Marine Le Pen, on the threshold of leading her anti-immigrant, anti-European Union National Front party to its biggest triumph ever, says she may be just one electoral cycle from becoming president of France.
Seven months before European Parliament elections, polls show the National Front as the country’s most popular party. With Socialist President Francois Hollande failing to reverse the economic slump that began under Nicolas Sarkozy, Le Pen says disillusionment is driving public opinion her way. Her message: too many foreigners, excessive forbearance of Muslims, EU austerity, an overvalued euro, free trade and a lenient penal system are ruining France.
“We will be in power in the next 10 years,” the 45-year-old Le Pen said in a Nov. 8 interview at the party headquarters in Nanterre, outside Paris. “Votes now flow from the left to the Front as much as they flow from the right to the Front. A year after rejecting Nicolas Sarkozy, the French are asking, ‘what’s the difference.’”
Sitting at a black glass desk in front of three French flags, with an e-cigarette at her side, the divorced mother of three outlined her mission to end the six-decade march toward European unity and return to a “Europe of Nations” due to the “obvious failure of the EU.”
“The EU is an anomaly; 80 percent of the world has its own freedom and its own money,” she said. “We are the only ones left alone, naked, against the cold winds of globalization.”
Le Pen says she’s working with Austria’s Freedom Party, the Swedish Democrats, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands to create an anti-EU bloc in the new parliament.
With the French government today announcing that the economy unexpectedly shrank 0.1 percent in the third quarter and with unemployment at a euro-era record of about 11 percent, her message is resonating. In an Ifop survey published Oct. 9, 24 percent planned to back her candidates in the European elections in May, where low turnout may give her motivated supporters an edge; 22 percent backed Sarkozy’s Union for Popular Movement; 19 percent, Hollande’s Socialists. The poll of 1,893 had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Le Pen has become a frequent guest on radio and television shows, where she distances herself from the legacy of her father, Jean-Marie, who was ostracized -- and prosecuted -- for his statements minimizing the Holocaust.
“Marine Le Pen has managed to put herself at the center of the political game in France: Everyone else is positioning themselves relative to her,” said Emmanuel Riviere, an analyst at the pollster TNS Sofres in Paris. “Having tried the right, people are seeing that the left isn’t doing any better. Now they want to teach a lesson to all those people. This is a great asset for Le Pen.”
Before the National Front won an Oct. 13 municipal election in the southern town of Brignoles, Jean-Francois Cope, head of the UMP, dismissed it for “extraordinary demagogy.” After the Front’s candidate won with 54 percent, Cope advocated abolishing automatic citizenship for everyone born in France, one of Le Pen’s main demands.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Interior Minister Manuel Valls has become the most popular member of Hollande’s Cabinet with crackdowns on crime and Roma camps.
Still, a Le Pen presidency remains remote, even if she has taken the party beyond the limits her father imposed, said Cas Mudde, professor at University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, who studies European extremists.
“The National Front has certainly increased its support and reduced the number of people who see it as a threat to democracy,” said Mudde. “But she remains a polarizing figure. Many people still won’t vote for her.”
France’s two-round election system means she’d need to win close to 40 percent in the first round to have a chance in a run-off, where the rest of the parties would gang up on her, Mudde said. No one has managed that result since Francois Mitterrand in 1974. Still, he lost in the second round.
Joel Combin, professor at University of Picardy in northern France, said the Ifop poll showing Le Pen’s as the largest party needs to be viewed with caution. “The campaign hasn’t even started, so we don’t know what the electoral offer is going to be from the other parties,” he said. “But there’s no question the party is gaining.”
Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front in 1972, unifying a collection nationalist parties. He peaked in 2002, shocking the nation by ousting Socialist Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential vote with 17 percent. He was crushed in the run-off by Jacques Chirac, who tallied 82 percent, benefiting from a so-called “Republican Pact” among the mainstream parties.
He faded against Sarkozy in 2007, failing to get out of the first round as the former interior minister attracted Le Pen voters with appeals to nationalism and anti-crime rhetoric.
In January 2011, Marine won a succession battle to take over the party and bring it in from the political fringe.
“The Front used to hobble along on one leg, immigration and security,” she said. “We needed a second leg, a social and economic leg. Most of my work has been developing a real program, a real offer, on these issues.”
She also recruited or promoted younger party leaders, such as vice-presidents Louis Alliot, 44, and Florian Philippot, 32, and secretary general Steeve Briois, 40, all of them too young to have experienced the colonial setbacks in Indochina and Algeria that so wounded her father’s generation.
“She’s adapted to changes in French society,” Combin said. “Anti-semitism and racism have vanished from the discourse. Her emphasis is on French culture, and how it’s threatened by radical Islam, and not on ethnicity.”
Jean-Bernard Formé, 48, a science teacher in Lorgues in the south of France voted Sarkozy in last election. He has now joined the National Front. “Her father was not a uniter,” he said. “She has a real national project.”
The party’s platform for the 2012 elections included its traditional calls to tighten immigration and citizenship rules. It also promised to pull out of the euro, renegotiate all trade pacts to include “intelligent protectionism,” create a “Buy France Act,” limit welfare benefits to citizens and order the Bank of France to fund the French government.
“We get attacked from both sides: we get told we are far right and far left,” Le Pen said. “General De Gaulle was also seen by some as a Bolshevik and by others as a fascist, so we have a good precedent.”
Le Pen isn’t immune from making statements that echo her father. In 2010, she equated Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation. In the 2012 campaign, she criticized halal meat being served in school cafeterias.
Hollande, whose term runs until 2017, is the least popular president in modern French history, facing potential setbacks in municipal elections in March and the European Parliament elections in May.
“Sarkozy played a role in legitimizing the National Front by borrowing many themes in an attempt to borrow their votes,” Mammone said. “More than the National Front shifting to the center, it’s the whole spectrum of the French mainstream-right that shifted to the right.”