Next week’s issue of The Nation will feature a report by Stanford Professor Cécile Alduy about the alarming rise of Marine Le Pen and the French far right. In recent years, Le Pen has skillfully, if disingenuously, attempted to scrub her National Front party of the most odious manifestations of the anti-Semitism, racism and outright xenophobia in which her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, specialized during his forty-year leadership of the party. At the same time, Alduy writes, the French mainstream—mistakenly scapegoating immigrants for the country’s economic malaise—has moved further to the right. Whatever the results of local elections slated for later this month and European Parliament elections in May, there is a serious risk that the toxic ideology of the National Front will become further enshrined and legitimized as a driving force in the public conversation—not only in France, but across Europe as a whole.
Although Le Pen “has managed to put a modern gloss on an old political brand,” Alduy writes, the underlying philosophy of the National Front remains almost exactly the same as it was under Jean-Marie Le Pen. It is perhaps useful, then, to re-examine the behavior of the wolf before it donned sheep’s clothing—and for such a mission there is no better guide than Daniel Singer, The Nation’s longtime European correspondent before his death in 2000. His numerous dispatches on Le Pen père—“the man whose name is synonymous with the recent revival of overt racism in French politics and society,” Singer wrote in 1985—show how mutable and dangerous remains the threat emanating from what Singer, in a recurring assortment of related metaphors, called France’s plague, poison and disease.
In “The Resistible Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen” (September 7, 1985), Singer wrote of Le Pen:
Smiling, smartly dressed, he now seems—particularly on television, where he is on his best behavior—a frank and reasonable fellow saying aloud “what everybody really believes,” telling people “what they already know,” a man who merely echoes the basic precept of that great American Ronald Reagan: namely, that communism is the root of all evil. A red-faced, rather fat man who warns the “silent majority” against muggers, drug addicts, gays and crypto-pinkos, Le Pen might be described as a sort of French Spiro Agnew preaching law and order, except that he is not of Greek or any other foreign extraction. That is an important difference, because the man and the movement he leads, the National Front, trumpet the slogan “Frenchmen First” and spread the fairy tale that everything would be fine in the streets and hospitals, in the schools and even the factories were it not for the foreign hordes invading France, particularly those crossing the Mediterranean. France would be just marvelous without Marxists, Arabs and other aliens.…
The entry of avowed racists into the French Parliament is not in itself the worst prospect. As the old saying goes, you don’t bring the temperature down by breaking the thermometer…. More worrisome is the underlying ideological shift to the right, the radical metamorphosis of the substance and form of political debate, of which this plague is only a symptom.
Three years later, after the National Front had secured a new level of legitimacy when Le Pen won more than 14 percent of the vote in the 1988 presidential election, Singer wrote “In the Heart of Le Pen Country,” about a visit to Marseille: