
1992 Begins practising law in Paris
1998 Elected regional councillor for Nord-Pas-de-Calais
2002 After father Jean-Marie Le Pen gets to second round of presidential elections, her performance in TV debates grabs attention of French public
2003 Becomes deputy leader of the FN
2004 Elected MEP
2007 Helps with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s presidential campaign. His 10 per cent score damages her reputation and party finances are hit badly
2009 Re-elected MEP, but Front National continues to struggle with funds
2010 Both father and daughter score more than 22 per cent in their regions of Paca and Nord-Pas-de-Calais. She campaigns to succeed him as leader. The result will be announced mid-January