Marine Le Pen, the face of the French far-right, is trying to bring American-style identity politics to France — wagering that direct appeals to the country’s women, Jews, and secular-minded voters will help her win the French presidency despite widespread concerns about her hardline views on immigration, outsiders, and globalization.
That strategy seems to have helped her ride a wave of general public dissatisfaction with the status quo into second place with 21.7 percent of the voting after the first round of voting on April 23. She was slightly edged out by Emmanuel Macron, a centrist banker turned politician who is running for elected office for the first time.
Her next test comes in the final, two-person round on Sunday.
If she succeeds, Le Pen would make history as the first far-right leader in the postwar period to take power in a major Western European country. A victory would also mean she will have pulled off an amazing political transformation, taking what had been an openly xenophobic and vilified party, run by a man known for minimizing the horrors of the Holocaust, and bringing it squarely into the French mainstream.
Most analysts expect Macron to win the final ballot, but Le Pen has an actual, if very slim, chance of coming out on top if hardline voters turn out in droves while disenchanted mainstream voters stay home.
“Most of the French you are going to meet will tell you, ‘No, she can't win,’ [but] I don't think you can dismiss it,” one French official in Washington told me, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the state. “They are in the same denial that the Americans were and the British were. So for me, personally, I say everything is possible.”
Le Pen’s message is in many ways reminiscent of that of other far-right populists in Europe: She wants to pull France out of the European Union, NATO, and the euro common currency market. She wants to close the French borders to immigration — legal as well as undocumented — and direct the bulk of government-funded welfare programs (including schools and medical treatment) toward French citizens. She speaks of the threat of “Islamic fundamentalism” and calls the election a “choice of civilization.” France, for Le Pen, is for the French.
To that end she is also, distinctly, French: She extols the virtues of militant secularism that has defined the French state since the early 20th century, and has proposed banning all religious headwear — including the Muslim hijab, the Jewish kippah, and the Sikh turban — in public spaces.
"What is at stake in this election,” she announced at her opening campaign event in Lyon back in February, “is whether France can still be a free nation. The divide is no longer between the left and right, but between patriots and globalists!"
She has worked hard to make her positions more palatable to a wider swath of voters, appealing to those who are disgruntled with the mainstream French political establishment but who are uncomfortable with expressions of overt racism and xenophobia. She claims she’s trying to preserve French liberal values and speaks in favor of such progressive ideals as equality between the sexes.
Most significantly, she has spent years carefully distancing herself from the anti-Semitism that once defined the National Front, and notably redrawing the party’s messaging to reject blatant racism. To the surprise of many observers, she appears to have successfully rebranded both herself and the party. Whether that means there is a genuine chance of what was once unthinkable — a far-right leader running France — remains to be seen.
A politician who says she’s trying to scrub away the sins of her father
Marine Le Pen’s efforts to bring the right-wing National Front party (FN) into the mainstream and establish herself as head of state are a remarkable turn of events for a woman whose father was dubbed “le diable de la Republique” — the devil of the republic — in fact the very name of a 2014 documentary about him that ran on French television.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, founded the FN in 1972. He is perhaps best known, inside France and beyond, for his stubborn insistence on minimizing the Holocaust. He infamously called the gas chambers a mere “detail of history” and has said that the German occupation of France was not “particularly inhumane.” He is among those who promote what Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has called “soft-core denial.”
These were not simple slips of the tongue: Jean-Marie Le Pen has used that same line about the gas chambers over and over again in the past 30 years, and has consistently refused to back down when asked by reporters to clarify the comment. He has been fined several times under French laws that make “contesting crimes against humanity” a criminal offense.
Nevertheless, he continued to toe the line of Holocaust dismissal:
As a result, Marine has made enormous efforts to distance herself from his statements — she officially broke with him in 2015 when he gave yet another interview insisting that the gas chambers were a mere “detail.” That year, the party announced it was formally expelling him (he vowed to fight that in court).
The elder Le Pen’s views aren’t actually that surprising: Some of the original members of the FN had roots in Vichy France, the French state that collaborated with the Nazis. The party came into existence in 1972, less than 30 years after the war ended.
But Marine was born in 1968, long after the war.
When Marine was just 8 years old, her family’s apartment building was bombed, destroying 12 apartments and injuring two adult and four children. No one in the Le Pen family was harmed, but French authorities came to believe it was an attack aimed at her father for his far-right views. The bombers were never caught.
Marine has a visceral memory of the moment — it was 4 am and suddenly a wall was gone and her room was full of glass. It shaped her life.
“As an eight-year-old girl, I was suddenly made aware of death,” she explained to the Guardian in 2011, just after she assumed control over the FN. “But maybe that gave me a distance, a kind of armor, that’s useful when you’re aiming for positions of responsibility.”
Her family was always in the public eye. Her parents had a very messy, very public divorce — her mother posed for Playboy in the aftermath of the split, a decision Marine told the New York Times hit her like a “steamroller.” She and her father were very close, and she lived at home until October 2014, when her father’s Doberman mauled her Bengal cat.
Marine went to law school and practiced law in Paris from 1992 until 1998, when she formally began working for the party.
Her father ran for president five times. He came closest in 2002, when he shocked France by coming in second and entering the runoff election against Jacques Chirac. He was promptly demolished, with Chirac winning a stunning 82 percent of the vote.
But over time, a different kind of FN supporter began to look to the party — these were the blue-collar workers, the agricultural workers, the former communist voters who felt disgruntled by globalization and felt they had been cut out of the successes of the European Union and pushed aside by immigrants. When she took over the party in 2011, the younger Le Pen looked to these voters to shape a new National Front upon the foundation of her father’s party.
Her father founded a far-right party. She didn’t fit the original mold.
To understand how and why Marine revamped the National Front, it’s important to understand that she was always, to some degree, an imperfect fit in her father’s party.
The original far-right supporters were very often religious, or at least believing, Catholics. Marine is twice divorced. A mother of three, she now lives with her longtime partner, a man named Louis Aliot, whom she has not married. She has been very vocal about women’s rights and refuses to oppose abortion or contraception. Her closest aide is gay. The original FN was considered homophobic; Marine has won gay supporters.
In the early 2000s, Marine began rebranding herself, in bit of a foreshadowing for what she would eventually try to do for the party. In 2006, she published an autobiography called A Contra Flots (French for “Against the Tide”).
At the time, she was battling for the control of the party with Bruno Gollnisch, a former right-hand man to her dad. Gollnisch is now 60, and he comes from the old mold of the party — he was prosecuted in 2007 for Holocaust denial. At a 2004 press conference, he questioned whether the number of Jews killed in the world might be inflated and expressed skepticism about the existence of the gas chambers.
Marine, on the other hand, had begun to try to reach out to Jews, in a slow but steady effort to untangle herself from the party’s anti-Semitic reputation. In January 2005, she sat down with the Jerusalem Report, an Israeli news magazine, and opined that Jews should turn to the FN for help against those from Muslim immigrant neighborhoods who had carried out attacks on Jewish targets around the country that prompted a country-wide concern about a new anti-Semitism. Beginning with the second intifada in 2000, tensions between Jews and Muslims in France had increased dramatically.
"The French Jewish community, who are increasingly victims of attacks by Islamic radicals, should be able to turn to us for support," she told the reporter. The magazine had sought her out because, improbably, she had begun a quiet campaign to combat anti-Semitism in the party’s midst. She told them she would like to be invited to Israel.
Later that same month, her father gave an interview to the press using many of his old tropes — opining that Germans weren’t “inhumane” and Vichy wasn’t all that bad. Marine, the Independent wrote, felt “stabbed in the back” and was “furious” with her father.
Yet she didn’t give up her effort to reform her party’s image. In the early spring of 2006, a young Jewish man named Ilan Halimi was abducted, tortured, and brutally murdered. Marine marched with other French leaders in protest of the killing.
I met her later that spring, in the old headquarters of the National Front. During my interview with her, published in 2010 on Politics Daily, she expressed similar concerns about anti-Semitism, and touched on many of the same themes that would one day become the central theme of her presidential campaign.
“They have to adapt to our values," she told me, speaking of Muslim immigrants in France. "But our Republic must not adapt itself to Islam. Because some values do exist which are, effectively, contrary or opposite to ours. Equality between men and women is non-negotiable."
"There are dozens of countries in the world that apply Sharia. But us, we will not change,” she continued. “You like it, or you don't like it. But you cannot attack a gay man because he is gay. Those, those are the values of France."
By 2010, the New York Times was already portraying her as the new face of the party. Meanwhile, the center-right party — and the campaign of then-President Nicolas Sarkozy — had begun to adopt some of the positions and policies of the FN, including cracking down on immigration and opposing the niqab. The influence of the far right — and Le Pen herself — was becoming harder and harder to overlook.
The mother of all rebranding campaigns
When Le Pen finally took control of the National Front in January 2011, she immediately set to work on a campaign that the French call dédiabolisation — literally undemonization. She put significant effort into stripping the party of the label “far right.” She went so far as to seek judicial action to that effect: “I'm considering seeking a judicial ruling that the description 'extreme right' is a pejorative term deliberately used to damage the Front National," she told French radio.
It was that effort that led to the public rift with her father in 2015. Marine already had her eye on a 2017 presidential run — and then her dad started up again with his comments about gas chambers being “a detail of history.” It was then she and the FN publicly broke with the party founder.
“Jean-Marie Le Pen is in a spiral between a scorched-earth strategy and political suicide,” Marine told the press. “The [FN] doesn’t want to be held hostage by his coarse provocations.” She told her father to step away from the regional elections he had planned to run in that spring.
That didn’t mean her party was completely mainstreamed. It merely meant the party had a different target.
In January 2015, just a little over a week after the terror attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people, Marine penned a New York Times op-ed whose rhetoric sounded a lot like what Americans would hear from Donald Trump a year later on the campaign trail.
In it, she railed against the leaders of France for failing to use the term “Islamic fundamentalism.” In retrospect, it was also an opening salvo in her campaign for president:
Let us call things by their rightful names, since the French government seems reluctant to do so. France, land of human rights and freedoms, was attacked on its own soil by a totalitarian ideology: Islamic fundamentalism. It is only by refusing to be in denial, by looking the enemy in the eye, that one can avoid conflating issues. Muslims themselves need to hear this message. They need the distinction between Islamist terrorism and their faith to be made clearly.
She went on to call for border checks to stop jihadists, and for putting an end to unchecked immigration.
“She wants to campaign on the core issues of the National Front: immigration and identity,” says Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far right. “It is on those topics that she is really different from the mainstream conservative party. And we all know that immigration is the first and foremost topic when you ask people who vote for the National Front.”
Marine closed that op-ed with an appeal to French identity: “We, the French, are viscerally attached to our laïcité, our sovereignty, our independence, our values,” she wrote. Laïcité is the nearly untranslatable word for the French brand of militant secularism. It’s not just an ideology but a national identity. For many it can be seen as essentially “French.” To Le Pen, any public expression of religious identity — a kippah, a hijab — is contrary to that French, homogenized, secular identity.
By the following fall, after Paris was attacked, leaving 130 dead and hundreds wounded, the New York Times noted that it was not Le Pen who was shifting position, but everyone else. “We have images of refugees every day, and now, terrorism,” Nonna Mayer, an expert on French politics, told the New York Times at the time. “The National Front has been saying, ‘We have been warning you for the last 10 years.’ At first sight it will help their dynamic, which is already excellent.”
After the attacks, Le Pen proposed “expelling foreigners who preach hate” — within days, even the Socialist Party was agreeing with her.
“The far right always ... need the scapegoats,” says the French official I spoke to. “It was the Jews in the ’30s. It's the Muslims in 2017.”
Missteps and those not on the same page
Le Pen’s efforts to shed her party’s anti-minority image haven’t always worked. In 2010, she spoke at a rally in Lyon and likened Muslim men praying on the streets of France to the World War II–era occupation of her country:
I’m sorry, but for those who really like to talk about the second World War, if we’re talking about occupation, we can also talk about this while we’re at it, because this is an occupation of territory...
It’s an occupation of swaths of territory, of areas in which religious laws apply … for sure, there are no tanks, no soldiers, but it’s an occupation all the same and it weighs on people.
For those words she was charged with “incitement to discrimination, violence or hatred towards a group of people on the basis of their religion” in 2015. She was acquitted in December of that year, and called the whole affair a “scandal.”
And yet, these days, while she consistently warns of the dangers of “Islamic fundamentalism,” you’d be hard-pressed to find her bashing Islam itself.
“It’s part of the undemonization,” says Olivier Roy, a political scientist at the European University Institute. “She had to be softer on anti-Semitism and softer on Islamophobia. She is thinking of the second round [of voting] that she has to enlarge [her base]. She doesn't want to appear as someone promising civil war.”
Can a far-right politician really change her ways?
But for all her efforts to rebrand her party, Le Pen has made some strange choices in the final days of the campaign.
The first was her decision to tell the French press that she did not believe the French state bore responsibility for the notorious Vel d’Hiv roundup of 13,000 Jews at the hands of French police in July 1942. The majority of those Jews were taken on to Drancy, the transit camp outside Paris. Eventually most were taken to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
After decades of pushing responsibility away from France and onto the Germans, in 1995, then-President Chirac was the first French leader to acknowledge French culpability in the roundup.
“France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum, on that day committed the irreparable,” he said at the time. “Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.”
In 2009, the French high court issued an official ruling that held France “responsible for damages caused by actions which did not result from the occupiers' direct orders, but facilitated deportation from France of people who were victims of anti-Semitic persecution."
So when Le Pen said France wasn’t to blame for the roundup, her opponents saw it as a return to the ways of her father. "Some people had forgotten that Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. They haven't changed," rival Emmanuel Macron said. He added, “It’s a political and historical error. This is the true face of the French far right.”
But maybe what Marine is doing is something entirely new: less about minimizing the Holocaust, as her father has done, but a different — and dangerous — idea to rewrite the past entirely. Here’s the second part of what she said:
I think that, in general, if there are people responsible, it is those who were in power at the time. It is not France. France has been mired in people’s minds for years. In reality, our children are taught that they have every reason to criticize her, to see only the darkest historical aspects.
I want them to be proud to be French again.
Proud is the emphasis here. She’s more likely using such a comment as a means to boost national pride. She doesn’t like that the French have been made to feel bad for their role in the war, or for colonization. This week she opined that “colonization brought a lot — especially to Algeria,” which is a direct stance against her closest opponent Macron, who called the colonization of Algeria a “crime against humanity.”
Jean-Yves Camus, the far-right expert, was not surprised that Le Pen made the statements on the Vel d’Hiv incident. For one, he says, she was vocalizing what a large portion of the French likely believe. And for another, he notes, her efforts to smooth out the rough edges of the party come with a cost.
“If you make it totally mainstream, then you come to the point where obviously voters say, ‘We have the choice between conservatives and archconservatives, so what is the point?’” he says.
Camus says Le Pen is trying to tread a narrow line between making the FN more mainstream while maintaining “a specific strident agenda that makes the party attractive to those vote because they are afraid of immigration, and those who think Jews and minorities are not totally French, and so on. If it is a party that is only a little more conservative ... it will fail.”
In other words, perhaps Le Pen’s casual whitewashing of France’s role in the Holocaust wasn’t a slip at all, but rather an effort to mobilize and energize her base.
Going into Sunday, Le Pen is just about even with Macron (she has 22.5 percent to his 23.5 in the latest polls.) While most polls show her losing in round two to whoever the opponent will be, one outlier scenario has a hyper-energized National Front base pulling her to victory by a tiny margin if disaffected voters stay home.
Indeed, after poll numbers began to dip this week against Macron, Le Pen suddenly announced she would not just radically reduce immigration, as she had originally promised, but cut it off altogether.
On Wednesday night, the New York Times reported, she told a crowd “Just watch the interlopers from all over the world come and install themselves in our home. They want to transform France into a giant squat. But it’s up to the owner to decide who can come in. So, our first act will be to restore France’s frontiers.”
That hard line began earlier this week. On April 18, Le Pen told a Paris rally, “I would decide on a moratorium on all legal immigration to stop this frenzy, this uncontrolled situation that is dragging us down.”
These rallying cries are seen as a bid for the old base of the party.
And, in the wake of the shooting on the Champs D’Elysee on Thursday night, Le Pen called for borders to be closed, border checks reinstated.
In her effort to rebrand, she will often run on her given name — Marine — rather than her long-maligned surname, Le Pen. And she has endorsed clear rejections of globalization, of the European Union, and of NATO, in a call for a return to a mythical former France. It is a France she feels has been lost in the tide of globalization, and due to an influx of immigrants who have tried to change France rather than France changing them.
For months, voters seemed to be responding. Where once it was taboo to vote for the National Front, Le Pen seemed to have finally made it acceptable. The question remains: Is it acceptable enough to win her the presidency?
This story is part of a Vox collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting about the upcoming French elections.