Marine Le Pen, the face and leader of the French far-right Front National party, believes France should exit the European Union, drop the euro, and fight radical Islam, and not necessarily in that order.
“The division is no longer between the right and the left,” she told her supporters this weekend, “but between patriots and [believers in] globalization.”
On Sunday, Le Pen officially launched her bid for the French presidency, before an adoring crowd of about 3,000 in the French city of Lyon. She began with an immediate push against what she called the “two totalitarianisms” — “globalization” and “Islamic fundamentalism” — and simultaneously billed her campaign, and this election, as “crossroads” moment with “a choice of civilization” meaning, in this case, French identity.
While Le Pen’s ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-globalization message was not a surprise — she has long campaigned on these pillars — what has shocked observers is her reach. Under Le Pen, the Front National (FN) has gone from a fringe party to a viable contender in the next French elections. Her father was a known xenophobe who made a practice of regularly dismissing the Holocaust; she is within reach of the presidency in one of Europe’s biggest and wealthiest countries. Her success represents both a triumph of rebranding and the wave of populism sweeping much of the West.
The Front National is predicted to lead in the first round of France’s voting
For months polls have predicted FN doing very well in the first round of voting for the presidential election. France has a two-round system of voting, which means voters go into vote on April 23 for a pack of candidates, knowing there will be a runoff election in May. The most recent IFOP poll puts Le Pen in the lead, with some 25 percent the vote in the first ballot on April 23.
That number is partly attributed to the disintegration of conservative candidate François Fillon, who has been mired in scandal over accusations that he paid his wife and kids thousands of euros for jobs they did not do.
While Le Pen is widely expected to be trounced on the second ballot by an upstart named Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister and banker, the FN is challenging the very heart of the French modern political establishment — and giving a boost to far-right parties across the continent.
Le Pen on immigration, Islam and the West
Islam and immigration are twin fears at the core of Le Pen’s nativist platform. She argues that both are at odds with France’s secular and Western identity.
“We do not want to live under the rule or threat of Islamic fundamentalism,” she boomed to the crowd on Sunday. “They are looking to impose on us gender discrimination in public places, full body veils or not, prayer rooms in the workplace, prayers in the streets, huge mosques.” It is a sentiment she has long expressed.
Le Pen’s platform feeds off the widespread anxieties in France fanned by devastating terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Nice in July 2016, as well as the continued refugee crisis and the waves of undocumented migrants that have moved across Europe since the summer of 2015.
The 144 specific “commitments” proposed by Le Pen’s party (a party platform proposed Saturday) include promises to kick out undocumented migrants and radically cut back on the state-sponsored benefits like free education and health care that are awarded to noncitizens, even those in France legally. Le Pen has also promised to radically slash legal immigration.
During the day, the Lyon crowd yelled out, “On est chez nous," which has been widely translated as “We are in our land” but might also be simply translated as “We are in our house” or “our home.”
Le Pen’s critique of Islam, as well as immigration, goes hand in hand with a promise to hold a referendum on a Frexit — a French departure from the EU. Le Pen would also like France to drop the euro and leave the NATO military alliance. One plank of her campaign is what the FN calls a “return to monetary sovereignty.”
The editorial in Le Monde Monday morning bluntly called her party’s goals “tuer l’Europe” — to kill Europe — and spoke in apoplectic terms of the idea to return to a devalued franc, the former French currency.
Not your father’s National Front
Marine Le Pen has helmed the Front National since 2011. But even before taking over the FN from her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen had spent years refashioning the FN as a sort of kinder, gentler, far right.
In a conversation with me in 2006, she spoke of gay rights and women’s rights as nonnegotiable core values to the French state. And she has made several overt outreach attempts to the Jewish community, with limited success.
Much of this effort has been trying to undo what her father wrought.
That’s because Jean-Marie Le Pen, by contrast, is seen as a Holocaust minimizer if not outright denier. His party was long one of political outcasts as a result.
In April 2016, he was fined some 30,000 euros for calling the gas chambers used to murder Jews during the Second World War a mere “detail” of history. It wasn’t the first time France’s strict laws on hate speech had taken the older Le Pen to court: He was fined in the past for claiming the Nazi occupation of France was not “particularly inhumane.” And his “detail of history” comment has popped up in his commentary several times in his public record. He has also been fined for “provoking hatred and ethnic discrimination” for comments about the Roma people.
In 2016, Marine very publicly distanced herself from her father because of his rhetoric about the Holocaust.
She has also spent a decade making a concerted effort, with very limited if any success, to woo Jewish voters both by drawing a line between anti-Semitic attacks across the country and her own position on Islamic fundamentalism, and by drawing a picture her father’s party would never have created: that of a France with Judeo-Christian roots.
Le Pen, Donald Trump and Brexit
Le Pen makes a point of linking globalization — and its (negative) consequences — back to her other obsession, Islamic fundamentalism. “Our leaders chose globalization, which they wanted to be a happy thing. It turned out to be a horrible thing,” she said over the weekend. “It sets the conditions for another form of globalization: Islamist fundamentalism.”
“Both are working to make our nation disappear, by which I mean the France in which we live and that we love,” she added.
Le Pen’s rise tracks that of Donald Trump and those who successfully advocated for the Brexit vote, as well the waves of populism sweeping the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. She appears to like the comparison.
“The people are waking — the tide of history has turned,” she told her followers this weekend.