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.
Trained as a lawyer, she comfortably delivers articulate speeches laying out the Front's positions on a stronger state, law and order, nationalistic protectionism, and social welfare, spiced with a dash of flag-waving, crowd-rousing patriotism. At the party convention in Tours last January she gave a well-crafted acceptance speech with surprising echoes of Lincoln (state power should be "of the people, by the people, for the people"), and eclectic references ranging from Jean Jaurès, a major historical figure of the French left, to the Catholic mystic writer Charles Péguy. In her stem-winding attack on "identity-killing globalization," she called it "an economic horror, a social tsunami, a moral Chernobyl. The globalized utopia is finished."
In speech after speech across France, Marine hammers home the Front's other pet themes: limiting immigration (flouting European Union rules to reestablish border customs and passport controls), pushing back against the increasingly assertive Muslim community (no burqas on women or public funds for new mosques), exiting the EU ("It's a dead star which seems to be there but no longer really exists"), dropping the euro currency ("It's not viable and already collapsing on itself").
The message, though provocative and often unworkable, is getting through. Some three-quarters of the French now consider her "courageous," nearly half agree with her on security and crime, a third on slowing immigration, while 42 percent think she is "close to people's concerns." In the space of four months earlier this year she doubled the Front's numbers, from 12 to 24 percent. Repeated surveys find her beating Sarkozy in the first round of the 2012 presidential election. Others even show her outpolling any likely candidate in the second-round runoff to win the presidency.
OBVIOUSLY it's still very early days in the 2012 campaign. But the polls were borne out in real time in last March's local elections, the last big test before next year's presidential. The resurgent socialists got 36 percent to the faltering UMP's 19 percent. But the shocker was the Front's 40 percent in the cantons where it put up candidates. In just a few months, it has gone from marginal to mainstream.
In that it is surfing on the same wave of discontent that is lifting populists across Europe. From Scandinavia to Italy, right-wing parties are shaking up the political scene, whether it be the True Finns in Finland, the Danish People's Party, Austria's FPÖ, the Swiss People's Party or Italy's Northern League. As the conservative French commentator Guy Sorman observed recently, "Given a slow economy, a failed welfare state, and uncontrolled immigration-challenges for which no mainstream parties on the right or left have any coherent proposals-the appeal of the far right's soft populism will continue to haunt France and Europe."
Certainly it is haunting Nicolas Sarkozy. The most unpopular president in the 53-year history of the Fifth Republic is running scared. With good reason, for fully three-quarters of French voters of all political persuasions are now convinced he will lose the Elysée Palace next year and become a one-term president.
On issues like immigration and Islamification of French society, Marine has him stymied so that whatever he does is wrong. If he fails to take a strong line, the Front wins. If he tries to steal its thunder with copycat proposals, he only makes the Front's program more appealing: why vote for an imitation when you can have the real thing? Fully aware of that, some members of his own UMP party are calling for cooperation with the Front, while many of their constituents are already moving toward the NF.
Short of an earthshaking upset, Marine won't win the presidency. Yet it's just possible that she will succeed in demolishing the decrepit Gaullist party that has dominated French politics for half a century. But a word of caution: if her NF comes to dominate or heavily influence French policies, it could be seriously destabilizing.
Policies like dropping the euro and returning to the franc, fighting a pitched battle with the EU, and preferring a dirigiste economy to free-market capitalism would not be without big costs to France and the West. So too with Marine's position on Franco-American relations. Implementing a prickly nationalism à la Charles de Gaulle, she would withdraw France from NATO, develop a closer relationship with Russia -- making Germany nervous -- and generally be a difficult partner in any areas, economic, military, or diplomatic, where France could possibly appear "servile" to the U.S.
So two cheers for Marine Le Pen for taking on France's political establishment and showing up its elitist hypocrisy and incoherence. But not three. Because if this lady ever becomes president, all bets are off.