THE RIGHT ANGLE
SHE is the most potent blonde France has produced since Catherine Deneuve. Her office, in a squat, ugly, gray and blue building west of Paris, smells of cigarettes and ambition. Her legs jiggle as she talks. Images of Joan of Arc, another tough, charismatic crusader who wanted to keep foreigners from invading France, are everywhere.
Didn’t her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Holocaust-denying demagogue who ran the party until last year, press her to stop smoking to give her more stamina for speeches? “Oui,” Marine Le Pen says.
But she hasn’t? “Non.” Buoyed by the usual Gallic Archie Bunkers, plus some younger voters and blue-collar workers fed up with the austerity diet prescribed by Germany, she captured a surprising 6.4 million votes in the first round of the French presidential election.
Le Pen, the 43-year-old head of the National Front, was catapulted into the position of kingmaker.
Only she pulled a fast one and decided to make herself a queen instead.
On May Day, she theatrically stood in front of the Paris Opera beside a picture of a gold statue of Joan of Arc mounted on a horse.
She declared of her party, which had always lurked on the extreme right-wing fringes, “We are at the center of gravity.” The father was a provocateur and a spoiler. The daughter is a provocative spoiler with an eye for power.
The flailing Nicolas Sarkozy, who pulled a Romney and veered appallingly to the right on immigration and culture-war issues, was hoping for a lifeline. Instead, Le Pen stuck the knife in the president’s gut.
She told a sea of passionate supporters that she would cast a blank ballot and that it didn’t matter whether they voted for the Socialist, Francois Hollande, or the conservative incumbent: “They are the same.” Showing contempt for Sarkozy’s effort to cater to the 65 percent of her voters he needed to win a second term, she asked the crowd, “How does it feel to go from being fascists,and xenophobes” to people who are being eagerly courted? It might have seemed unpatriotic to throw away a vote and perverse for a right-winger to hand the keys to the Elysee Palace to a Socialist, but Le Pen has a brazen, brutal strategy.
Even though Sarkozy lost his bearings pandering to Lepenistes, as Mitt Romney did with the Tea Party, Le Pen let the guillotine fall.
Playing off her name, she called for a “Bleu Marine revolution,” a wave that would crash on Sarkozy and his UMP party. In the chaos and infighting that would follow, she could refashion the French right by harvesting UMP’s harder right, starting with the June legislative elections.
The Le Pen family drama is like a happier “King Lear.” Jean-Marie Le Pen, now 83, turned over power to the youngest of his three daughters, a tall, sturdy-looking blonde with intense blue eyes, an expressive face and a fondness for simple dark pantsuits and black boots. She is twice divorced with a 13-year-old daughter named Jehanne, after Joan of Arc, and 12-year-old twins, Louis and Mathilde. Her paramour is Louis Alliot, her vice president at the National Front.
The clan lives in the family’s posh compound, nicknamed “the oceanliner,” with their lives and mates entangled in the party. AAlthough Marine Le Pen claims her party was never racist or Islamophobic or anti-Semitic, her father took it easy on the Nazis, saying that the French occupation was “not particularly inhuman,” that “the races are unequal,” that “Jews have conspired to rule the world,” and that the gas chambers of the Holocaust were “a detail of history.” He nicknamed Adolf Hitler “Uncle Dolfie,” according to his ex-wife. An AIDS victim, he said, was “a kind of leper.” Marine has steered the rhetoric of resentment from Jews to Muslims, comparing having to put up with streets blocked for Muslim prayer to enduring the Nazi occupation.
She warned that the other parties wanted to “Islamize” France and introduce “Shariah law,” and stirred up fears about halal meat impinging on French culture.
So, I ask her, quoting a New York Times Magazine profile: “Is Le Pen fille a different person from her father, or has racism simply become mainstream?” “The question is really abusive,” she bristles. “We were never racists.
She dismisses those who call her cynical and self-serving for not designating the person she thinks can best lead France out of the European economic morass.
Does it create tension with her father when she opens up the party, mingling left and right positions, and smooths its notorious reputation? “I guess it’s not very easy to abandon a 40-year-long construction, a movement built around his image,” she says, adding that she thinks he is proud of her as she rebuilds around her own vision, but that, like many French, “he doesn’t wear his heart on a string.” She says that she’s stubborn enough to prevail in arguments with her stubborn father and that, in the end, he will concede that she is now the party leader, saying: “I am only a simple militant and I accept your decision.” Asked what she does for fun, the rigorously private Le Pen says she likes Stephen King novels, but not in the campaign season, which offers enough suspense. Right now, she says, “I work all the time.” Giving a feudal political kingdom an image makeover is a full-time job.