French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen

Foto:

Jerome Bonnet / DER SPIEGEL

Her Last Battle? Marine Le Pen Still Wants To Be France’s Next President

Marine Le Pen is running her third campaign to become French president. She has polished her image and almost comes across as a moderate compared to her right-wing radical competitor Éric Zemmour. But is that her greatest strength or her biggest weakness?
By Britta Sandberg in Paris

It’s a gray January day in Paris and Marine Le Pen is sitting inside a rather ugly structure in the 16th arrondissement and doing all she can to make it look like she doesn’t have a care in the world. In November, her party, the far-right Rassemblement national, or National Rally, opened up its new nerve center and campaign headquarters here, renting several floors of the building. Only the ground floor is still occupied by a frozen food company.

The right-wing populists’ campaign had originally been slated for launch at the beginning of the year. But then came the Omicron wave and Le Pen decided to postpone until Feb. 5. She kicked off her run for the presidency with a rally last Saturday in Reims.

Still, Le Pen finds herself in a rather unusual position: She is no longer the unchallenged candidate of the right-wing nationalist camp in France. She has competition. The former journalist, author and right-wing politician Éric Zemmour is stealing some of Le Pen’s thunder. And a handful of prominent defectors have left her party for that of her challenger.

DER SPIEGEL 6/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 6/2022 (February 5th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Has this unsettled her? "Not at all," she says. She smiles as she picks up her e-cigarette, looking deep into her interlocutor’s eyes the whole time. "That’s also because I am a young, old veteran of politics. I’ve amassed quite a bit of experience when it comes to campaigns."

These are not simple times for the National Rally, formerly known as Front National. To the right of Marine Le Pen stands a candidate whose declarations are so provocative that they aren’t even considered out of bounds by Le Pen and her party. Zemmour, though, has no problem with equating Islam and Islamism. He says that Muslim immigrants harass French women and claims they are opening up halal butchers across the country and dealing drugs. In mid-January, a court of law once again convicted Zemmour of making racist comments after accusing underage immigrants of being thieves, murderers and rapists.

Zemmour isn’t the only problem Le Pen is facing. Valérie Pécresse, the conservative candidate with the Republicans, has recently begun making demands that for years had been rallying cries exclusive to the National Rally. Pécresse announced she would introduce quotas for immigrants and improve EU border security – and she even discussed in public the idea of sending the French army into urban hotspots to impose order. Even Le Pen found the idea beyond the pale.

Of course, Le Pen allows, it can be seen as something of a success that others have now begun adopting her positions. "We have been talking about immigration and its consequences for 40 years. Now, everyone is doing the same, even the leftists. We introduced these issues – globalization, the debate over the role of the European Union, the separation of religion and the state." But though Le Pen has won some ideological victories on those points, she has not been able to reap the benefits.

The Pressure To Do Everything Right this Time Is Huge

This spring will be the 53-year-old’s third run for the French presidency. Her first presidential campaign came in 2012, and five years ago she then fell to Emmanuel Macron in the second round of voting after falling on her face in the decisive televised debate. Almost 17 million viewers were watching that debate as she confused a wireless network operator with a rail car producer, helplessly rifled through her several pages of notes and leveled unfounded accusations at Macron that he was easily able to parry. It was painful to watch, even for those who aren't Le Pen supporters. Confidants of the politician say it took her a year to get over the defeat.

This year, in what could be her final run for the presidency, the pressure weighing on the shoulders of the right-wing veteran to do everything better than last time is significant. But she doesn’t want to put that pressure on display.

"I am not only convinced that I will make it into the second round of voting, I also believe that I have good chances of emerging victorious this time around," she said in early January at a campaign appearance with vintners in the South of France, to whom she explained her ideas for a new form of local tourism. Le Pen has expanded her spectrum of issues. She no longer speaks exclusively about immigration and security, but also about the economy, about energy taxes and the elimination of wind turbines.

Next to her desk in Paris stands a white bust, a statue of the French national figure Marianne of the kind that can be found in almost every city hall in the country. She embodies the Republic’s values.

The bust in Le Pen’s office has the facial features of Brigitte Bardot, its breasts are only barely covered and the nipples clearly visible. Many prominent French women have modeled for Marianne statues, including Catherine Deneuve and Sophie Marceau. "But I find the one of Brigitte Bardot the most beautiful," Le Pen says. She says she found it at an art dealer and had it signed by Bardot. The bust is her silent protest against "political correctness," she says, and a memento of a France in which sex symbols could still be national heroines. "You should take a picture of it," she says to the DER SPIEGEL photographer who is along for the visit, "assuming you are allowed to show such things in Germany."

"The blitzkrieg that Éric Zemmour launched several months ago has already failed."

Marine Le Pen

It's Jan. 25. One of Marine Le Pen’s spokespeople has just announced that he would be switching to the Zemmour camp because he no longer believes that she has a chance of winning the presidency. Additional defectors will follow in the coming days.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Le Pen, there are 75 days left until the election and your people are abandoning you. How are we supposed to believe that the defections don’t bother you?

Le Pen: Because I am familiar with the dynamics of campaigns. There are always those who defect from one camp to the other because they think it will be advantageous for them. But such things don’t necessarily have an influence on the outcome of the election. And let me say something right at the beginning: The blitzkrieg that Éric Zemmour launched several months ago has already failed.

DER SPIEGEL: Which blitzkrieg are you referring to? The media offensive he started before the campaign began to ensure that he was suddenly everywhere?

Le Pen: Since last autumn, Zemmour has been doing everything he can to position himself to become Macron’s successor. But it hasn’t worked. It is becoming increasingly obvious that he has no chance of winning. I am convinced that he no longer believes he can win either. His numbers in the polls have dropped considerably. His goal is to push me out of the race and prevent me from making it to the second round of voting by splitting the right-wing vote in the first round.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you intend to prevent that?

Le Pen: I will lead the campaign that I have been preparing for. I want to be close to the voters, in the regions, the villages and in the countryside. I am facing a candidate in Zemmour who is primarily in his comfort zone in the television studios of the capital. And, in Valérie Pécresse, a politician who represents the Paris metropolitan area as president of the Île-de-France region. I, by contrast, am a candidate for all of France, including those regions that have been left behind through deindustrialization and are ignored by political leaders.

DER SPIEGEL: Zemmour’s candidacy does have one advantage for you: Relative to him, you suddenly look like a moderate.

Le Pen: I would put it slightly differently: Zemmour has contributed to the fact that the caricature that has been drawn of me for years has finally collapsed. He has pushed me from the right-wing fringe to the center. By direct comparison with him, it has become clear to the French that my platform is serious and sensible. There are no excesses with me. You may not agree with my platform, but it is thought through and well-prepared.

DER SPIEGEL: What about Zemmour’s platform?

Le Pen: What platform? He doesn’t have one. Zemmour only has a single issue: Immigration. On top of that is his radical critique of Islam, which opens into a kind of religious war. None of that is consistent with my views. And as soon as he starts talking about something else, he is no longer particularly credible. His candidacy is like a vast adventure for him, it’s a lot of fun for him. But that’s not how life works. You don’t just move from being a talk-show polemicist into the presidency.

DER SPIEGEL: It worked in the U.S. in 2016. Donald Trump was a television star and a political amateur. But he got elected to the presidency anyway.

Le Pen: There is a significant difference: Trump had the Republican Party and its entire apparatus behind him. Zemmour only recently founded his own small party, Reconquête (reconquest). OK, he can rely on the support of some of the conservative Catholics in the country. And on a variety of right-wing extremist groups from which I have distanced myself over time.

In recent weeks, Marine Le Pen has found herself in an almost desperate battle against the ghosts of her past. It is a trip back in time that she would likely have preferred to avoid. Others are now making hay on fields of extremism that she willingly abandoned many years ago. When she took over the party from her father in 2011, she went on the attack against Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis, throwing them out of the party.

That was her strategy for making the party more electable, and to free herself from her eternal role as the daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. But it was also, she says, a decision made out of conviction. Marine Le Pen is, and will always be, a right-wing nationalist. Like Zemmour, she believes that France must be saved from Macron. And from an allegedly uncontrolled flood of immigrants, which she intends to stop. Like Zemmour, she wants to pursue a France-first style of politics, and she would like to see social housing and other welfare benefits reserved for French nationals and not handed out to immigrants.

But in contrast to Zemmour, she has no problem with homosexuals, and she never joined demonstrations in opposition to same-sex marriage, something for which French Catholics have never forgiven her. She has also stopped calling for France to leave the EU and reintroduce the franc as the nation’s currency. And in contrast to her right-wing challenger, she draws a clear line between Islam and Islamism.

Le Pen paid a high price for the "dédiabolisation," the "de-demonization," of Front National. Sitting in her office, she says that her father didn’t say a word to her for two, maybe three years, she can no longer remember exactly. Not a single word.

She wasn’t at all surprised by the falling out. "I knew I had to choose between my father and the party. Or between the party and France and my father."

The wounds are still fresh. Last autumn, Jean-Marie Le Pen said he would likely be supporting Zemmour in the coming election and not his own daughter. "Because he says what I think, it’s just that more people listen to him than they do to me," the 93-year-old said. In the meantime, though, he has changed his mind.

The decision by Marion Maréchel, who is 32 years old and a 14-year member of the National Rally party, to withdraw her support for the candidate was "extremely difficult for me," Le Pen said.

The decision by Marion Maréchel, who is 32 years old and a 14-year member of the National Rally party, to withdraw her support for the candidate was "extremely difficult for me," Le Pen said.

Foto:

Vincent Isore / IP3press / IMAGO

But two days after our discussion in Marine Le Pen’s office, her niece Marion Maréchel, who is 32 years old and a 14-year member of the party, withdrew her support for her aunt. She told a Paris daily that she is leaning toward Zemmour, who she only refers to by his first name. But she asked for time until the end of February to consider her decision.

"Is that perhaps also the reason why you live surrounded by cats? Because animals don’t betray you?" the anchor wanted to know. Le Pen hesitated before answering: "At least they don’t give you any nasty surprises."

Le Pen during an appearance on the TV broadcaster CNews on Jan. 28

It marked the low point of the campaign thus far for the National Rally. The party has always been run like a family business, and Greek dramas are a part of that, Le Pen once said. Still, her niece’s defection was painful. "It’s brutal and extremely difficult for me," she said in an interview with the broadcaster CNews on the morning after her niece’s announcement.

"Is that perhaps also the reason why you live surrounded by cats? Because animals don’t betray you?" the anchor wanted to know. Le Pen hesitated before answering: "At least they don’t give you any nasty surprises."

It was an extremely emotional appearance. It’s difficult to know how much of it was staged and how much was real. Her voice has become softer, even if it is still deep and hoarse. But she loses her temper much less frequently than she used to.

DER SPIEGEL: You recently said of yourself that you are a serious, credible candidate. Are you more serious than you used to be?

Le Pen: I am calmer than I used to be, in part because I have had to suffer through a lot. You can’t become a good presidential candidate from one day to the next. You have to have fought and suffered. You have to have scars, to have listened to thousands of voters. Only then will you at some point have what it takes for this office. Jacques Chirac had it, as did François Mitterrand. I wonder whether Nicolas Sarkozy has it. Macron doesn’t have it.

DER SPIEGEL: It is said that it took you a long time to recover from your defeat in the 2017 debate against Macron.

Le Pen: Yes, that was very painful. I disappointed the French electorate and that’s the last thing I wanted to do. My strategy in that debate proved ineffective. I wanted to expose this young man, in whom the right wing saw a right winger and the leftists saw a left winger. I wanted to ensnarl him in his contradictions. But I should have focused more on myself and on my platform.

"I was seen as the daughter of the devil, if not the devil itself. And the devil is neither male nor female. Nobody cared that I am a woman, not even feminists."

Marine Le Pen

DER SPIEGEL: What consequences have you drawn from that experience? You could also have quit politics.

Le Pen: I really did ask myself: If I keep going, why and for whom am I fighting? But then I realized that I couldn’t imagine no longer fighting for the French and for the ideas I and my party stand for. Politics is also something of a love affair.

DER SPIEGEL: The team of your competitor Valérie Pécresse is campaigning on the promise that a woman could become president of France for the first time. You, however, have never made your gender much of an issue on the campaign trail. Why not?

Le Pen: Because it wouldn’t have helped. I was seen as the daughter of the devil, if not the devil itself. And the devil is neither male nor female. Nobody cared that I am a woman, not even feminists. I was the extremist that nobody wanted anything to do with. But I also don’t like it when someone like Pécresse says: "Vote for me because I am a woman." That is one of the things we have achieved: That we receive posts based on our abilities and not because of our gender.

DER SPIEGEL: You could at least have fashioned a softer image and presented yourself to the French as a woman and as a mother.

Le Pen: Precisely that was a taboo for me. As a child, I was pulled in front of the cameras at a very early age and it caused me suffering. It was something I didn’t want to impose on my three children. I have never shown them, never used them. That has always been a red line for me.

The influence of women in this election cannot be underestimated, says Paris-based political scientist Nonna Mayer, who has spent years researching right-wing extremism in France. She says Le Pen is particularly popular with the lower middle class, blue-collar and white-collar workers – and with women. "And they make up more than half of the electorate,” says Mayer. "There aren’t many French women politicians in the top ranks," she says. "But Marine Le Pen has broken through the glass ceiling. She proved early on that this is possible. It was a little bit like Obama’s 'Yes, we can.'"

There’s also another factor, as well, says Mayer. Recent polling indicates that only half of the French population still views the right-wing populist politician as a threat to democracy. And, as surprising as it may sound, Le Pen is representative of a modern model of society. "She was a single parent at times, she had three young children and continued to work hard despite that, and she married several times. She’s certainly not a feminist. But she’s got guts."

Candidate Le Pen in the during her visit to the French overseas department Mayotte in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 16: The fact the Zemmour is more radical doesn't make Le Pen moderate.

Candidate Le Pen in the during her visit to the French overseas department Mayotte in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 16: The fact the Zemmour is more radical doesn't make Le Pen moderate.

Foto: Ali Al-Daher / AFP

It’s the beginning of January, and Le Pen is traveling along the Mediterranean coast. The stops on the campaign tour read like a picture book of the party’s platforms. In Béziers, she visits the construction site of the future Samuel Paty School in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in the city. Paty is the teacher an Islamist beheaded in broad daylight in October 2020 for showing Muhammad cartoons in his class. She then meets with vintners from the local cooperative who complain that the EU is now requiring them to label glyphosate (Roundup) and other ingredients.

On the last day of the trip, she drives early in the morning to Cerbère on the French-Spanish border, where immigrants enter the country illegally. Wearing a camel-colored wool coat and a thick scarf, she stands on a drafty mountain road listening to border police officers. On the previous day, officials registered 30 migrants here. Half were Algerians.

"We can no longer afford to invest so much energy and time in immigration," she will later insist over lunch. "Our country is in the process of losing its sovereignty." Le Pen still scores big with her constituency with anything she has to say about immigration. It’s a politician’s version of a greatest hits album. A bit like old rock bands who have to play the songs from their catalogue when they're back on tour again. If Le Pen is elected as president, the first thing she wants to do is hold a referendum on a restrictive immigration policy. The text has already been drawn up.

"We’ve never been this close to a possible win, and we have never been so professionally positioned. Marine is ready for office, she worked hard to get here. And yet, everything could still go wrong."

Louis Aliot, National Rally national committee member and mayor or Perpignan

Le Pen has been in politics for so long now that she’s become a familiar figure just by her presence. But the fact that Zemmour is more extreme doesn’t exactly make Le Pen a moderate. If her referendum were to be passed, it would mean far fewer legal immigrants could enter the country. And those caught committing crimes could be deported immediately.

She also wants to transform the EU into what she calls a "Europe of nations," in which national law would at least partly take precedence over European law in much the same way as the Polish and Hungarian governments are doing now. It’s rather unlikely that Le Pen will be elected as the next French president, but if she were to be, it wouldn't just be a profound blow for France, but also for all of Europe.

Her performance in the polls is astoundingly stable. In a survey conducted by the IFOP Institute, she is even polling in second place after Macron, with 18.5 percent. It shows Pécresse in third place, with 16 percent, and Zemmour in fourth, with 13 percent.

How had Louis Aliot, the man with whom Le Pen shared 10 years of her life, put it the night before in a hotel bar in Perpignan? "We’ve never been this close to a possible win, and we have never been so professionally positioned. Marine is ready for office, she worked hard to get here. And yet, everything could still go wrong."

Aliot is a member of the National Rally’s national executive committee and has served as mayor of Perpignan since 2020. He describes his former partner as a woman who never gives up. Aliot says he’s worried about her now, though. He spoke to Zemmour and asked him to pull out of the race, but the candidate refused.

He told Le Pen’s rival that he would be responsible if the ideas of the right weren’t represented in the second round of voting. "It would be really stupid," Aliot says, "but then we would have failed because of Zemmour’s arrogance and vanity."

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