The right-wing National Front (FN) has become France’s most popular political party, as its leader Marine Le Pen capitalizes on voter anger over the country’s sagging economic fortunes.
What’s more surprising is that FN has a plan to fix the economy that in many ways resembles a leftist manifesto. Nationalizing banks, raising protectionist trade barriers, handing out cash to low-paid workers—they’re all part of the platform developed by Le Pen, 45, who took over leadership of the party two years ago from her father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
“The FN used to hobble along on one leg,” talking only about immigration and crime, which were its signature issues, Marine Le Pen says in an interview at the party headquarters in suburban Paris. “When you go from 10 percent to 25 percent in the polls, you are a real party, and you need to behave that way. I’ve immersed myself to give visibility to the economic and social program, to build a real platform on these issues.”
Le Pen says France has been “left alone, naked” to face unchecked globalization. She wants France to leave the European Union and pull out of the euro currency so it can keep tight controls on imports while devaluing its currency “to relaunch exports and employment.” The FN platform calls for a 3 percent tax on all imports that would be used to give a €200 ($270) monthly bonus to the country’s lowest-paid workers.
She also wants the government to play a stronger role in managing the economy—for example, by temporarily nationalizing banks and forcing them to “clean up” their practices. “We still believe in free markets,” she says. “The danger is ultra-liberalism, where financial markets impose all the rules.”
Le Pen isn’t the only French politician who has blasted financiers. Socialist President François Hollande proclaimed them his “enemy” during his 2012 campaign. But he has never suggested nationalizing banks.
While Hollande has been raising taxes in an effort to narrow the budget deficit, the FN’s economic platform is packed with expensive crowd-pleasers, such as a 20 percent cut in the gas tax and a lowering of the standard retirement age to 60. (Then-President Nicolas Sarkozy of the center-right raised it to 62 only three years ago.) Le Pen says the government can save money by cutting waste, ending social benefits for immigrants, and eliminating payments to the EU.
She’s not an anti-tax campaigner, though. “I am for a social protection system, à la française,” she says. “In this country we are willing to pay a certain level of taxes in order to assure a certain standard of living.”
A tall, elegant woman who trained as a lawyer and who is a single mother of three, Le Pen is a more sympathique figure than her father, an ex-paratrooper known for making anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic comments. “It’s true that in his 65-year career, he said some unfortunate things,” she says of her father. “He’s a bit of a punk.” But, she says attacks on her father went “beyond reason.”