Feature

Le Pen’s Irresistible Rise

On France's rambunctious newly major party.

By From the December 2013 issue

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Out of nowhere this autumn, the sunny little Provençal town of Brignoles (pop. 17,000) became the most famous place most people had never heard of. Halfway between Aix-en-Provence and Saint Tropez, this is the equivalent of flyover country—you won’t find it in the Michelin Guide—for the hordes of Riviera-bound vacationers speeding by on the A8 superhighway. Social life revolves around the central Place Caramy, where locals pass the time at sidewalk cafés in the cool shadow of ancient plane trees, glasses of anise-flavored pastis in hand.

As in most of this part of France, conversation here is dominated by two topics: soccer and politics. Talk is desultory about the local team, which has gotten off to a rocky start, losing a squeaker to Cogolin 2 to 1, and tying Le Cannet 6 to 6. But when it comes to politics the chatter is lively and remarks are often made into media microphones foreign and domestic. Brignoles is basking in the international limelight thanks to what should have been an insignificant special election for a county council seat in a third-rate provincial burg. But when in October the Brignolais broke a 25-year-old habit of voting Communist, that was news. And when they elected a right-wing National Front (FN) candidate rather than one from a mainstream party, that made the ballot a major upset and bellwether in a France festering with discontent.

Adding insult to injury, the FN got a landslide 54 percent. It demolished the so-called “republican front,” an unnatural ad-hoc political creature cobbled together by the Socialist Party and the Gaullist center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP)—the party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. The republican front asked socialist voters, in a desperate effort to block the surging FN, to hold their noses and opt for their traditional UMP opponents. Neither that nor the usual slurs that the Front—stigmatized as extreme right, neo-fascist, racist, or all three—is not a legitimate party worked this time. Thus the current panic in the humiliated French political establishment, accustomed to decades of cozy, wink-and-nudge collaboration to make the Front an untouchable political pariah. As a Socialist Party spokesman said ruefully, “This proves what we have been saying for months. When the FN stands strong and tall, the left must absolutely get its act together.”

With the French thoroughly and vocally fed up with the direction in which President François Hollande has taken the country, it may be too late for that. (Currently, only about one-fifth of the French believe he can win a second term in 2017.) Now the mainstream parties look with fear and loathing to next spring’s two main political events, French municipal elections in March and balloting for the European Parliament in May. Early indications suggest a swing to the FN that could win it more seats on city councils than ever before. As for the European Parliament, the groundswell could become an earthquake: Early polls give FN candidates 24 percent of the vote, fully four times as much as in the last EP elections in 2009.

But the real stunner from October’s elections was that the UMP, with 22 percent, came in behind the Front, and the governing Socialists trailed back in third place with only 19 percent. For the first time since it was founded 41 years ago, the Front gave signs of actually leading in a national vote. In other words, the country now has three major parties, with the FN potentially number one. As a worried leftist member of parliament put it, “From north to south and east to west, the Front keeps on developing, organizing and getting stronger, while the other parties seem petrified, unable to answer a simple question: how to deal with it.”

The disarray in the mainstream parties is spectacular. Since Nicolas Sarkozy lost the presidency in 2012, the UMP has been bitterly divided over its leadership and policies. Part of its membership longs for his return, despite his vow to leave politics for good. His former prime minister, François Fillon, and the party’s titular chief, Jean-François Copé, are at loggerheads over who will lead and in what direction. Some prominent members push for alliances with the Front and borrow certain of its themes and slogans. Others warn the center-right against the dangers of supping with the populist devil.

The Socialists, despite an unprecedented hold on power at every level, from municipal to regional, and from the National Assembly to the presidency itself, are mired in scandal and stuck with a package of ideologically motivated and often contradictory policies. Under the feckless Hollande, in office less than two years, they are perceived as the party of record unemployment, uncontrolled immigration, and headline-making violent crime. The middle class is squeezed by stagnant income and endlessly rising taxes, while much of the lower-income population survives on government handouts. Hundreds of thousands of disillusioned young college graduates are fleeing to Britain and the U.S. to find jobs. Government ministers squabble publicly over hot issues such as economic reform and immigration, giving the impression the administration has lost its rudder. The French are outraged by the scandals: The budget minister in charge of attacking fiscal fraud was forced to quit after his name was discovered on well-stuffed illegal bank accounts abroad. Not surprisingly, Hollande’s popularity, currently in the low 20s, continues to plummet to historic depths for a Fifth Republic president. His numbers are down even among Socialist voters.

Small wonder that speculation is rife among the chattering classes about the possibility of the FN’s charismatic leader, Marine Le Pen, as a presidential candidate. Given the UMP’s internal divisions and lack of a coherent program, analysts say her populist policies could attract enough support even from the left to win the Élysée Palace in 2017, beating Hollande in a head-to-head duel. Clearly the French now believe that the Front is not only a legitimate party, but, surprisingly, the one that can do the best job of effecting the profound socio-economic reforms the country so badly needs. In one recent survey, a solid 44 percent said the FN would be best at that, leaving both the UMP (38 percent) and the Socialists (23 percent) in the dust. Asked which individual leader they would like to see drive through those reforms, 50 percent chose Le Pen.

Going beyond sheer numbers, there is a sense in which she is already France’s most popular politician and the FN the country’s leading party: Every political discussion and analysis inevitably revolves around her and the FN’s rise. The media deluge Le Pen with requests for interviews; television and radio discussion programs vie to have her on to boost ratings. Her star power, due largely to a straight-talking lack of humbug or political correctness, far outshines the rest of the dreary political pack.

Not bad for the leader of a party that barely exists in terms of elected officials. Thanks to collusion among the traditional parties and a two-round election system deliberately rigged to hobble smaller parties, the Front has only two members sitting in the National Assembly and no senators. (If its representation were proportional to votes cast for it, the FN would number about 80 in the 577-member Assembly.) Out of 1,880 regional council members, only 6 percent are FN. Of the contingent of 74 French members of the European Parliament, just three are from the Front. Against these odds, the 45-year-old Marine Le Pen has pulled off a remarkable political feat of arms in bootstrapping the party to national prominence.

You might say it’s in her genes. Born in the politically portentous year of 1968 in the prosperous Paris suburb of Neuilly, Marine grew up eating and breathing politics. Her father, Jean-Marie, the pugnacious son of a hardscrabble fisherman, came from strongly Catholic Brittany. He lost an eye as a paratrooper fighting in France’s colonial war in Algeria, later admitting unapologetically that he used torture against bomb-throwing Arab terrorists to protect French pieds noirs living there. Devoted to Joan of Arc, convinced that a weakened France needed moral revival, he founded the National Front in 1972.

At first it was a ragtag bunch of neo-fascists nostalgic for the Vichy-era leader Marshall Pétain mixed with trouble-seeking skinheads and traditionalist, Latin Mass Catholics. His goal was to create a frankly patriotic, nationalist wing of the establishment right. But his rowdy followers and his penchant for gratuitous provocation—he once called the Holocaust gas chambers “a mere detail” of the Second World War—made it easy to dismiss this craggy-faced brawler with a black eye patch. Polite society labeled him infrequentable, not our sort. “He knocked on the door of the traditional right and they slammed it on his fingers,” Marine says today. Opposition to the FN in those days was more than verbal ostracism. In 1976, a 20-pound bomb exploded in the Le Pen family’s apartment building, bringing down the whole structure. Miraculously, no one was killed; mysteriously, French justice never came close to finding who did it.

Undaunted, Jean-Marie shocked France in 2002 by beating the Socialist Party candidate, the popular former prime minister Lionel Jospin, in the first round of the presidential election. He faced the incumbent, Jacques Chirac, who inelegantly refused to debate him. The established parties, stirring up fear of the “racist, neo-fascist” Front, blocked him with a bizarre conservative-communist-socialist coalition. He lost in a predictable landslide with only 18 percent of the vote. Complacent commentators concluded that the FN had peaked. 

Marine begged to differ. Her father’s daughter, toughened by verbal threats and physical intimidation, she conceived a healthy contempt for the self-perpetuating political establishment. “The worst part wasn’t just the attack, it was that not a single politician sent a word of condolence,” she says. “It was difficult, but it builds character, it hardens you.” After getting her law degree in 1990, she practiced as a trial lawyer, then entered electoral politics in 1998 at the regional level, winning a seat at the European Parliament in 2004. She made Time’s list of the most influential people in the world in 2011, the same year Front members elected her the party’s leader to replace the retiring Jean-Marie. She made her first run at the French presidency in 2012, winning, like her father, 18 percent of the vote and nipping at the heels of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.

Overcoming doubts that she could deal with petty infighting in the party and take the hard knocks of macho far-right politics, she set about rebranding the Front. With what the Economist calls “a steely pugnacity mixed with disarming charm,” she banned skinheads and anyone wearing jackboots or army-style fatigues from FN demonstrations. Out was any statement or program that could be interpreted as neo-Nazi or racist—she called Nazism an “abomination.” In was the defense of French traditions and laïcité, or secularism, along with caustic scorn for the soulless European Union and its ersatz currency the euro. 

She uses her frequent appearances on talk shows to further soften the party’s image with courteous poise, a raucous laugh, and quick wit. Using lawyerly, fact-filled arguments, she demolishes the loaded questions of visibly hostile journalists itching to play gotcha, smiling angelically as she does so. The effect is populist but increasingly mainstream. “What’s ‘extreme right’ about our program?” she asks, noting that no one has called British Prime Minister David Cameron a fascist for favoring stricter controls on immigration. Recently she threatened to sue anyone who calls the FN “extreme right,” terming it defamatory and insulting.

But filing the rough edges off the Front—sometimes called “de-demonization”—hasn’t meant abandoning its traditional “France for the French” theme. When Muslim immigrants began kneeling in Paris streets to pray as a way of demanding more mosques, she compared the tactic to the Nazi occupation of the city during World War II. A politically correct European Parliament subsequently stripped her of her legal immunity as a member, exposing her to possible prosecution for inciting racial hatred. Her reaction was to repeat the comment, adding that she had “dared say what the French think,” and declaring that “France is not a caliphate.” Thirty-nine percent of the French gleefully agreed with her. The Front’s most popular chant in street demonstrations is “On est chez nous!” (“This is OUR country!”)

Le Pen’s brand of populism cuts across the political spectrum from right to center to left. She takes moderate stands on issues such as abortion and homosexual rights—refusing to campaign against gay marriage, for example. Her railing against excesses of the free market and criticism of “the commercialization of our culture, the unchecked reign of money” appeals to both traditionalists and liberals. Her call to restore the death penalty resonates with over 80 percent of the French, sick as they are of ever more violent street crime and frequent gangland shootouts with Kalashnikovs. 

She strokes the left vote by favoring government programs to subsidize families and a lower retirement age of 60. Blaming high unemployment on globalization, calling for “intelligent protectionism,” appeals to France’s millions of jobless and small businessmen, not to mention those who usually vote communist. In a country where national pride, not to say chauvinism, is still strong, she scores points across the board with her criticism of the EU and call for return to national independence. (If elected president, she would hold a referendum on whether to leave the EU and the euro.) She terms it “a global anomaly, which will collapse like the Soviet Union collapsed,” adding, “We are the 5 percent of the world’s people with no control over our economy or currency, or over the people circulating on our territory.” She sees the nation-state, rooted in its own traditions and culture, as the only viable political entity. 

Similarly, with the French feeling swamped by illegal immigrants, her call to put the brakes on immigration is a vote-getter except among the most highly enlightened liberals. This also touches on resentment of the burgeoning Muslim population and concomitant Islamisation of French society. (Imams in French mosques are having considerable success preaching jihad; besides periodic Muslim-inspired terrorist attacks in France, several hundred young Frenchmen are known to be fighting alongside al Qaeda in Syria.) “I would kick out all the foreign fundamentalists,” she said in a recent interview with Le Monde. “All of them! We know who they are.” If we are to believe the Qatari TV channel Al Jazeera, the message is getting through. “It appears,” opined one of its talking heads recently, “that France’s political climate is not an ideal one for Arab immigration.”

Le pen’s message clearly captures the national mood. But the FN is also surfing on a wave of populism sweeping Europe today. More and more non-mainstream parties, from Scandinavia to Italy and Britain to Greece, oppose politics-as-usual and call for programs that address citizens’ real concerns. As each country is having its particular problems, the parties differ widely in their priorities. 

In Britain, the chief goal of the libertarian United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is getting the UK out of the EU. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland aims at exiting the euro currency zone to avoid paying other EU members’ debts. True Finns, now Finland’s main opposition party, combines social-democrat economic policies with traditionalist national values. The Netherlands’ Party for Freedom combats both the country’s influx of Muslims and its EU membership, while Greece’s Golden Dawn is the closest thing Europe has to a thuggish neo-Nazi party. Italy’s MoVimento 5 Stelle, founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo, is off-the-chart populist, attracting those fed up with a corrupt establishment and advocating everything from utopian direct democracy to free Internet for all.

The European populists’ goal of taking back their countries’ sovereignty has the EU running scared. “The rise of populism is an enormous concern,” the EU’s justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, said recently, darkly alleging that it encourages racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and other things upon which the European Oligarchy frowns. National leaders are already being forced to take into account the populists’ programs. Prodded by UKIP, for example, Cameron now promises to hold an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union after (and if) conservatives win the next election. 

These grassroots movements are hard to pigeon-hole. Are they far-right or far-left? The latest avatar of national socialism? An embryonic movement of the white working class? The answer appears to be all of the above to varying extents. Virtually none of them, however, resembles America’s Tea Party, with its emphasis on individualism, reduced entitlements, and taxes. Europeans still take big government, the welfare state, and universal health care for granted. As Marine Le Pen says, “The American right is much more to the right than the National Front. We are very attached to public services à la française as a way to limit inequalities.”

What all these movements do have in common is an angst-driven quest for national identity. Not so many years ago, the citizens of Europe’s diverse patchwork of nations large and small knew who they were. Language, traditions, currency, and culture told them where they came from and what they stood for. Globalization and its European embodiment, the EU, are destroying that. There is literally no more local

The majority of the laws in EU member countries are now made by anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. Adoption of the euro has obliterated such cherished, centuries-old currencies as the franc, deutschemark, lira, peseta, and florin. Christianity itself has disappeared in large swaths of the continent, often replaced by an aggressive Islam. Jobs have been outsourced and non-European illegal immigrants flood across porous EU borders to compete for the few that remain. Meanwhile, mainstream politicians still either don’t get it or lack the political courage to tell the public the blunt, unpleasant truth. In France, that means painful root-and-branch reform. Attempting to explain the rise of populism, François Hollande says lamely it is due to “a lack of perspective and collective dynamic.”

With national leaders mouthing detached, technocratic formulas of that sort, European populism will continue to be the vehicle for citizens’ rising sense of dislocation and inchoate anger. The merits of Marine Le Pen’s audacious programs, some probably unworkable in their present form, are debatable. The maverick National Front itself is still a work in progress. But, as a certain British prime minister once said about herself, “The lady’s not for turning.” Le Pen, ready and able to take on the self-serving, out-of-touch establishment, knows who she is, what she wants, and where she plans to take her country. She and her rambunctious, newly major party will be at the center of France’s—and Europe’s—political debate for many elections to come. 

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.