The Front National, founded in 1972 by the pugnacious Jean-Marie Le Pen, is now in the hands of his more palatable daughter, Marine.
The party won more seats than any other in the 2014 European elections and, in the first round of the 2015 regional elections, it coloured half of the country with its marine blue colour - only to be overrun by coalitions of left and the right in the second ballot. Now, faced with a divided left and a hardline centre-right candidate, François Fillon, the National Front is expected to do well in the upcoming presidential elections. The question is, how well?
Julien Odoul, in his early thirties, has a degree in history and is a National Front regional councillor for the Bourgogne Franche Comté region and local secretary for the Yonne department.
He considers himself as belonging to the centre and did indeed belong to the centre-right UDI party before turning towards the National Front three years ago. Now, he defends an anti-immigration discourse based on the idea of national priority and deeply admires his party’s ‘unquestioned and unquestionable’ leader. He said: “The first thing that characterises her is her courage. She is an extraordinary woman who acts sincerely for the love of her country and is devoted to its recovery. She is a fighter and a visionary, which is difficult to find at the moment. I find it hard to find any faults - maybe she is too kind with certain members of the inner circle.”
The National Front is closely watched as some consider it to share an anti-Semitic, homophobic and xenophobic dialogue. The party's founding father has been set aside for his controversial statements, leaving space for a clean slate.
But for some, a clean slate is difficult to perceive after his haunting quote in 1987 describing the Holocaust as, ‘a mere detail of the history of the Second World War’.
Despite Marine Le Pen’s announcement of political disagreement with her father, she has made openly racist remarks. In 2012, while walking the streets of Hénin Beaumont, she shouted “Did you win the car with your hard work or in the lottery?” at a supporter of left-wing politician Jean Luc Mélenchon who was of ‘apparent North African origin’ and driving a soft-top vehicle.
In an interview on LCP in March a year later she said, based on images she had seen: “The diagnostic is that we are confronted with the failure of political immigration, that is what this is about. The hooligans were obviously criminals of emigrant origins, who had come from the suburbs to ransack the place, as we have seen before.”
Aurelien Mondon, a lecturer in French politics at the University of Bath, warns that the change between father and daughter is superficial: “According to most experts, the changes have been cosmetic for the most part. However, that does not mean they have not had a huge impact. These changes are not entirely new, and the process of ‘normalisation’ started under Jean-Marie Le Pen, with the help of Bruno Mégret, in particular.
“It is then that the FN moved away slowly from its neo-liberal platform to try and appeal to the younger working class. Marine Le Pen has also managed to ‘republicanise’ the image of the party, something which Jean-Marie Le Pen had failed at. Her misuse of the term laïcité in particular has allowed her to couch Islamophobic and racist discourse in progressive language.”
The FN affiliate, Julien Odoul, however, does believe in the party’s change: “I have come for Marine Le Pen. I would never have come for Jean-Marie Le Pen. It is her renovation and her ambition that has really seduced and convinced me to take the plunge. Jean Marie Le Pen’s behaviour and differences profoundly damaged Marine’s political messages.”
Deciphering demagoguery and political programmes can be difficult for the average voter. In the National Front’s current manifesto, readers can see a long list of similarities between their propositions and the communist party’s propositions. These similarities are primarily economic and social and include increasing the minimum wage, taxing the biggest incomes, lowering the age of retirement to 60, increasing the number of recruits in the police and gendarmerie, the use of referendums and reiterating the importance of a secular state. On this level, the FN (bankrolled by Russian financial institutions as French investment firms refused to back the party) seems to have more in common with the Communist party than with François Fillon, who will represent the centre-right during the next elections.
What makes the FN belong to the radical right (denomination which it rejects) rather than the radical left? Dr Mondon said: “While the Front National has shifted some of its policies, particularly with regard to economics, it remains nonetheless anchored in the extreme right. In terms of economics, it continues to advocate for lower taxes to appeal to its traditional base of lower middle-class voters and small businessmen, something which is unlikely to go hand in hand with a real left-wing programme. However, it is with regard to social policy that the FN distances itself from the left most clearly. The party is against equality, does not believe in real redistribution and is against internationalism. It is these issues which are central to its programme and ideology.”
Marine Le Pen is the youngest of the three Le Pen sisters and was born in 1968 to a wealthy family in the outskirts of Paris. The girls lived in one apartment with a nanny while their parents lived in a separate apartment on the floor above. Although no one was hurt, when Marine was only eight years old, the family was the target of a terrorist attack, which destroyed their apartment.
After studying law, Mme Le Pen worked for six years as a lawyer for the High Court of Paris before entering the legal department of her father’s political party. She quickly worked up an appetite for politics by first becoming a regional councillor in 1998, a member of the European Parliament in 2004 and a municipal councillor in 2008 before winning the presidency of the National Front in 2011.
She has been married three times and is the mother of three children with her first husband and political ally Franck Chauffroy. She is currently married to Louis Alliot, vice president of the National Front.
The family's turbulent private lives have often hit the headlines. In 1984 the divorce procedure which lasted three years between Jean-Marie and Pierrette Lalanne, who then disappeared for 15 years, caused a media earthquake - accentuated by her nude photos in Playboy magazine. A ‘political treason’ was also the making of headlines when the oldest sister, Marie-Caroline, publicly supported Bruno Mégret, a friend turned enemy and founder of a rival party in 1999.
The Le Pen dynasty has touched a third generation with Marion Maréchal-Le Pen - Jean-Marie Le Pen’s granddaughter and Marine Le Pen’s niece. At 22 years old, she became France’s youngest MP and is currently deputy for the French Riviera’s Vaucluse department. “Marion Maréchal-Le Pen plays an interesting part in the party and is used to give a voice to the traditional electorate which does not recognise itself in the new face of the FN and particularly in the team surrounding Marine Le Pen,” said Dr Mondon.
The hard line defended by this young MP, a rising star of the National Front, is reflected in the abortion debate between herself and her aunt. While Marine promises no changes to women’s rights with regards to abortions, Marion would like to see a paid system put in place and criticises her aunt’s change of attitude - in 2012 she promoted tougher rules on abortion. The FN leader is quick to brush away any internal conflicts, careful to give an impression of unity.
Furthermore, on Marion’s Le Pen’s twitter feed, the MP wrote: “I answer yes to the invitation of Stephen Bannon, CEO of @realDonaldTrump presidential campaign to work together”. Mr Bannon was at the head of the far-right news site Breitbart News website before taking leave and working as Chief Executive for Donald Trump in his election campaign. He is now is chief strategist and senior counsellor for the President-Elect.
From Austria to Norway, far-right parties are gaining ground in Europe. Yet many of their followers would categorically reject being labelled “racists”. Dr Mondon explains how this is possible because of a new type of racism he has termed neo-racist rhetoric: “In neo-racist rhetoric, contemporary exclusion is no longer based on natural superiorities and inferiorities, but on a different form of inequality: the innate and indelible incompatibility of cultures.
“Therefore, under a thin veneer of tolerance, neo-racists can express anti-immigrant sentiment based on the same innate and generalising elements central to traditional types of racism.”
In an interview with The Telegraph, leading French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy discusses ‘post-truth politics’ in which charisma and emotions dominate debate. “As for Le Pen, it is unlikely that she will win, but it is possible, and that is partly because the people have lost interest in policy, instead focusing on personality.”
He added: “They are more interested in the performance, in the theatrical quality of what is said than whether it is true. And, as we know, a fascist can put on a very successful performance.”