Marine Le Pen’s Populism for the Masses
By Mathieu von Rohr
When Marine Le Pen walks into a room, she dominates it physically. She is slim, wears tight jeans and blazers and has dyed blonde hair, and yet she seems as if she were walking into a ring, tense and ready to lash out.
The 42-year-old French politician has inherited her father’s broad shoulders and wide face. She is unmistakably the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, but she is also very much her own person. She fascinates people because she both resembles and contrasts with the man who was the bête noire of French politics for decades.
She also has her father to thank for a powerful voice that booms even when she is speaking normally. It sounds deep and hoarse. It is the voice of a woman who has been smoking for years, but most of all it is the voice of a fighter. There is aggression in her voice, and even a hint of vulgarity. Marine Le Pen bills herself as someone who comes from the bottom and is determined to stick it to those whom she calls “the caste” — France’s political elite.
On a sunny afternoon in Metz, a city in the Lorraine region of eastern France, Le Pen is speaking in a tiny, jam-packed conference room at the Hotel Technopole, a shabby concrete box of a building in an industrial area. The venue seems at odds with the larger-than-life image Le Pen has acquired through countless cover stories and television appearances. But despite the surroundings, her words are full of raw energy, and it quickly becomes clear that she is an extremely talented politician.
Using her notes instead of a prepared speech, she speaks in short, hard-hitting sentences. She talks about issues like the loss of buying power, and about people who have no more than €50 or €100 ($71.50 or $143) left over at the end of each month. She warns against refugees from Tunisia, and against immigrants in general. She demands social welfare systems for the French instead of for immigrants. And then she finally gets to her central issue: the fight against globalization, which Le Pen says is destroying France.
She wants to leave the euro, reintroduce customs borders and nationalize banks. Her vision is the antithesis of a Europe that hardly anyone, even in France, believes in anymore. “What are the others, the conservatives and the socialists, proposing? Nothing! They are busy fighting the National Front!” She rants and she is audacious, unlike the well-trained spin doctors normally seen on television, and she appeals to many people.
“Elections are sexual affairs,” the author Christine Angot wrote recently in the daily newspaper Libération. “Marine Le Pen appeals to 20 percent of us and fascinates 80 percent. A mannish woman, phallic, we like that. A woman who dominates her father and gets better results.”
In Second Place
Since January, Le Pen has been the chairwoman of the right-wing populist National Front (FN) party, a position in which she succeeded her father. France is obsessed with her. With the next presidential elections less than a year away, some polls place her in second place, ahead of unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy and just behind Martine Aubry, the socialist politician who announced her candidacy last week. This could put her in the run-off election — which would be a triumph for Le Pen.
When her father managed the same feat nine years ago, on April 21, 2002, many French perceived it as a national catastrophe. In the first round of voting, Le Pen was ahead of Socialist Lionel Jospin. By the next day, protesters were shouting “Never again!” and French citizens formed alliances against the radical right wing. In the run-off election, 82 percent voted for Jacques Chirac and only 18 percent for Le Pen. The villain had been driven out once more.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front in the 1970s, he also invented European right-wing populism. With his slicked-back hair, horn-rimmed glasses and the eye patch he wore in the early years, he was the caricature of the ugly right-winger, notorious for his efforts to downplay the Holocaust. Le Pen came across as a tyrant, a monster from another time, a man who did not hesitate to shout at and even physically assault his adversaries. His supporters included deeply conservative Catholics, right-wing extremists and Vichy diehards — but the majority were disappointed protest voters.
The party’s greatest success was followed by a rapid decline. The National Front, divided to the point of rupture, almost went under. The party needed a new face and, ironically, found it in the old man’s youngest daughter. It now looks as if it needed precisely her to transform the FN from a coalition of the despised into a party like any other. According to opinion polls, the majority of the French already see it as a regular party — and as a party that one doesn’t just vote for out of dissatisfaction, but because one is in favor of Marine Le Pen.
On First Name Terms
Modern European right-wing populism no longer aims to shock people, but rather seeks to advance into the heart of society. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders and the Danish politician Pia Kjaersgaard have already made it, while Marine Le Pen is still hard at work, doing what she calls “de-demonization.” The difference between her and her father is that she seems normal in a way that inspires confidence, the kind of woman one would expect to run into with her children at the local sports field. The French refer to her by her first name — as if she was an old acquaintance.
The FN is most successful in provincial towns like Hénin-Beaumont in the north and Metz in Lorraine, where industry has migrated abroad and unemployment is high. There is no feeling of radical change at Le Pen’s appearances in these cities. Instead, the audiences she addresses in drab rooms are sheepish party members who are quick to point out that they are not racists before the issue is even raised. Only when Le Pen is standing in front of them do they suddenly straighten up, as if this person were someone who could clear them of all suspicion.
In Metz, she attacks the political class, what she calls the “UMPS system,” a fusion of the acronyms for Sarkozy’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and the Socialist Party (PS). She disparages their politicians as nothing but graduates of elite schools who “have colonized politics for the last 30 years.” The National Front, she says, aims to produce a “new elite from the ranks of the people.” “They don’t like that!” she thunders. “They say to themselves: Who are these workers, these housewives, these students?”
She talks about politics the way ordinary people talk about politics. “This is shocking,” she says. “Outrageous!” Le Pen is selling rage, and people are buying it. The National Front has long been the strongest party among blue-collar workers, and now it hopes to capture the middle class.
The Divide Between the Governing and the Governed
Le Pen stands for the renunciation of a political system that no longer works. She strikes a nerve when she speaks of the self-contained elites divvying up the top positions in politics and business among themselves. Nowhere in Europe is the divide between the governing and the governed as wide as it is in France.
Hardly anyone embodied this aloofness as much as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was slated to become the Socialists’ presidential candidate before he was arrested in New York, accused of attempted rape. On that Sunday morning in May, when France awoke to the shocking news of his arrest, Le Pen was the first to express what had no one had dared mention until then. “I’m not particularly surprised,” she said. “Everyone in the Paris village knew that he has a pathological relationship with women.” Le Pen was in her element, portraying herself as the only one prepared to speak plainly in a country whose politicians are supposedly all in league with one another.
A few weeks after her appearance in Metz, Le Pen meets with us in her small office at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. She executes her most important office in an organization that she rejects. The FN has no seats in the French National Assembly, because French electoral law places small parties at a disadvantage.
She has a cold look in her eyes, and there is a certain hardness to her face. Some campaign posters depict Le Pen with a grimace on her face that passes for a warm smile, almost as if someone had advised her to look more feminine. When she laughs in real life, it comes from deep within her belly.
Painting Herself as a Victim
She tells a story from her childhood, in an effort to show who she is and what it meant to grow up as her father’s daughter. She was eight when a bomb meant for her father exploded in the stairwell outside the family’s apartment. The blast ripped a hole into the outside wall of the building. Marine, her two older sisters and their parents were unharmed.
“That’s when I learned that politics is dangerous,” she says. “I felt the deep injustice that would accompany me throughout my life. It’s always with me, just like the fear that something could happen to my father. That was the cement in our family.” Anyone who was named Le Pen was an outcast. But this gave her a hard shell. “It was my driving force,” she says. “That’s probably why I became a lawyer and then a politician.” She says that she doesn’t want to paint herself as a victim, and yet she does it incessantly. It’s the weapon of the underdog.
When asked about her defensive fellow party members in Metz and Hénin-Beaumont, who felt they had to justify belonging to the National Front, she dismisses the question with a wave of her hand. “Oh, come on,” she says, “we’ve been accused of being racists and xenophobes for too long. We’re not.” She doesn’t deny that there used to be anti-Semitism in the party, but she also claims that it existed in other parties, too. Now, she says, she has only one thing to say to anyone who espouses such views: “You’re wrong in this respect. Adieu. We are not racists, or anti-Semites or xenophobes.” She insists that the National Front is “neither left nor right,” and certainly not a right-wing extremist party.
She has already made an effort to counter such perceptions. In an interview, for example, she described the Holocaust as the “height of barbarism,” which made headlines despite not being a surprising revelation. She says that her aim was to clear up “misunderstandings” that had arisen as a result of statements her father once made. She has even recruited a few dark-skinned candidates.
‘France Has Lost Its Identity’
Like her father, Le Pen is critical of immigration, but unlike him, and similar to other European right-wing populists, she focuses on attacking Islam. She speaks of the disintegration of society into ethnic groups, and criticizes prayers in the streets and fast food chains advertising halal meat. But she speaks even more about social issues and the fight against the international financial world, and about “intelligent protectionism,” which sounds more leftist than anything else.
Near the end of the conversation, when she is asked how France is doing, Le Pen launches into a monologue that sounds like a speech: “Those in power have managed to bankrupt one of the world’s greatest countries. We are like Greece. How can it be that France has lost its identity, its voice in the world? Seven million workers living in poverty, and a quarter of the population unable to support itself.” She pauses briefly to catch her breath. “That alone discredits the UMP and PS, which have shared power for years, as well as their results.”
The headquarters of the National Front is located on a small side street in Nanterre, in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, in an unmarked, silver-gray office building. The party that is challenging the establishment is a small, amateurish-looking organization with less than two dozen people working at its main office.
Since Le Pen was chosen at the party leader, they have been like people dying of thirst who have suddenly been given water. Press spokesman Alain Vizier, who has been in the same position for more than 20 years, expresses his satisfaction with a broad grin. The telephones are all ringing off the hook, and a dozen magazine covers depicting Le Pen are displayed on one of the walls. They include Le Point, Le Nouvel Observateur and even the leftist magazineMarianne. Vizier has a product that everyone wants, which is a first for his party.
Image of a Happy Family
It was a tough fight for Le Pen to reach the top of her party, a battle waged against her father’s supporters, who claimed that she would betray the party and even strike a deal with Sarkozy to get into power. In the end, she was voted into office with more than two-thirds of votes, and now her success has silenced almost all of her opponents.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen walks into the headquarters of the party he founded, he is greeted as if nothing had changed. “Bonjour président,” says the man at the reception desk. The old man is there almost every morning, and when his daughter is not in, he sits in her office and has her secretary bring him coffee.
In the afternoon, Jean-Marie Le Pen can be found in his office in Saint-Cloud on the outskirts of Paris, in a villa named Montretout, a palace from the days of Napoleon III that an admirer once bequeathed to Le Pen. There, the Le Pens sought to project an image of a happy family — until the family fell apart in the 1980s. After the couple divorced, Le Pen’s ex-wife Pierrette Lalanne posed nude for the French edition of Playboy, while one of his daughters, Marie-Caroline, and her husband joined a competing party that had split off from the FN. The house is the headquarters of a clan for whom there was never any separation between their private and political lives. Marine Le Pen and her sister Yann still live there.
‘As a Woman, You Have a Close Relationship with Reality’
Le Pen, a bulky 83-year-old, leans back in his chair. He projects the image of a man who has no regrets. “You know,” he says, by way of greeting, “I am a legend in French politics. The picture my opponents have drawn of me is extreme, emblematic and virtually impossible to correct.” He practically shouts with laughter, as he sits in a room filled with likenesses of himself, in photographs, oil paintings and pencil drawings.
Le Pen tells stories about how unfairly he believes he has been treated, and about the war and the threat of immigrants’ birth rates to society. These are the dominant themes in his life. Unprompted, he begins to justify the statements he has made in the past, but in doing so he only makes things worse. He says that he has a tendency to relativize things. He says that when he is criticized for having said that the gas chambers were only one detail in the history of World War II, he responds: “I understand. So World War II was a detail in the history of the gas chambers.” He finds this sort of thing highly amusing.
He refuses to admit that it pains him not to be in charge anymore. “I was the first stage of the rocket, and she is the second,” he says. Does it seem strange to him that the media that once hated him so much are now so enamored of his daughter? “They want to make up for the injustice they inflicted on me,” he responds. Is he proud of her? “Yes, kind of. Kind of, indeed.”
Contradicting His Daughter
Both father and daughter emphasize their close relationship, and yet there are differences. When she had a local politician thrown out of the party after a photo surfaced that showed him giving the Hitler salute, her father criticized her. He says that he has a more humanistic perspective, but that Marine happens to be the boss. She claims that it isn’t a problem when her father openly contradicts her. But of course it’s a problem.
The question is: Is there a real difference between the father and the daughter? Her only response is that she is younger and a woman, and that of course there are differences. She is careful not to distance herself from the history of her movement. Le Pen is performing a difficult balancing act.
She is in the process of installing her own team, an armada of clever young men with short haircuts and dark suits. When asked what is new about their party, they don’t respond with political analyses, but simply with a name: Marine. One of them says that the difference between father and daughter is that she is more determined to acquire power than he was.
It is her personality and her quick-wittedness that have made Le Pen the star of talk shows and brought thousands of new members into the party. She has a feel for the issues that can work to her advantage, and she forces her opponents to address them. The Socialists, for example, are now talking about protectionism too. And now that she has launched a campaign against dual citizenship, Sarkozy’s Interior Ministry is trying to overtake her on the right on the issue of immigration.
Low-Key Private Lives
One of her advisers is her partner Louis Aliot, an athletic 41-year-old man with a southern accent. He is in charge of her election program, and together with Le Pen he has recruited a group of advisers that includes fellow party members, a right-wing Green Party member, a former Socialist and a left-leaning economic expert. It is a personal staff that is designed to seem more likeable than Le Pen’s party.
Little is known about Le Pen and Aliot. They keep their private lives out of the media, and their children are off-limits. Who the woman behind the public persona really is, remains a mystery. Marie-Christine Arnautu, an FN politician and old friend of the family, says that Le Pen works harder than anyone else and is very demanding on her staff. Le Pen lost 14 kilograms (31 pounds) before going into politics. Arnautu says that this is a reflection of her discipline and has nothing to do with the notion that women have to look good to succeed in politics.
Le Pen, who has been divorced twice, has three children and raises them on her own. She has suffered like any mother who only sees her children on weekends, says Arnautu, but this also helps many French women identify with her. Le Pen herself says: “I believe that it’s easier for a man to lose his grip on reality. As a woman, and a mother, you have a close relationship with reality.” The FN’s voters were predominantly male in the past, but now the relationship is more balanced.
But can she win elections? In this spring’s cantonal elections, the FN captured an average of 19 percent of the vote in those election districts in which it was fielding a candidate, placing it ahead of the party currently in power, the UMP. Le Pen can become a greater threat to the established parties than her father ever was. If the FN were to win seats in the National Assembly again, for the first time in nine years, Le Pen could help shape French politics for years to come, both in the parliament and on television. But for now she is fighting for Sarkozy’s job, and she is behaving as if she could actually win.
Embracing the System
In Metz, she tells her supporters why she believes she stands a chance: “The French were not willing to elect someone from the National Front in 2002. In 2007, they elected someone who sounded as if he was from the National Front, but he wasn’t. They will be willing in 2012.”
Sarkozy himself once campaigned as an outsider, as someone who sought to stir up the system. But he had hardly arrived at the Elysée Palace before he embraced the system.
That would not happen to Marine Le Pen.