“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.
Meanwhile, in the political vacuum left by last year’s election—Hollande’s approval ratings are abysmal; the Union for a Popular Movement has yet to come up with a credible successor to Sarkozy—many mainstream conservatives have turned sharply to the right. Some have even taken Le Pen’s pet issues (immigration, Islam, illegal Roma encampments) to such extremes that Le Pen has begun to sound tame in comparison. In July, a right-wing mayor allegedly muttered that “perhaps Hitler did not kill enough” Gypsies. (The mayor says he was misheard.)
All of which raises a question: Have nationalism and xenophobia become more socially acceptable in France because of Marine Le Pen, or vice versa? Certainly, her repackaging of the National Front’s trademark anti-immigration stance as a lofty crusade to uphold France’s secular democracy has been adroit. Jean-Marie’s remarks about the Holocaust drew media attention, but always backfired; when Marine castigates Muslims’ street prayers, she scores political points. “It’s okay to be Islamophobic in France these days,” says Michel Winock, a French political historian. The spread of radical Islam, the jihadist-inspired terrorist attacks in Toulouse in March 2012, the head-scarf controversy, and Sarkozy’s own vocal anti-immigration stance have all propelled rising, if irrational, fears of a Muslim takeover. According to Winock, “Islam now represents the enemy, when it used to be the Jews for Daddy’s radical right.”
Dédiabolisation aside, Marine is still overwhelmingly her father’s daughter. When I visit her again several months later (more coffee, more rain, same stark office), I pull out a photo I recently came across, of her at age 6. A curly-haired tomboy in bell-bottom jeans, she is sitting on Jean-Marie’s lap. “I was always clinging to him,” she says, gazing at the picture fondly. “The party was born when I was 4. It grew up with me, and me with it.” Her devotion to the Front—and to her dad—were further cemented by childhood trauma. One morning when she was 8, Marine awoke to an acrid stench. Smoke hung in the air, and shards of glass and plaster were scattered around her bed. Someone had blasted open the family’s home with dynamite, in an attempt to kill her father. No one was seriously hurt, but the experience permanently shaped her worldview, fueling a narrative of persecution in which she is under assault by hostile forces. “Politics for me started in violence,” she says. Violence, she is quick to add, “against me.”
As I cross the National Front’s courtyard on my way out, I pass a bronze statue of the party’s patron saint, Jeanne d’Arc, the virgin martyr who died fending off invading British soldiers during the Hundred Years War. Marine named her first daughter Jehanne, in homage, and each May 1—Labor Day, in France—she lays a wreath of flowers at the feet of the fully armored Maid of Orléans statue at the Place des Pyramides, in the First Arrondissement. None-too-subtly identifying herself with the medieval warrior, Marine told a crowd last year that just as she had been criticized for wearing jeans, “Jeanne d’Arc was frowned upon for her masculine attire.”
A few days later, I visit Jean-Marie Le Pen at his home, the same gated mansion overlooking the Seine in which Marine grew up. “Marine will be president of France, maybe as soon as the next election,” he announces confidently, before taking a more apocalyptic tone. “It makes me very nervous, because they won’t let us have power unless it’s a very serious crisis … It will be us or death.” He pauses, and then abruptly grins. “But France has had providential wake-up calls in the past.” I ask for an example.
“Jeanne d’Arc,” he replies, without skipping a beat. “She came at a time when France seemed about to disappear.”