Can Marine Le Pen Win in France?
The handshake is firm, the eye contact direct, the voice deep and strong; there is no doubt she is her father’s daughter. Marine Le Pen also shares with papa Jean-Marie—the longtime leader of France’s extreme-right National Front, who retired last December at 82—the physicality of a menhir, those monumental stone megaliths one finds in Brittany and Cornwall. The blue-eyed blonde is as tall as she is large; she is une force de la nature.
I’m meeting Marine Le Pen at the party’s headquarters in Nanterre, a nondescript suburb of Paris. A far cry from the Socialist Party’s den on the Left Bank and President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party offices near the Champs-Élysées, the National Front’s building looks like a low-rise 1970s police station in which the worn-out carpet still smells of stale tobacco. It is only when visitors have turned the corner toward the entrance that they come face to face with a statue of Joan of Arc, which is hidden from the street. A symbol of France’s sovereignty and fight against British invaders, Joan of Arc has long been hijacked by the extreme right, which traditionally celebrates her on May Day.
To most people in France, the new National Front leader is simply Marine. As political commentator Caroline Fourest writes in her latest book, a biography of Marine Le Pen, “Women politicians are called by their first name, whereas men are known by their family name. There is Le Pen, i.e. Jean-Marie, and there is Marine, i.e. his daughter.” The question on everybody’s lips since she was elected to helm the National Front in January is whether she is like her father. Many in the party weren’t keen to see her at the top. They thought she was ideologically too different from her father. Indeed, she has been careful to distance herself from the elder Le Pen’s fiery racist rhetoric. In April she even evicted regional counselor Alexandre Gabriac from the party after a picture of the young man giving the Hitler salute was leaked to the press. “Such behavior is intolerable; I won’t tolerate it,” she commented.
Born in 1968, the youngest of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s three daughters, Marine cuts a figure strikingly different from that of the classic frontist. A divorced mother of three, she is in favor of abortion and gay rights. Fundamentalist Catholicism is clearly not her thing. She has also alluded to having no interest in hashing over World War II or the Algerian War. This alone has proved revolutionary. “Could she actually mean it?” is the question all political commentators are asking themselves.
Many are doubtful. “She has cunningly asked the most radical elements in her party to adopt a low profile or leave the party in order to get a new legitimacy,” comments political scientist Gaël Brustier, who believes Marine Le Pen’s apparent difference is no more than a decoy. However, he can’t help recognizing her talent, adding, “She is proving to be much faster than other politicians in addressing topics of interest to the French. She is good at catching the fears and aspirations of the moment.”
Since she took over as party leader, Le Pen has also cunningly surfed on the euro crisis and blurred traditional political and ideological boundaries. She has borrowed many left-wing republican arguments and blended them with conservative positions. At the risk of making a whole nation feel dizzy, she is trying to convince the French that the only battle worth fighting is that of deglobalization: focusing on the nation, reaffirming secularism, leaving the euro and letting it sink. In other words, she has done what could be called a Tony Blair: hunting on everybody’s grounds, stealing from all in the most unpredictable way.
Le Pen astutely refutes the extreme-right label. To prove her point, she has, in interview after interview, defended left-wing republican values such as secularism, public services and a state that promotes citizens’ well-being and protects the weak. On the economy, she favors a Keynesian approach and the active role of the state. “Services cannot sustain a whole country’s economy,” she tells me in our interview. “I’m in favor of reindustrialization and dirigisme by the state. In France, the state created the French nation. I believe in the benevolence of the state, especially in time of crisis. It guarantees equality among its citizens and can take strategic decisions in order to preserve a country’s economic assets. It’s what the USA does; you can call it economic patriotism. I’m thinking of the Small Business Act, for instance. The problem is that the EU prevents us from doing the same. I’m in favor of a sovereign state in order to protect our values, our customs and our way of life. Globalization doesn’t lead to prosperity and growth. We had foreseen this: globalization, just like communism, is totalitarian. We were told it was the way forward. Isn’t it high time we recognized today that we were wrong?”
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Just listening to her, one could confuse Le Pen with left republican die-hard and former Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement. This may not be a coincidence. Recently, she pointedly declared that she would be ready to govern with Chevènement, since both of them are, Le Pen says, antiglobalization patriots. His response was curt, and a sign that many on the left don’t take her metamorphosis seriously: “Ms. Le Pen and I have nothing in common.”
However, to a broader public, her newfound republican rhetoric is music to French ears. The French are, after all, among the most suspicious of globalization and capitalism in the Western world. Le Pen also says she’s in favor of financial regulation to prevent another economic crisis: “The market is not naturally virtuous, and its laws should not overwrite constitutions and values,” she told me. “The market must be regulated in order to prevent any possible abuse. I was very interested by Joseph Stiglitz’s latest book on the topic. To regulate the economic and financial market is not to limit our freedom.”
Le Pen is convinced that we have reached a tipping point. Just as the communist world collapsed, so will the so-called globalized world, she believes. “The future belongs to nations,” she says, at the risk of sounding resolutely anachronistic. “I went to Lampedusa in Sicily a few months ago; the EU cannot stop the flow of immigration coming from Tunisia and Libya. This will soon prove to everyone that only bilateral relations can work. The EU is a fat jellyfish. Can you tell me, really, do you think Latvia is interested in France’s and Italy’s immigration problems?” She recently, and rather astutely, argued in the Daily Telegraph that she was against immigration but in favor of diversity, saying, “I want Malians to remain Malians and defend the language and identity of Mali, Americans to stay Americans, the Chinese, Chinese and the French, French.”
On Sarkozy and NATO’s so-far-successful military, humanitarian and political endeavor in Libya, she recently commented sarcastically on RTL radio, “That one of the largest armed coalitions should finally prevail and be victorious is not exactly an extraordinary thing.” She was quick to add: “What I fear, and so it seems does the US government, is that Libya will fall into the hands of Islamists. This wouldn’t be good for Libyans, and this wouldn’t by good for us.”
Le Pen recently declared on French television that if she were elected, she would partly and temporarily nationalize French banks; she believes their exposure to Greek debt has been too destabilizing. She would also ring-fence retail and commercial banking from speculative and highly risky financial banking. The other guest on the show, a socialist MP, could only discreetly agree.
As for the euro, she would negotiate its end. “The euro will collapse; it’s inevitable,” she tells me. “We just want to anticipate its crash, to prepare ourselves. We don’t want to sacrifice the people in order to save the euro. First, we need to devalue the euro, in order to get some fresh air. We would then plan the exit from the eurozone, but in agreement with our European partners.” As time goes by and the euro crisis deepens, her words sound more and more prescient. And while Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel regularly fail to quell the fears of market Cassandras, Marine Le Pen is making the rounds of French talk-shows, smiling like a Cheshire cat, simply saying, “We won’t even need to kill it; the euro will die of natural causes.”
Those are the kinds of turns of phrase Charles de Gaulle was given to making; indeed, the woman who was brought up hating de Gaulle (her father being a staunch defender of French Algeria) says she now feels many affinities with the great man: “I’m not Gaullist, but I am certainly Gaullian. I share the same passion for the role that politics must play. I was made to hate de Gaulle, but I have revised my judgment. I have read his Memoirs of War. I studied constitutional law and the Fifth Republic institutions. I share his vision of France.”
One of Le Pen’s favorite hobbies is to expose the corruption of French elites. Scandals such as that of Dominique Strauss-Khan certainly help her in getting her countrymen’s attention. When she is accused of being demagogic and divisive, she retorts, “The French Revolution is over; feudalism and fiefdoms have reappeared. Today, globalization only benefits 1 percent of the people. Our voting system also makes a masquerade of our democracy. If I get elected, I’ll propose an electoral system that is 100 percent representative. An integral proportional system is the fairest system there is.” It is also the most fragile, giving way to shambolic coalitions.
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While a growing number of the French look as if they might trust her words—polls now place her behind Sarkozy, but she held a surprising second position for the first six months of the year—analysts like Gaël Brustier warn that we shouldn’t trust her: “Let us not be fooled. To make an analogy with Italy, Marine Le Pen is no Gianfranco Fini, a former fascist converted to conservative democracy. She is more Umberto Bossi, an anti-immigration extremist who manages to contest the power in place while governing 400 municipalities in the north of Italy.”
Since she refutes the label “extreme right,” I ask Le Pen how she would define the National Front under her leadership: “Today the reality is that the extreme right is against us. The National Front has evolved. At the latest local elections, we have progressed by 10 percent, in front of both the UMP party [Sarkozy’s conservative party] and the Socialist party. We are standing right where it matters: at the fracture between globalists and nationalists. We’re also different from other extreme-right movements in Europe. Take Geert Wilders in the Netherlands—he is against Islam; we’re not…. We’re closer to the UK’s UKIP [UK Independence Party], except on the economy. They’re ultra-liberal; we’re not.”
Le Pen is clearly on a mission to instill doubt where there was certainty (certainty that the National Front belonged to the xenophobic extreme right) and inject subtlety where there never seemed to be any (the National Front used to enjoy being caricatured, and thrived on gross stereotypes).
I ask her how she is preparing to get through to the second round of the elections next year, as her father shockingly did in 2002. “I’m developing contacts throughout Europe,” she says. “I’m going to travel to Russia, Africa and the USA later this year to meet my counterparts and, I hope, government ministers.” (In France, a presidential hopeful must traditionally travel the world and be seen as a potential world leader; the grand tour helps build up a politician’s stature in the French psyche.)
Asked who her favorite authors are, Le Pen answers, “I was fed Victor Hugo by my father. La Légende des siècles [The Legend of the Ages, a collection of poems] is a favorite. I also love poetry and Baudelaire. Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose books were compulsory at school, have, however, remained totally hermetic to me. Today I read a lot of books on the economy but also on history. I have just finished a new biography on Charles IX.” On literature and her father, she makes this unexpected remark: “You know, Jean-Marie Le Pen is not an ideologue; he’s an amoureux. He reads a lot.”
To my French interlocutors, I often ask one final question: Would they have voted the king’s death after 1793, during the French Revolution? Marine Le Pen pauses for a moment: “No. No, I wouldn’t have voted for the king’s death. It wasn’t necessary. We could have chosen a parliamentary monarchy like Britain. It would have prevented many deaths. You know, I’m in favor of reconciliation.” Is she, really?