Madame Rage Marine Le Pen's Populism for the Masses

AFP

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Part 2: The Divide Between the Governing and the Governed


Le Pen stands for the renunciation of a political system that no longer works. She strikes a nerve when she speaks of the self-contained elites divvying up the top positions in politics and business among themselves. Nowhere in Europe is the divide between the governing and the governed as wide as it is in France.

Hardly anyone embodied this aloofness as much as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was slated to become the Socialists' presidential candidate before he was arrested in New York, accused of attempted rape. On that Sunday morning in May, when France awoke to the shocking news of his arrest, Le Pen was the first to express what had no one had dared mention until then. "I'm not particularly surprised," she said. "Everyone in the Paris village knew that he has a pathological relationship with women." Le Pen was in her element, portraying herself as the only one prepared to speak plainly in a country whose politicians are supposedly all in league with one another.

A few weeks after her appearance in Metz, Le Pen meets with us in her small office at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. She executes her most important office in an organization that she rejects. The FN has no seats in the French National Assembly, because French electoral law places small parties at a disadvantage.

She has a cold look in her eyes, and there is a certain hardness to her face. Some campaign posters depict Le Pen with a grimace on her face that passes for a warm smile, almost as if someone had advised her to look more feminine. When she laughs in real life, it comes from deep within her belly.

Painting Herself as a Victim

She tells a story from her childhood, in an effort to show who she is and what it meant to grow up as her father's daughter. She was eight when a bomb meant for her father exploded in the stairwell outside the family's apartment. The blast ripped a hole into the outside wall of the building. Marine, her two older sisters and their parents were unharmed.

"That's when I learned that politics is dangerous," she says. "I felt the deep injustice that would accompany me throughout my life. It's always with me, just like the fear that something could happen to my father. That was the cement in our family." Anyone who was named Le Pen was an outcast. But this gave her a hard shell. "It was my driving force," she says. "That's probably why I became a lawyer and then a politician." She says that she doesn't want to paint herself as a victim, and yet she does it incessantly. It's the weapon of the underdog.

When asked about her defensive fellow party members in Metz and Hénin-Beaumont, who felt they had to justify belonging to the National Front, she dismisses the question with a wave of her hand. "Oh, come on," she says, "we've been accused of being racists and xenophobes for too long. We're not." She doesn't deny that there used to be anti-Semitism in the party, but she also claims that it existed in other parties, too. Now, she says, she has only one thing to say to anyone who espouses such views: "You're wrong in this respect. Adieu. We are not racists, or anti-Semites or xenophobes." She insists that the National Front is "neither left nor right," and certainly not a right-wing extremist party.

She has already made an effort to counter such perceptions. In an interview, for example, she described the Holocaust as the "height of barbarism," which made headlines despite not being a surprising revelation. She says that her aim was to clear up "misunderstandings" that had arisen as a result of statements her father once made. She has even recruited a few dark-skinned candidates.

'France Has Lost Its Identity'

Like her father, Le Pen is critical of immigration, but unlike him, and similar to other European right-wing populists, she focuses on attacking Islam. She speaks of the disintegration of society into ethnic groups, and criticizes prayers in the streets and fast food chains advertising halal meat. But she speaks even more about social issues and the fight against the international financial world, and about "intelligent protectionism," which sounds more leftist than anything else.

Near the end of the conversation, when she is asked how France is doing, Le Pen launches into a monologue that sounds like a speech: "Those in power have managed to bankrupt one of the world's greatest countries. We are like Greece. How can it be that France has lost its identity, its voice in the world? Seven million workers living in poverty, and a quarter of the population unable to support itself." She pauses briefly to catch her breath. "That alone discredits the UMP and PS, which have shared power for years, as well as their results."

The headquarters of the National Front is located on a small side street in Nanterre, in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, in an unmarked, silver-gray office building. The party that is challenging the establishment is a small, amateurish-looking organization with less than two dozen people working at its main office.

Since Le Pen was chosen at the party leader, they have been like people dying of thirst who have suddenly been given water. Press spokesman Alain Vizier, who has been in the same position for more than 20 years, expresses his satisfaction with a broad grin. The telephones are all ringing off the hook, and a dozen magazine covers depicting Le Pen are displayed on one of the walls. They include Le Point, Le Nouvel Observateur and even the leftist magazine Marianne. Vizier has a product that everyone wants, which is a first for his party.

Image of a Happy Family

It was a tough fight for Le Pen to reach the top of her party, a battle waged against her father's supporters, who claimed that she would betray the party and even strike a deal with Sarkozy to get into power. In the end, she was voted into office with more than two-thirds of votes, and now her success has silenced almost all of her opponents.

When Jean-Marie Le Pen walks into the headquarters of the party he founded, he is greeted as if nothing had changed. "Bonjour président," says the man at the reception desk. The old man is there almost every morning, and when his daughter is not in, he sits in her office and has her secretary bring him coffee.

In the afternoon, Jean-Marie Le Pen can be found in his office in Saint-Cloud on the outskirts of Paris, in a villa named Montretout, a palace from the days of Napoleon III that an admirer once bequeathed to Le Pen. There, the Le Pens sought to project an image of a happy family -- until the family fell apart in the 1980s. After the couple divorced, Le Pen's ex-wife Pierrette Lalanne posed nude for the French edition of Playboy, while one of his daughters, Marie-Caroline, and her husband joined a competing party that had split off from the FN. The house is the headquarters of a clan for whom there was never any separation between their private and political lives. Marine Le Pen and her sister Yann still live there.

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