Marine Le Pen, if recent polling is to be believed, is rapidly cutting Emanuel Macron’s lead in the upcoming French presidential elections. If she succeeds in gaining sufficient votes this weekend to enter the second round, we should brace for a serious upheaval in French politics at a time of unnerving uncertainty about the global order.
The French press, having forgotten Le Pen for a year, is now energetically reminding voters of her unsuitability for high office. In the public imagination, Le Pen ranges from a modern-day avatar of Joan of Arc to a rancid bigot masquerading as a moderate. Say her name, and people react with fervour: they may despise her, they may revere her, but nobody is indifferent to her.
‘Many French people have the feeling that they have known me forever because they saw me growing up,’ Le Pen told me in her office when we met in February. Dressed in an oat-white suit jacket, navy blouse and black trousers, she was striking and charismatic in person.
As we talked, she puffed on an electronic cigarette. Her spacious office, lit like a television set, was littered with the props of French patriotism: a marble bust of Marianne, the symbol of the republic, modelled on the actress Brigitte Bardot; a tricolore flag; an antique desk. She expressed concern for the health of Queen Elizabeth, whose Covid diagnosis was in the news then. ‘She’s a fighter,’ Le Pen said. ‘One can only have respect for the Queen.’
At 53, the scion of Europe’s most notorious political dynasty has arrived at the realisation that the electorate which has followed her since she was five has only a ‘poor’ understanding of who she really is. The stoicism and stolidity that have made it possible for her to endure years of personal abuse have also allowed her to be defined by others. Now, making her third bid for the French presidency, the previously familiar yet impassive Le Pen said she is determined to ‘show the French who I am’. Her campaign’s unexpected resurgence indicates that her approach is working.
Early in the campaign, Le Pen made a deeply personal pitch at a meeting of her party – recently rechristened the National Rally to purge the neofascist odour of its former name, National Front – at a rally in northern France. She recalled the experiences that shaped her. In 1976, when Le Pen was eight, her family’s home in the 15th arrondissement of Paris was bombed with explosives so powerful that they tore apart the building’s façade. It’s a miracle that anyone survived. But what haunted Le Pen, the youngest of three sisters, into adulthood was the response of France’s haute société cultivée: rather than concern, the insiders and sophisticates radiated contempt for the survivors of a terrorist attack. The unspoken message was that her family deserved what it got – and it deserved it because the head of the family and Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, happened also to be the National Front’s founder and president.
That pedigree both stifled and moulded Le Pen. At school, she was shunned and stigmatised by tutors and parents for her father’s politics. She was never invited to her friends’ homes, and they were forbidden from visiting hers, which, for all its outward flamboyance, was imploding. Not long after their home was bombed, the Le Pens relocated to a palatial mansion on a ridge in the private billionaires’ row of Montretout. The house was bequeathed to Le Pen père by an heirless cement baron who also left him his immense fortune. The neighbours held their noses at the new arrivals.
The ‘small humiliations’ that characterised Le Pen’s childhood culminated in the private ‘violence’ of separation at the age of 16 when her mother, Pierrette, a woman of model-good looks, left her husband for a journalist and later posed for Playboy. Le Pen was so wounded that she could not bring herself to see her mother until she was in her thirties. By then, Le Pen herself was divorced and raising three children as a single parent while practising law at the Paris bar. Raised a devout Catholic, she had grown accustomed to being taunted by her father’s enlightened critics for betraying the ‘family values’ he preached to others.
Marine Le Pen as a young lawyer (Getty)
She drifted into politics, she told me, to overcome such attacks and to fight for ‘something more important’. Her name was a gift – she rose rapidly in her father’s party – but also a handicap. In 2012, Le Pen’s first run for the presidency of the Fifth Republic ended in a distant third-place finish. At the last election, five years ago, she lost in a run-off vote against Macron who, despite being a relative unknown, secured his historic victory in no small measure because his opponent was named Le Pen.
The prospect of a Le Pen landing in the Élysée prompted traditionally left-wing voters to half-heartedly cast their ballot for Macron. His victory was animated not so much by hope in him as terror of his opponent. Will the same story play out again in 2022? It helps to understand the history.
The National Front and the ascent of the Le Pens originated in a rebranding exercise in 1972, when Jean-Marie, a former parachutist who had fought in Indochina and French Algeria and served a term in the National Assembly, was invited by the far-right group Ordre Nouveau to sanitise its reputation. To call what emerged from his takeover a coherent ideological movement or even a serious political party is to overthink its purpose. It was a swamp of rage, racism, resentment and anti-Semitic conspiracies: a ramshackle coalition of thwarted, mutually antagonistic intellectuals who theorised about the perils of miscegenation and published jargon-laden theses on subversive Jewish influence.
What held it all together was the pugilistic personality of its leader. Jean-Marie’s success lay not in winning elections – he got 0.74 per cent of the vote when he first ran for the presidency in 1974 – but in converting, through toil and persistence, his peeves and prejudices into blazing political issues. Over the next two decades, he not only built a formidable far-right party in submission to its leader, but also furnished France with a political dynasty.
As he aged, Jean-Marie’s penchant for provocation, particularly anti-Semitic provocation, became a burden for his party and family. He shrugged off the gas chambers as a minor detail, declared that the German occupation of France had not been ‘particularly inhumane,’ and welcomed Ebola as a solution to Africa’s population growth.
When the philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff visited him in 2016, Jean-Marie, then 88 and sitting by a calendar adorned with a bust of Vladimir Putin, dispensed a lecture on the intellectual gap between Europeans and Muslims: ‘Europeans’ intellectual progression forges ahead in a straight line, drops off slightly at thirteen, then continues in an upward trajectory. In the Muslim world, at eleven or twelve, bam! Everything suddenly stops.’ Why, asked Eltchaninoff. ‘Masturbation,’ answered Jean-Marie: ‘As Europeans, we are not prone to this obsession because of our religion… whereas among simple people it is let loose.’
Marine inherited the party’s leadership in 2011. Since then, she has pursued an arduous process of dédiabolisation – ‘de-demonising’ her party and her image – and oriented it towards the new populism. In his affecting memoir Returning to Reims (2018), the French philosopher Didier Eribon writes about the social ‘reconfiguration’ that was occurring under the surface – a metamorphosis ignored by elite political consensus. Eribon had grown up in a family that was miserably poor, occasionally violent, staunchly secular and unwaveringly communist. He left home as a young man, ashamed of his class origins. When he returned, decades later, he discovered that the fashionably left-wing students of his youth were the new bourgeoisie, ‘defenders of a world perfectly suited to the people they had become.’ His mother, meanwhile, abandoned by the left and still cleaning houses, had matured into a strident supporter of Marine Le Pen.
Before the pandemic, many nursed the belief that this year’s elections might lift Le Pen into the Élysée, third time lucky. What made her presidency seem plausible was Macron’s barely concealed disdain for a substantial segment of his compatriots from the moment he took office. France’s aloof and self-cherishing President seldom squandered an opportunity to scoff at the ‘privileges’ of the French working class. A millionaire former investment banker, he exhibited the kind of exasperation that comes naturally to people who believe they have figured everything out. A year after his election, when a young gardener explained to Macron his difficulty in finding work, there was no presidential empathy on offer: not even a perfunctory look of sympathy crossed Macron’s features. Instead, he blamed the gardener for his misfortune.
Despite the favourable climate generated by her opponent’s hauteur, Le Pen struggled until the last minute to procure the 500 signatures from elected representatives across France to qualify for the race. She had begun her appeal in September, but was still a hundred short by the end of February. Privately, she was being told by mayors that they wished to support her. But, because their signatures are made public, they feared reprisals from the government. ‘They all say “I’d like to sponsor you, but I’m afraid my grant will be taken away from me if I ever do”.’ Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and the Socialist candidate, had more than 1,200 signatures by February despite polling at under 2 per cent – more endorsements from the establishment, the joke went in Paris, than the number of votes she would ever get from the public – but Le Pen’s candidacy appeared to be on the verge of being blocked.
Marine, far right, alongside her father and sisters (Getty)
‘Despite the thickness of our skin, we suffer,’ Le Pen told me. ‘We suffer from attacks, we suffer from betrayal.’ The betrayals had been piling up. In the days leading to our meeting, she had sacked Nicolas Bay – a regional councillor in Normandy and until then one of her closest confidantes – for apparently leaking campaign secrets to Éric Zemmour, who at that moment seemed to have outflanked her to the right on Islam and immigration.
Le Pen is contemptuous of Zemmour, a crotchety television pundit and author convicted by a court in January for inciting racial hatred (his third in a long career of provocation). Zemmour burst onto the electoral scene just when Le Pen’s prospects of victory looked brightest. Rather than treat him as a legitimate challenger, however, Le Pen dismissed him as an unfit interloper hyped up by the media to split the French right wing and derail her candidacy just when she has the chance to seize executive power.
‘The emergence of Éric Zemmour is no coincidence,’ she said, claiming that the French media has used Zemmour as an instrument to weaken her. He is, she said, ‘the only chance for Emmanuel Macron,’ and has ‘barely hid’ that fact. ‘His objective is not to win, but to make me lose.’
Still, Le Pen was disconcerted by the ease with which Zemmour had been able to lure away her key supporters. The defection that unsettled her was of her niece, Marion Maréchal. Elected to the National Assembly in 2012 at the age of 22 – the youngest person ever to be voted to parliament in France’s republican history – Maréchal feuded with her aunt, retired from politics in 2017, retreated to Lyon, and founded a school. She emerged last year, having shed her Le Pen surname, to endorse Zemmour.
Maréchal’s action, Le Pen told me, plunged her ‘into an abyss of perplexity’ for two reasons. First, because ‘there are very strong ties of affection between me and the little girl who was Marion, for whom I was very much present in the first years of her life.’ Second, because Zemmour ‘cannot win this presidential election’. The polls back her claim that she, not Zemmour, is ‘best-placed to win against Emmanuel Macron,’ and that Zemmour is ‘completely at the back of the pack of candidates who could possibly prevent Macron from being re-elected’ in the second round. Maréchal’s choice, she said, was ‘incomprehensible’ on both counts.
However much Le Pen professed not to take Zemmour seriously, his entry raised a peculiar challenge for her. She has spent years revamping her political brand, stamping out the anti-Semitic fixations of her father’s generation, and developing a politics that addresses the cultural anxieties of the right by deploying the secular vocabulary of the left. In 2015, she permanently expelled her own father from the party as punishment for another of his grotesque rhetorical forays into anti-Semitic territory.
At that point her base, consolidated over decades, had nowhere else to go. Emancipated from the duty to pander endlessly to its prejudices, she was free to assail Macron from an anti-corporatist position. The ideology for which the French President stood, she said, ‘far exceeds mere globalisation’: its objective is ‘to encourage nomadism, the permanent movement of uprooted people from one continent to another, to make them interchangeable and, in essence, to render them anonymous.’ Those words were not so different from Theresa May’s exhortation that ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’.
Le Pen spoke of and for the blue-collar communities abandoned by the chic ruling elites. She attacked the ‘Europeanist monster being built in Brussels, which defines itself, in a semantic fraud, as “Europe”, but is nothing less than a conglomerate under American protection, the antechamber of a total, global world state.’ Her philippics against immigration were accompanied by calls for the fortification of equal citizenship predicated on the rule of law and assimilation, and her speeches liberally quoted from socialists and heroes of the Third Republic: Clemenceau, Jaurès, and Zola. Anyone from anywhere, she told me, could be French, provided he or she merged into France.
When I asked her if Islam was compatible with Frenchness, her answer was emphatic and expansive: ‘Yes,’ she pronounced. ‘Nothing in Islam makes this religion incompatible. My fight is not a religious fight. My fight is a fight against Islamist ideology, which is a totalitarian ideology like Nazism. And this ideology is contrary to the French constitution. But once again, the Muslim religion is a religion like any other and I have no war to wage against a religion in France.’
In a country that has endured beheadings, stabbings, and mass shootings by self-proclaimed Islamists, her position, despite its allusion to the totalitarianism of the Third Reich, is not so radically different from Macron’s condemnation of ‘Islamist separatism’. Her belief that Islam, in its private religious form, is completely congruous with the French identity accords with French republican tradition.
But after all her work to detoxify herself and her party, and after making considerable inroads into the left’s terrain, she faced the possibility of being deserted by her traditional voters. Zemmour’s astringent oratory, employed in service of his unapologetically sulfurous ultranationalism, was draining away supporters from her strongholds. His maiden presidential event, held on the same day as hers, drew a much larger crowd.
Then Vladimir Putin intervened. Macron’s candidacy, already ahead in the polls, was instantly bolstered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And Le Pen and Zemmour found themselves acutely vulnerable to accusations of being marionettes of Putin and his strongmen epigones in Eastern Europe.
In 2014, Le Pen’s party had received loans from an obscure Russian aircraft parts company. Her current presidential campaign is financed by borrowings from a Hungarian bank. The reason she uses foreign financial institutions is that, despite guarantees from the French state to repay loans taken by political candidates who obtain a certain percentage of the vote, no French bank will touch her party. But could that detail, always little appreciated, wash away the public perception, especially in this febrile moment, that she is beholden to foreign authoritarians?
Macron, by contrast, grasped the opportunity. He engaged in high diplomacy at a long table in Moscow and played a gallant defender of Ukraine against Russian aggression. But the permanently airborne President, having cast himself as an international statesman above petty domestic politics, had failed dismally to avert a shooting war. As the conflict intensified, his numbers became stagnant and Le Pen’s surged.
She has managed thus far to survive – and rise – despite her affection for Putin. Macron’s speeches are already replete with references to the Russian President and his ‘indulgence’ by French politicians, and he is certain to make Putin the dominant theme of his debate against Le Pen. Yet she did not adjust her opinions to suit the prevailing mood when I asked her, two days before war erupted in Ukraine, to name the leaders she most admires. She answered without hesitation: Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson, and Vladimir Putin. ‘I have respect for Vladimir Putin because he defends the interests of Russia,’ she clarified, adding that she also admires Angela Merkel for the same reason: Merkel may have gone against France, but she ‘defended the interests of Germany’. She may be less forthcoming now.
Once Russia launched its military campaign in Ukraine, Le Pen was one of the first to condemn it ‘in the strongest terms.’ When I contacted her after our meeting, she told me that Russia’s conduct was ‘not defensible’: ‘the sovereignty of nations is not negotiable, the freedom of nations is not arguable.’ She even offered assistance in taking refugees from Ukraine, while reiterating that she still believes in ‘independence, equidistance and constancy in our defence policy.’ Meanwhile, her party has reportedly pulped 1.2 million leaflets containing an image of Le Pen shaking hands with the Russian President.
Le Pen did not exude the same warmth for the current American leadership. She was consistent in her coldly realistic assessment of relations with Washington. ‘I have a lot of friendship for the American people,’ she said, but not so much for their leaders. When ‘they use the extraterritoriality of American law’ to harry other states, ‘they go too far’. France must belong in neither camp, Le Pen believes, and should guard its interests by maintaining ‘relations that are at a respectful equidistance’ with both Moscow and Washington. This is not a fringe view in French politics, which has always contained a thick streak of scepticism towards America, but the audience for it may have shrunk in recent weeks.
From a pre-war, pre-pandemic vantage point, 2022 looked, at least on paper, like Le Pen’s year. She had come out of her father’s shadow, effectively decapitating and banishing the old bigot into retirement. She had deodorised the family name to the best of her ability and instilled discipline in her party. She had reinvented herself as the champion of the left-behinds and sublimated the neglected grievances of her supporters into a cohesive ideology to reclaim France.
Ludwig Knoepffler is a London-trained political scientist from a cosmopolitan family who recently left a lucrative career in the private sector to work for the National Rally. He told me that what drew him to Le Pen was not something grand but something rather basic: her unwillingness to give up. It’s wrong to believe that she is animated by a hunger for power, he told me. ‘She could have inherited a small world that worshiped her family name and remained confined to it,’ an Asian diplomat who has interacted with her explained to me. ‘Instead, she rejected that world and chose to engage with the hostile universe’ to ‘broaden her base’. Jean-Marie was a self-amusing provocateur who was never interested in winning power. ‘Marine is protective of the French people the same way a wolf mother is protective of her children,’ Knoepffler told me. ‘That love makes her compassionate and kind, but also fierce and dangerous.’
Should Le Pen lose this election – an outcome that, despite her performance in opinion polls, is very likely – she will have stacked up three consecutive defeats. If she makes it to the second round, she may survive. But before she can mount another campaign in five years’ time, when she will be 58 – still young by the standards of French presidential elections – she will have to first unify a right-wing fractured by Zemmour, who appears determined to displace her as the champion of the left-behinds. Rather than directing a lofty fight from the presidential palace to protect what she calls ‘the interests of France,’ she will be forced to wage intra-ideological trench warfare to preserve her party and its support base. She has done it before, and it would be foolhardy to bet against her ability to do it again. But even if she succeeds in that battle, she may ultimately have to cede the crown to the younger generation.
National Rally, full of new talent, will not vanish if and when Le Pen loses in the second round. Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s pugnacious 26-year-old deputy, is viewed by many as the next leader. His approach to politics is more reminiscent of Jean-Marie than Marine. This is why, even if she quits the presidency of her party, her aides say that she will be forced by the party rank and file to stay on in an honorary role – if only to temper the destructive impulses of her ‘children’ in the same way in which she tamed her father. ‘If she does not become queen,’ a supporter of Le Pen’s told me, ‘she will at least end her career as a kingmaker’.
A version of this article first appeared in The Spectator World edition.
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