The Right Stuff: Marine Le Pen and the Growing Influence of Front National
Marine Le Pen has managed to pull the Front National from the extremist fringe into the political center. The right-wing populists could even emerge as France's strongest party in upcoming regional elections. But the real prize is in 2017.
Five days after Black Friday in Paris, Marine Le Pen is walking through a convention center in the northern part of the city. It's a sunny day, but the air is stuffy inside the building, where Le Pen is dressed in black from head to toe, including her pointed ankle boots, and is carrying a red shoulder bag. It's her first public appearance since the Paris attacks and her choice of events is symbolic. The convention is focused on domestic security, with all manner of law enforcement tools laid out amid the bright red carpeting. Le Pen looks worn out. Her exhaustion is evident even under her characteristically thick layer of makeup.
"Customs inspections are extremely important," says Le Pen, posing for a photo in front of the glass case. If she had her way, the French customs agency would reintroduce border controls at crossings with Germany, Italy and Spain.
It's the Wednesday after the fateful Friday in Paris -- 13/11, as people are now calling it -- and Le Pen is back in campaign mode. Despite the imposition of emergency laws, regional elections are still set to be held in France next week, and they are widely seen as an indicator for the 2017 presidential election. Le Pen is in the limelight even more than usual, now that her party, the far-right Front National, stands a good chance of securing the largest number of votes nationwide.
Forty-seven-year-old Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen, known as Marine, moves from the ship model to look at a model truck. There, a customs official explains how trucks are screened for smuggled goods. As she runs a gray-painted fingernail along the contours of the truck, she inveighs against former President Nicolas Sarkozy, saying that he is "no longer trustworthy." A horrible person, she says, her deep, raw voice sounding dismissive. While incessantly sounding off about domestic security, he was constantly reducing funding for the military and the police, she says. Unbelievable, she exclaims, shaking her head.
'A Reprehensible Question'
"Madame, isn't it bizarre to be campaigning in the current situation, with the entire country in shock?"
Her gaze is penetrating. And it's not friendly.
"Mademoiselle," she hisses. "This is not a campaign appearance."
"Will you benefit from the attacks?"
"That's a reprehensible question." She turns away.
France is divided into 13 regions. Marine Le Pen herself is running in the north, her deputy Florian Philippot in the east and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, in the south. Polls indicate that all three have realistic chances of winning their regions, which would mark the first time ever that the Front National took over the helm of a region in France. More than that, Le Pen, Philippot and Maréchal are key figures in the success of the Front National -- and in the search for answers to the question of how and why it has managed to establish itself, once and for all, as a major political force, disrupting the two-party system that had dominated the Fifth Republic for decades.
President François Hollande, a Socialist, reacted to the attacks of Nov. 13 by announcing draconian measures. He said that he would tighten the French criminal code and reintroduce border controls. He promised to upgrade the military and hire more police officers. Illegal immigrants and extremists are to be deported more quickly from now on, and convicted Islamists will be deprived of their French citizenship.
His announcements corresponded almost exactly with the demands Le Pen and her party have been making for years.
Marine Le Pen, the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, deserves the credit for transforming the Front National into a major party. She de-demonized it, as she describes it, and made it accessible to different groups of voters. Indeed, now that academics, business leaders and elite students have begun to support the Front National, many Frenchmen view it as just another party and it has never had as many members as it does today, roughly 80,000. It also has more influence than ever before and controls 11 town halls in cities throughout the country. It holds 1,546 seats on local councils and about 200 seats in the governments of France's regions and départements. The Front holds twice as many seats in European Parliament as the country's ruling Socialist Party. David Rachline, France's youngest senator, and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the youngest member of the National Assembly, both represent the Front National.
Even Greater Heights
SPIEGEL accompanied Marine Le Pen for several months, discussing the restructuring of the Front, its ideology and its goals with her, her advisers and her supporters. The attacks of Nov. 13, however, raise the question of how much French society will change as a result. It is still unclear whether France's growing dismay over the attacks will be offset by an equally strong will to remain an open society, or whether terrorism will propel movements like the Front to even greater heights.
Marine Le Pen has held back, at least until now, leaving it up to the president and his prime minister to talk about war and about the possibility of further attacks, possibly with chemical weapons. And it was Sarkozy, not Le Pen, who was the first to criticize the government. She quieted down just as her rivals became more vocal. She has no need to gloat or explain herself. She has become a brand that everyone knows, and everyone knows what it stands for.
In the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week, she stood up from seat number 217 and demanded: "We want French borders again. We have no confidence in European borders. We want to be the ones to decide what is good for us." She spoke as though she were fully aware that the stars are currently aligned in her favor. Her momentum is reflected in the latest polls, which show that, in the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks, even more Frenchmen are opposed to accepting refugees than before. Furthermore, a large majority of the population, 84 percent, favors stricter security measures, including border controls.
When Le Pen is asked what her first official act as French president would be, she responds quickly and without hesitation. She looks you in the eye as she speaks. "I will turn to European channels to demand the return of France's sovereignty," she says. "I want to regain control over our currency and our borders."
It is late October, and she is sitting behind her desk in her narrow office at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Her e-cigarette is in its charging device, the walls are bare and the only item on the bookshelf is an illustrated book about cats. Le Pen loves cats and has four red Bengals. One of them has just had kittens, and she shows off photos on her iPhone. She is wearing a light-colored jacket with fur appliqués, her face framed by a carefully coiffed bob.
More Prominent and More Influential
The room seems ridiculously small for someone like Le Pen, a tall, broad-shouldered woman who has acquired a larger-than-life stature in recent years -- among both Front National supporters and its detractors.
As they either warn against her or threaten to vote for her, Le Pen is becoming more prominent and more influential. Polls show that one in three French citizens could now imagine voting for her. For her supporters, she is a savior, and they are depending on her to return the country to its old, long-faded greatness. But for her rivals Le Pen is a nemesis, a vengeful deity who thrives on, and derives strength from, their failings.
Unlike her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen has actually succeeded. She is now part of the political elite, on a level with François Hollande and his presidential predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. The question is now whether she is next in line. Forecasts for 2017 envision her in the second-round run-off election with Hollande, a virtually unimaginable success for a party that a large share of Frenchmen despised until a few years ago. Indeed, the Front National is still described in French as being "right-wing extremist."
Initially, she he had not intended to run for office in her district, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie. But then her ambition to win an election on the strength of votes from the public at large, rather than from her own party, prevailed. The former coal-mining region is largely flat and nondescript. Le Pen has set up her logistical center in the town of Hénin-Beaumont, where her party colleague Steeve Briois was elected mayor in last year's municipal elections. Briois is a key element in her strategy to establish a presence at the local level.
Narrow streets lined by low houses lead to the center of the town, where Briois has placed plastic orchids in the windows of his office. He looks a little like a younger Bruce Willis, minus the perfect teeth. When asked to describe the most salient feature of his city of 26,000 people, he mentions its 20% unemployment rate. The few shops are closed for lunch and the streets are relatively empty; the handful of people outside are wearing sweatpants.
'France of the Forgotten'
Hénin-Beaumont is part of what geographer Christophe Guilluy calls "la France périphérique," or peripheral France. The region is disconnected from the more thriving parts of the country and it's a place where blue-collar workers, small farmers and low-level employees lead relatively meager lives, lives that attract little interest in Paris. Guilluy's theory is that those who live away from major cities feel like losers of globalization and its crises and that they are exacting their revenge by voting for Front National.
While it is true that Front National doesn't stand a chance in the Paris metropolitan area, its prospects are much better here in the north. Le Pen calls the region the "France of the forgotten."
Briois is from a nearby town and has been a member of the Front for 27 years. Speaking in a soft voice, he says that he wanted to "fight against the system" from an early age and was impressed when he saw Jean-Marie Le Pen in a television appearance. His devotion to Front National ultimately made him a party vice president and member of European Parliament, but his true calling was to become mayor of Hénin-Beaumont, where residents appreciate him. He organized a Christmas market that people were still raving about in August, and they also liked Hénin-Plage, a small, artificial beach created during his administration.
When Briois was chosen as France's best mayor earlier in the year, the president of the National Assembly, who was supposed to present the award, boycotted the event. Nevertheless, Briois is proud of the award, just as he is proud of the work of his party leader. Like all of her supporters, he simply calls her Marine.
"She has changed everything. Her concept is completely different from her father's," says Briois. She is truly determined to be in power, he explains. It used to be, he says, that when he and his fellow party members handed out flyers in the market square, they were often berated and sometimes even attacked. But that no longer happens today.
"Ah Marine, bienvenue," people call out to her. "Is it really you, Marine?" They ask her to autograph their campaign brochures, give her complements and want to pose for photos with her. A few months ago, a journalist at a major French newspaper wrote that Marine Le Pen was being "welcomed like a pop star." When the article was printed, the publisher threatened to fire the journalist for biased reporting. But he was only reporting the truth. Le Pen is indeed treated like a star in some areas.
On a Friday evening in November, she is standing on the black-and-white tile floor of an old concert hall in Wattrelos on the Belgian border. She is wearing a white blouse and a blue blazer. Steeve Briois is sitting in the front row, holding her red bag. As she presents her program to a packed audience, assistants hand out flyers printed with a light blue heart and the words "Marine, vite" (Quick, Marine). She says that she will foster the trade professions and small businesses in the region, and that she will bring in more doctors to treat the elderly and the sick.
A Declaration of War
"They're pulling out all the stops for the migrants, the illegals, but who is looking after our retirees?"
"Only foreigners are being supported here."
"The government is stealing from the French and giving their money to foreigners."
France already appears to have internalized her rhetoric. About two-thirds of Frenchmen believe that politicians are doing more for immigrants than for them, the so-called Français de souche, or French stock. She ends her speech with a declaration of war: "Yesterday it was the cities, today it's the regions and tomorrow it will be the entire country!" Everyone stands up as Le Pen starts to sing the French national anthem, the Marseillaise. Like her father, Le Pen sings loudly and clearly.
Before Marine Le Pen, the Front was more of a protest movement than a party, a movement whose potential depended on how Jean-Marie Le Pen made his points and delivered his provocative statements. He remained an attention-grabbing contrarian to the very end -- until last summer, when his daughter ejected him from the party he had founded. Her father had become a threat to her own success. Jean-Marie Le Pen was uninterested in grassroots political work or local politics, and he ran the party from his villa in the western part of Paris. His daughter is wired differently.
In the autobiography she wrote at 36, she describes her vision of the Front National of the future as a political force that plays a role throughout France. It was just before her first divorce and she had three small children to care for. Her path to the top of the party was not easy, and it was not a position she inherited from her father. But she did inherit her love of politics from him along with the willingness to sacrifice everything for it, including her private life and her children.
She was elected as the party's leader in 2011 and today, five years later, she is practically untouchable. She prefers to make decisions in one-on-one conversations and her leadership style is described as brusque, but even that description sounds admiring. "In Marine's kitchen," is the reply one often gets to the question as to where the center of power in the party lies.
Politics has a grip on the family, almost like a kind of Stockholm syndrome. How else to explain why Marine Le Pen, whose childhood was marred by the fact that her father was only interested in his work, is emulating him today?
Cleansing the Party
Her children are now teenagers, but does she feel any pangs of conscience? Of course, she says from behind her desk in the small office in Strasbourg. Her problem, she says, is the one all working mothers face: not having enough time. There is a moment, she explains, when you have to make a decision. "And I chose France." The statement is as clear as it is cold.
"Look, things aren't nearly as bad as they used to be for me," she says, trying to soften her tone. Her children are not named Le Pen but instead have her ex-husband's last name. Furthermore, she adds: "I'm perceived much differently than my father was."
She was eight years old when a would-be assassin tried to kill her father with a bomb he had deposited in a stairwell. The device, which contained 20 kilograms (44 lbs.) of explosives, ripped an enormous hole into the apartment building where they lived, but no one expressed any sympathy. For Marine Le Pen, it was the initiation rite into the Le Pen family's virtual fortress. There is a French proverb: The heart either breaks or it hardens. Hers hardened, says Le Pen.
Insults don't bother her anymore? "My ability to feel indignant is completely intact," she counters. She hates being called a racist. But can she understand why people call her that? "Certainly not," she replies.
As soon as she became president of the party, she tried to obliterate her father's stamp on the Front National. Her views differ from his on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and extramarital relationships -- and she hasn't married her life partner, Louis Aliot, one the five vice presidents of the party. She says that she stands by the values of the French Republic, including secularity. But in her case, secularity does not appear to be a universal principle, but instead is directed primarily against Muslims. For Le Pen, unacceptable religious symbols are headscarves, mosques and pork-free menus in school cafeterias. Her speeches have become more strident since she banned her father from the party. She describes immigrants as "clandestins," or illegals. She avoids the word "refugee," probably because it seems to denote people in need of protection.
Le Pen has hired a group of advisers, young men in well-tailored suits, to restructure the Front. Most of them had nothing to do with the party in the past and were either affiliated with the center-right or far left portion of the political spectrum.
Florian Philippot, 34, is a case in point. Le Pen's boyish-faced chief strategist and the party's second-in-command, Philippot embodies everything she despises, at least in her rhetoric. And he says so himself: "I am a product of the French elite." He was a senior official in the Interior Ministry before becoming a politician, and he is a graduate of two of France's Grandes Écoles, HEC and Ena.
The Conformist Elite
In early November, Philippot was to be found in the spacious apartment of his mentor, Bertrand Dutheil de la Rochère, an affable older man wearing a wool sweater over his shirt. The flat in the fashionable 7th Arrondissement is exquisitely furnished, including Louis Quatorze armchairs. Dutheil once worked as a senior executive with the government-owned electric utility EDF and is part of an aristocratic family whose family tree extends back to the 15th century.
He also served as chief of staff for former Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a staunch leftist, for whom Philippot put up campaign posters in his early 20s. When Marine Le Pen became president of the Front National, the two men became members. A portrait of Le Pen hangs next to one of Chevènement in Dutheil's office, with "Oui, la France" printed on it. Dutheil says that earlier, he could never have imagined becoming a member of Front National.
Philippot initially kept his party involvement a secret. "I didn't want to talk about it," he says. People think in consistently conformist terms in Elitist French institutions, he says. Everyone in those circles believes that the European Union is great, immigration is a good thing, borders are fundamentally objectionable and national sovereignty is categorically outdated. Philippot held different views and still holds them today. He doesn't like Europe. In fact, some of his former fellow students say that he hates it. Years after the introduction of the euro, Philippot still showed a preference for restaurants that also displayed their prices in French francs. He likes to compare the EU to stars in the universe: We still see their light, but they have actually long since ceased to exist.
For Philippot, the European Union is exclusively to blame for France's problems, including excessive debt levels, unemployment and the faltering economy. He believes that globalization signifies decline, and that the only way to fight it is with borders and national sovereignty.
The problem with the Front's anti-euro strategy is that it is reaching its limits. It makes little sense for many higher earners, who know that it isn't possible to simply turn back the clock on Europe. This explains why Le Pen, in recent months, has quietly tried to de-emphasize calls for France to leave the euro. She is also seeking to appeal to the middle class now and wants to shed the Front National's image as the party of the disadvantaged. Like British Prime Minister David Cameron, if she is elected president in 2017 she plans to hold a referendum on EU membership.
She has stopped promising retirement at 60 and an unconditional basic income for all French citizens. Even the 35-hour workweek no longer seems off limits for Le Pen. She is modifying her economic program to conform to reality.
Conquering New Territory
Philippot's BlackBerry vibrates. "Marine," he says into the phone. They speak by phone up to 15 times a day. Philippot is campaigning in eastern France, along the border with Germany. His region is called Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine and has a population of seven million. But Philippot comes across as someone who would rather debate with cabinet ministers on television than listen to people complain about advancing deindustrialization on a market square in some small Alsatian town. His focus is on strategy, and on literally conquering new territory in these elections. Philippot has pushed professionalization of the party more than any other Front National politician. He has created so-called collectives, groups with appealing names, each of which is intended to address a specific issues like culture, the environment, youth and education. One such group, "Racine," which addresses educational issues, includes more than 800 teachers and school principals. About half of them are politically independent. The Front is slowly reaching those it was unable to reach in the past.
There is even a group in Saint-Denis, the northern Paris suburb where the mastermind of the Paris attacks went into hiding. The main focus of group, called "Banlieues Patriotes," is to recruit Muslim voters -- the very people who Le Pen and her supporters are so quick to label as the roots of all evil during her public appearances.
"Our goal is 51 percent in the spring of 2017," says Philippot. "We are approaching everyone."
The Front remains particularly strong among blue-collar workers and the unemployed. But it is also gaining popularity among young people, and its youth organization, the FNJ, reportedly has 25,000 members. More and more of them are people under 30 with university degrees.
A few weeks ago, Front National established its own "Association" at the Institut d'études politiques, known as Sciences Po, a few weeks ago. The institute is a training ground for the bourgeoisie, and almost all presidents of the Fifth Republic attended Sciences Po, which is adjacent to the apartment of Dutheil de la Rochère. Even Philippot, who formed an advance guard of sorts, would never have believed that this would happen so quickly, that the dams would break so quickly and Front National would inundate the establishment. When the association introduced itself on a September evening in a small lecture hall, an image of Le Pen cuddling with her cats was projected onto the wall.
We're not that evil, said Thomas Laval, a former fan of Nicolas Sarkozy, at the event. The 40 students attending the event laughed at his ice-breaking quip. Antoine Chudzik, 23, was standing next to Laval and said that he had voted for Hollande in 2012, but added that he could hardly believe how misguided he was at the time. He joined the Front a few weeks ago, he said, because "Marine Le Pen is the only one defending the Republic today."
The third region where Front National has good chances of victory is the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, where Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is campaigning. The daughter of Marine's older sister Yann is 25 and has carved out a stellar career in a very short amount of time. The latest polls predict a narrow victory for the youngest member of the National Assembly.
Real Political Talent
Her success is based neither exclusively on her attractiveness nor her last name. Both characteristics have certainly done her no harm, but her aunt is not the only one who believes Maréchal-Le Pen has political talent. The region where she is running has a population of five million and stretches from the French-Italian border to Marseille, traversing the foothills of the Alps. Her campaign poster depicts a smiling, lightly tanned Maréchal-Le Pen against a background of lavender fields, and it isn't difficult to imagine her dressed in an evening gown, attending a reception in Cannes.
The Front has long been a powerful force in the rural, Catholic and conservative south, an area with higher unemployment than elsewhere in the country. After the end of the colonial era, hundreds of thousands of North African immigrants settled in the region's picturesque small cities. Most Frenchmen who live there feel that there are too many immigrants.
Perhaps this is why Maréchal is more conservative even than her aunt. In fact, she is seen as the direct successor to her grandfather, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had originally intended to run for office in the region. On the Friday evening exactly one week after the Paris attacks, she is standing in a multipurpose hall on the outskirts of Avignon and begins her presentation with a moment of silence. She is wearing jeans and a blouse, and she has the same penchant for pointed ankle boots as her aunt. The spotlights illuminating the candidate are in the colors of the French Tricolore. It isn't easy to find the right words at this moment, she says. But in addition to grief, she adds, she also feels overcome by a "cold rage." She is quoting Marine Le Pen.
Hardly three minutes have passed before she begins berating the government, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls and President Hollande, "who are now using our rhetoric." It took 130 deaths, she says, for them to realize that mass immigration poses a threat to the country. Unlike her aunt, she does not speak without notes. She quotes Victor Hugo and Charles Péguy. Her speeches are like elaborate exposés, in which France, especially the south, forms the cradle of a higher civilization, one that is threatened by primitive foreign powers.
'Defend Our Identity'
Maréchal has the ability to say vicious things with a piercing voice, and yet come across as a sophisticated young woman. It's an ability even her grandfather admires. Marion has developed into a fascinating politician, the old man said admiringly in the spring. She describes herself as a devout Catholic and, unlike Marine Le Pen, has demonstrated against gay marriage. Her campaign team includes candidates who were once rejected by the Front for being too extremist. One of them is Philippe Vardon, a member of the right-wing extremist "Bloc identitaire," which opposed what it called the "Islamicization of the South" with outright xenophobic campaigns.
On this Friday evening, she tells her audience: "Here in our party, no one walks around in a headscarf, burka or jelaba. People here wear what Frenchmen wear."
"We must defend our identity, our chateaux and our cathedrals. Racine and Molière."
She is greeted with loud applause from her standing-room-only audience. Marion, Présidente, they shout. We will do everything differently, she promises. "We have a big project."
And then she practically sings her aunt's mantra: "Yesterday it was the cities, today it's the regions and tomorrow it will be the entire country!"
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2015
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