On June 28, five days after Great Britain voted to leave the European Union, Marine Le Pen, the controversial leader of France’s right-wing National Front party, published an op-ed column in The New York Times congratulating British voters and celebrating the result. The day following the vote, she had visited the Elysée Palace, the residence of French President François Hollande, urging him to pursue a similar course. Needless to say, her efforts fell on deaf ears—but she wasn’t there to persuade Hollande.
Le Pen cagily exalted the Brexit vote via recourse to a pseudo-democratic idiom of national self-determination, alleging that the outcome signified a triumph for free peoples everywhere. Yet, as anyone familiar with the National Front’s checkered history well knows, there is a cavernous gap between Le Pen’s high-sounding rhetoric and the sordid reality underlying the party’s political program. In this respect, Le Pen’s remarks exemplify a strategy that she has carefully honed ever since 2011, when she acceded to the party leadership: the effort to mask the party’s retrograde, ethnopopulist agenda by deceptively invoking a discourse of rights and civic freedom.
The National Front was founded by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 1972. Now 88, Jean-Marie began his political career in the 1950s as a member of a short-lived, right-wing populist party founded by Pierre Poujade. Prior to entering politics, the elder Le Pen served as a foot soldier in what was then French Indochina and then as a paratrooper during the sanguinary Algerian war (1954–62). In the past, he has justified—even flaunted—the French army’s use of torture against Algerian civilians. During the 1960s, a “record company” he founded—in truth, a front organization for the distribution of neofascist propaganda—was prosecuted and fined for disseminating Nazi ideology on liner notes.
Over the years, the elder Le Pen gained notoriety as a result of a series of anti-Semitic assertions and outré pronouncements. He has gone on record saying that things weren’t so bad for France during the Nazi occupation (1940–44). On more than one occasion, he has claimed that, in the course of World War II, the Holocaust was a mere “detail.” In commenting on Jewish journalists or politicians, he has resorted to crude puns that allude to the Final Solution: “Durafour crématoire” to refer to then–Minister of Public Service Michel Durafour; for entertainer Patrick Bruel, Le Pen threatened to provide a “fournée” or “oven,” since in French “brûler” means “to burn.” Because various form of hate speech, including Holocaust denial, are criminal offenses in France, the elder Le Pen has been prosecuted and fined on at least 19 occasions.
The “Bruel-fournéee” episode occurred in June 2014, just a few weeks following the National Front’s stunning breakthrough in the European parliamentary elections. In other words, just as it appeared that Marine Le Pen’s strategy of “normalization” had been successful, Jean-Marie’s gaffe threatened to relegate it once again to the political fringe. Marine Le Pen’s reaction was forceful and swift: She demonstratively instituted a party ban against her father. However, what seemed to trouble her was less the anti-Semitic tenor of the elder Le Pen’s remarks than that he had made them publicly. Thus in commenting on her father’s tasteless wordplay, Marine claimed that the problem lay chiefly with the “malevolent interpretation” to which they had been subjected by the French journalists, rather than his comments per se.