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Le Pen Is Mightier

Why, just four years after its supposed demise, does France’s National Front have its highest poll ratings ever?

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Le Pen Is Mightier

Lan Nyugen

"I used to worry about the National Front,” a middle-aged writer told me when we met in France in February. “Suddenly I’m beginning to wonder if I’m not further to the right than they are.” The National Front, or FN, has been Europe’s archetypal fascistic party of recent years. Founded by Algerian War veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen, anathematized in the media, manipulated by Socialist president François Mitterrand as a means of dividing his opponents, it was embraced by ex-colonists, ex-Communists, and the unemployed as a vehicle for protesting the changes that mass immigration brought in its wake. Le Pen was offensive, clownish, unpredictable. He defended Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. He described the Holocaust as a “detail” of World War II. He walked onstage with a photo of the head of a Socialist minister on a platter. And in 2002, he shocked the country by taking 17 percent in the first round of the presidential election, finishing second and eliminating the Socialist candidate. That episode led to a national soul-searching that has not yet abated. 

France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, seemed to stymie the FN’s appeal in the 2007 presidential election. In head-on style, he addressed the issues they professed to worry about, particularly immigration and the violent crime that most French people associate with it. The FN took a paltry 10 percent of the vote. Le Pen, now 82, retired this past winter, and his party appeared to be a closed chapter in French political life. Suddenly, however, the FN is the hottest political party in the country.

Le Pen’s youngest daughter, Marine, a 42-year-old lawyer and member of the European parliament, won the party’s leadership handily in January, beating a rival who represented the FN’s small Catholic wing. Ms. Le Pen, who has been divorced twice, claims to speak for a more “laic” sensibility. She lacks her father’s electoral baggage. She has explicitly repudiated the anti-Semitism in which the party stewed throughout his tenure. And she has gifts that her father never possessed. The elder Le Pen had only two oratorical registers—indignation and buffoonery. Marine Le Pen can give a moving speech. The one she gave at Tours on the day she was elected party leader was hailed as a triumph. What is more, she has a platform that a lot of French voters like and no other party will touch: Ms. Le Pen considers globalization a mistake, lock, stock, and barrel. 

Just as Nazism and communism were the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, Islamism and globalism are the totalitarianisms of the twenty-first, Ms. Le Pen believes. France needs to reexamine its membership in the European Union (which has robbed great nations of their sovereignty and saddled them with an unworkable currency) and in NATO (which has subordinated the country’s foreign policy interests to those of the United States), and it should not make a dogma of free trade. “This identity-killing globalization,” she said at Tours, “has turned into an economic horror, a social tsunami, a moral Chernobyl.” Then she led into more familiar FN themes—the International Monetary Fund, the “demographic submersion” of France, self-appointed elites, and the need for French citizens to “pick up the flag.” Ms. Le Pen is a candidate in next year’s presidential election, and a poll released in October showed her hovering at a stunning 19 percent in the polls, which put her just a couple of points behind Sarkozy and Socialist hopeful Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille. (Dominique Strauss-Kahn, president of the IMF and a former Socialist finance minister, was at 30 percent, but he has not yet decided whether to run.) French newspapers warn that a repeat of 2002 is possible, with the FN knocking one of the major parties out of the running. 

What went wrong with Sarkozy?

It is not immediately obvious why Sarkozy, who promised a wide-ranging program of reform, should be endangered by an antiestablishment candidate. After all, he has delivered reforms. He toughened criminal penalties for repeat offenders. He fixed France’s labor laws to make it harder for public employee unions to bring the country to a grinding halt with strikes. In the face of massive protests, he stuck to his guns and pushed through a new law that will significantly raise French retirement ages. And he has broadened the so-called “fiscal shield,” a government guarantee to taxpayers that no one will pay the state more than half of what he earns. He brought France back into full membership in NATO, four decades after Charles de Gaulle withdrew from the Western alliance. 

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