“When you say radical right in America, people think Ku Klux Klan. They think of something violent, racist.” Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party, lights a cigarette and looks straight at me. “This makes no sense at all. We are democratic … We are in the center.” With her straight-cut Italian suit, white shirt, and vintage necklace, the ash-blonde Le Pen looks more like Katie Couric than your stereotypical white supremacist. “If anything,” she says, “I’m to the left of Obama.” She cocks her head and smiles at me, gauging the effect of her audacious and deliberately misleading comparison.
It is a rainy Monday, and Le Pen and I are sipping coffee in her office on the second floor of the National Front’s bunker-style headquarters, near Paris. The daughter and political heir of the infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, may have inherited a taste for provocation from her father. But whereas his dramatic pronouncements have tended to confirm his reputation as a far-right extremist, hers are meant to rebrand the National Front as a mainstream party.
Jean-Marie was happy to merely play the role of election spoiler. Marine, who took over leadership of the National Front from him in 2011, is playing for actual political power. Since winning 18 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential election (a record for the party), she has experienced a meteoric rise in the polls. Her goal? To turn the National Front into France’s leading opposition party, supplanting Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement, which lost the presidency to François Hollande of the Socialist Party last year. To that end, she has her troops running aggressively in the municipal elections that will be held nationwide in March. “Our political presence locally is the foundation of our ascent to power,” she tells me, pounding on her desk. Having spent months recruiting and training grassroots candidates, the party is poised to snap up hundreds of city-council seats and the mayoralties of a few symbolic big cities. Beyond that, Le Pen is taking steps to be a serious presidential challenger in 2017.
But first, she has had quite a heavy legacy to shake off. For more than four decades, her father has made a name for himself with xenophobic and anti-Semitic slurs, claiming, among other niceties, that gas chambers were merely “a detail in the history of World War II.” Over the past two years, Marine has given the oft-demonized National Front a drastic makeover, or “dédiabolisation.” (Jean-Marie is commonly referred to in the French press as le diable—“the devil”—while Marine has from time to time been called la fille du diable.) She has purged the party of old-school diehards, barred skinheads in Nazi garb from rallies, promoted respectable young technocrats to management positions, and tamed its rhetoric. In 2011, she publicly condemned the Holocaust.
Throughout, Marine has been the party’s single best selling point. Jean-Marie Le Pen was easy to hate; his daughter is hard not to like. With her talk of the price of pizza and school supplies, the twice-divorced mother of three could be the woman next door. Born in 1968, she is in step with her generation on a range of issues. Whereas Jean-Marie was anti-abortion, socially conservative, and a staunch advocate of small government, Marine is pro-choice, gay-friendly, and economically interventionist, with a populist streak. Her down-to-earth persona has gone far in helping her win over previously hostile parts of the electorate. Nearly one in five women voted for her last year, as did almost a quarter of 18-to-24-year-olds—unprecedented numbers for the party. In a recent survey that asked voters whom they would select if presidential elections were held that week, she placed second, after Sarkozy but ahead of Hollande.
And yet, Marine Le Pen’s agenda remains deeply nationalistic and xenophobic. Among the policy proposals she has adapted from her father’s are drastic limits on immigration, a prompt exit from the euro zone, and what she euphemistically calls “national priority,” a set of discriminatory measures against non-nationals. To this list, she has added some ideas of her own, such as impelling legal residents who’ve been unemployed for at least six months to return to their country of origin, regardless of their ties in France. In a country beset by high unemployment, rising anti–European Union sentiment, and unrelenting multicultural tensions, these measures have struck a chord with the public. They have also been instrumental to Le Pen’s efforts to cast herself as the last champion of French democracy—which in her telling is under attack from without by the “European Soviet Union” and from within by a “massive” influx of Muslim immigrants.