Don't be fooled by the Front National leader Marine Le Pen

She has given the Front National a makeover, but it remains true to itself
June 18, 2014

"Marine, 45, is blue-eyed, blonde, stout, aggressive and talented. A lawyer with a smoker’s voice, she has been in politics since she was 18." © Gauthier Bouchet

It took Jean-Marie Le Pen 42 years to build his political movement on the ruins of “French Algeria” and the remnants of pre-Second World War fascist ideology. It has taken his daughter just over three years to transform the Front National (FN) into a party palatable enough to take the lead in the latest European elections.

Marine, 45, is blue-eyed, blonde, stout, aggressive and talented. A lawyer with a smoker’s voice, she has been in politics since she was 18. Enthused with her father’s oratory, her whole life ensconced in the family estate near Paris after two divorces, she has been smart enough to dissociate herself from her father’s anti-Semitic obsessions. She openly contradicted him for the first time in June over a comment he made about a Jewish pop star, in which he appeared to refer to the Holocaust. The dyed-in-the-wool old activists may have thought she was too soft at first, but she has delivered victory.

The Front National today has just one face: a woman—the only female leader in French politics—whose looks, personal history and lifestyle seem commonplace enough to appeal to a wide variety of voters. Women see no condescending attitude; those on low incomes, deserting the left, like her vocabulary; the young, bored with mainstream political egos and tricks, find her provocative; successful second generation immigrants, who want law, order, and less foreigners, agree with her arguments.

The far right today is an aggregate of several layers: anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, anti-globalisation, anti-liberal “Anglo-Saxon” market economy and finally anti-Europe. The pyramid is all wrapped up in “Bleu Marine”—the slogan she has chosen to forge her brand.

In 1984, when Jean-Marie Le Pen appeared for the first time on the main political TV show of the day, L’Heure de vérité, it was a national scandal. The rumour was that François Mitterrand, then President, had encouraged it in his successful ploy to weaken Jacques Chirac’s conservative party before the European elections—Le Pen got just under 11 per cent of the vote. Marine was on the set, watching her father.

In 2002, I had the dubious honour of moderating her first TV performance, when we needed to balance comments about the political earthquake of the time: her father’s ousting of Lionel Jospin, the socialist candidate and outgoing Prime Minister, from the presidential contest. A welcome change to her father’s contemptuous and hysterical manner with journalists, she was impressive, self-assured and already able to assert the most blatant lies and fallacies with inbred aplomb. Now, 12 years later, just watch her on stage: she loves it. She relishes the lights, the stardom and the fight. She thrives at knocking her opponents down, all clenched words and fists, and then smiling at her admirers with self-satisfaction.

Marine works hard. She has ousted her father’s inner circle, picked up her own praetorian guard, who owe her their seats and sometimes more—her current companion, Louis Alliot, is Vice-President of the party.

She also understands that French politics trusts expertise gained in the traditional, elite education system. Her most influential advisor, Florian Philippot, has degrees from ENA, which trains senior French officials, and HEC, a prestigious business school.

Her vocabulary has switched marketing tactics: Marine talks patriotism rather than nationalism, the love of France rather than the fear of foreigners, and disputes the term “extrême droite.” She has so successfully laundered the image and the core rhetoric of the FN that the mainstream media have adjusted as well. No more soul searching about the diabolical dimension of the far right, or the moral implications of interviewing its representatives. On European election night, most journalists talked about it as “the first political force in the country”—a factual mistake given the majority of absentees, but also the baseline of the posters the FN had already printed before the official results came in.

Marine Le Pen sells. Radio and TV want her. Magazines put her winning smile on the cover, making the story of the FN less political and more human interest. But it may not last. For all the “Bleu Marine” rebranding, the Front National remains true to itself.