Two cheers for Marine Le Pen, the new president of France’s National Front party.
Two cheers for Marine Le Pen.
The new president of France’s National Front party holds that the nation-state is the only legitimate basis of government. She vocally detests soulless multinational organizations. She cordially despises that usurper of national sovereignty, the European Union, and its ersatz currency, the euro. She dares proclaim that France and the rest of Europe are in dire danger of being swamped by illegal immigrants, especially now that half of North Africa is landing on Europe’s Italian doorstep. She says that if Muslims want to live in France, they must make the effort to assimilate and accept France’s Christian heritage.
Faced with positions like this, Paris intellectuals recoil in the righteous horror they reserve for the politically very incorrect. The mainstream media, led by flagrantly biased TV interviewers, are in league against her. The established parties, from Nicolas Sarkozy’s nominally conservative UMP to the socialists, ecologists, communists, et al., loathe and fear her in equal measure. Instead of responding to her ideas, they resort to ad hominem attacks and try to ostracize her with a political cordon sanitaire, charging that her party lacks “republican values.”
She must be doing something right.
To be sure, there are reasons to be wary of the National Front (NF), on which more later. But there can be no doubt that today Marine Le Pen stands at the very center of France’s — and to some extent, Europe’s — political discourse. All the country’s elitist traditional parties, the very ones that, with a wink and a nudge, have so long colluded to do nothing real about France’s real problems, now scurry with unseemly haste to position themselves with respect to the Front. While labeling it dangerously extremist, they pay it the sincerest form of flattery by copying many of its stances, especially on illegal immigration.
Thus Claude Guéant, longtime éminence grise of Nicolas Sarkozy and now his new interior minister, declared recently that “due to unbridled immigration the French sometimes no longer feel at home.” How odd that no one in Sarkozy’s government, much less Himself, ever said anything of the sort until the NF pulled even with the other parties this year with numbers in the 20s. A UMP member pleaded almost comically with the party’s leadership the other day, “For four weeks now we’ve been discussing how to handle the Front. Can’t we talk about our own program?”
The NF’s sudden new status as the fulcrum of French politics has been a long time coming. It is the result of decades of growing displeasure with globalism and its concomitants, among them porous national borders and undigested immigration, offshoring of industrial production and lost local jobs, the bewildering malaise of lost national identity. Similar painful symptoms exist in the U.S., but the malady is much more acute in the once-proud nation-states of Europe that formerly bestrode the planet.
When the European Common Market, created in the late 1950s as a free-trade zone, started transferring national sovereignty to a Brussels-based organization manned by unelected bureaucrats (think letting the U.S. be run by the United Nations), the seeds of resentment were sown. Throw an aggressive Islamism into the mix, with France now home to 6 million ostentatious Muslims — 10 percent of the population — and the situation becomes toxic, if not explosive.
Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, founded the Front in 1972. The pugnacious son of a hardscrabble Breton fisherman, he had lost an eye as a paratrooper fighting France’s 1950s colonial war in Algeria — and boasted of using torture against bomb-throwing terrorists there. With an abiding veneration for Joan of Arc and a vision of a white Catholic France in need of moral revival, he molded the Front from several feckless right-wing factions. It was long seen, mostly correctly, as a motley bunch of Vichyites, skinhead hooligans, unreconstructed colonialists, and ultra-traditionalist, Latin-Mass Catholics.
Led by a confrontational firebrand with a trademark black eye patch who reveled in provoking polite opinion with overtly racist remarks (he famously called the Holocaust gas chambers “a point of detail” of WWII), the Front was a political untouchable. Ironically, it was Socialist president François Mitterrand who, hoping to weaken the conservative vote in the 1980s, reverted to the proportional balloting that had been banned by Charles de Gaulle as a way of bringing bipartite order to French politics. This opened the door to smaller parties. One unintended consequence was the rise of the far-right Front.
Growing support for the Front stayed under the pollsters’ radar for years because few citizens would admit to interviewers they were going to vote NF. France therefore was stunned in 2002 when Jean-Marie surprisingly made it to the second round of the presidential election, beating out the popular socialist Lionel Jospin, a former prime minister. He faced incumbent Jacques Chirac, who unsportingly refused the traditional debate with his opponent (many thought Le Pen, a redoubtable, hard-punching debater, would have won). Le Pen lost in an inevitable landslide as the established parties blocked him with a strange bedfellow, conservative-socialist-communist coalition.
THAT WAS THEN. Last January the 82-year-old Jean-Marie could say, “The situation has changed, the world has changed,” as he turned the party over to his daughter after she was elected leader. “Reality has met, and sometimes surpassed, our predictions.” With the euro zone sinking under its debt crisis, it was hard to argue with the Front position that European monetary union had been an error. Or, as Paris streets were blocked by the overflow of Muslims from their mosques for Friday prayers, with its warnings about the folly of naïve multiculturalism.
Marine has been key to the Front’s recent quick rise. As long as the craggy, volatile Jean-Marie was its threatening face, it was easy to relegate the party to the jackbooted, proto-fascist fringe, whatever its positions on the issues. She has changed all that. A handsome 42-year-old blonde with a ready smile, quick wit, and raucous laugh, she radiates vitality and charisma as she sweeps into a press conference in heels, tailored jeans, silk blouse, and no makeup. When making some of her most incendiary answers to reporters’ questions, she smiles sweetly.
Being a pro-choice, twice-divorced mother of three apparently doesn’t bother the Front’s traditional base of conservative Catholics. (Nor, apparently, does her living with Louis Aliot, NF vice president, also divorced.) No feminist, Marine deplores confrontational relations between men and women, and dislikes affirmative action: “You never know whether you’re hired because of your competence or because you’re a woman.”
Having forcefully denounced the anti-Semitism that long hobbled the NF, she laughs off extremist labels, accepting the term populist. “If it’s a choice between extreme right, fascist, Nazi, or just populist, I find that one okay,” she says, asking rhetorically, “What’s ‘extreme right’ about our program?” She points out with impeccable logic that when British premier David Cameron recently called for limiting immigration to the UK and better assimilation, no one termed him a fascist.
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