Janine Di-Giovanni

A Le Pen as president?

Marine Le Pen is the new, friendly face of French extremism – and suddenly, she’s leading in the polls

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Marine Le Pen is the new, friendly face of French extremism – and suddenly, she’s leading in the polls

There are just 13 months to go until the French presidential election and Le Phénomène Marine Le Pen, as it is called here, is getting spooky. Not so long ago, the 42-year-old daughter of Jean-Marie, now leader of the French National Front herself, was regarded as something of a joke — albeit quite an intelligent one. But now her detractors are taking her seriously. The last national opinion poll placed her first, with Nicholas Sarkozy trailing in third place. A quarter of Sarkozy’s former supporters are thought to have abandoned him for this twice-divorced mother of three, and it is becoming increasingly hard to dismiss her chances of becoming the next French president.

Having taken over as party leader in January, she still has a novelty factor — she is a regular on the sofas of French television shows. Many French analysts refused to believe her surge in the opinion polls, and are trying to find methodological inconsistencies. Le Monde went as far as to launch an investigation into the pollsters and their tactics. But there is no mystery as to why she jumps out as a candidate. Her main rival on the right is the increasingly unpopular Sarkzoy, while on the left she faces the austere Martine Aubry, Socialist Party leader and daughter of Jacques Delors, and the priapic bon viveur Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former finance minister.

Little wonder the colourful Mme Le Pen is on something of a roll. She is, alas, no monster. She has a polished, winning charm. She has always made herself accessible, pitching herself as a woman of the people — in contrast to the haughty Sarkozy, who annoys the French with his nervous tics, his sweating, and his hastily acquired supermodel wife. In Strasbourg recently — a haven of far right extremism — Mme Le Pen pressed the flesh and thanked her supporters, happily declaring that she is ‘taking it calmly’.

She gains popularity by whipping up the xenophobic French into a fervour over immigration issues and the endlessly debated question of national identity. Polls suggest some 40 per cent of the French population regard Islam as the enemy within — and Muslims account for two thirds of immigrants. The 1995 Paris Metro bombings — by the Algerian ‘Armed Islamic Group’ — still loom large in the national memory. In a country with unemployment at 10 per cent, there are constant complaints about how immigrants ‘take all the jobs’.

The turmoil in the Arab world has added to these fears. France’s Muslim population is mainly composed of immigrants from North Africa, and the tumult in Tunisia and Libya has prompted fresh concerns about another wave of immigration into Europe. Italy’s foreign minister has spoken about a ‘biblical exodus’ from North Africa, with a third of a million making their way across the Mediterranean.

Le Pen, presenting herself as moderate, has played on these anxieties, saying France should give refugees food and water but by no means allow them to land. To make the point, she travelled to the Italian island of Lampedusa this week, where more than 8,500 migrants have landed since the Tunisian revolution.

Given that in many French cities, such as Paris, Marseilles and Lille, the approach to assimilation is to put immigrant populations on the outskirts of town and try to pretend they don’t exist, her message has been well-received. Multiculturalism, Le Pen says, is a myth: the places where it was meant to thrive, such as the Balkans and Lebanon, descend into bloodshed and war.

Unlike her father, Le Pen is careful not to say or do anything that could easily be labelled ‘racist’. She has drilled party members not to employ objectionable terms. She is canny about avoiding explosive far-right issues. She has made it clear that she does not share her father’s anti-Semitism. (The 82-year-old Le Pen notoriously dismissed Hitler’s gas chambers as a ‘detail of history’.) She instead stresses her party’s core agenda: halting immigration and ending citizenship by birthplace. She advocates what she calls a ‘French first’ system of welfare and has predicted the collapse of the European Union.

One could almost call her a proponent of Fascism Light, a Facebook-generation right-winger. She is a far better judge than her father of where to draw the line between nationalism and obvious extremism. It also helps that she is telegenic, intelligent, interesting, outgoing, self-deprecating and modern. She is no Sarah Palin.

Her declared tactic is to reach out to younger voters and women — and so far it is working. She has learnt lessons from the Netherlands and Austria, where the far-right have flourished. She is cheerfully pitching herself at a very different type of voter to the sort her father courted. But the clever branding cannot disguise the fact that she is the same old package, dressed up in new clothes. ‘She is modern simply because she was born in another era,’ says Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques. ‘But I don’t see the moderation. The National Front has a platform which is clear, unchanging and very consistent.’

Sarkozy has faced more trouble in recent weeks. He was forced to sack Michèle Alliot-Marie as his foreign minister after she took a freebie holiday in Tunisia during the revolts. His attempts to reform state pensions have generated much hostility, and he is now less popular than the dull Prime Minister, François Fillon. All of this conspires to make Le Pen the one to watch.

Jean-Marie Le Pen’s secret was to harness fear and exploit France’s longstanding fear of immigration. His daughter, who has learnt from her father’s mistakes, is gaining a popularity that the old demagogue could never have achieved. With her blonde bob, her wide smile and her anti-Islamic views, Marine Le Pen has become a perfect ambassador for fear.