“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.