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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. 

Sarkozy nonetheless finds himself in a bad political position, from which his formidable skills as a campaigner may be insufficient to extricate him. The financial crisis has eaten up much of his energy. But in a funny way, he may have been imprisoned by the brilliance of his 2007 campaign. The economist Henri Guaino, Sarkozy’s most important adviser, created a stirring Gaullist narrative for Sarkozy full of references to la France éternelle, Mont Saint-Michel, the genius of French poetry, that sort of thing. Sarkozy promised a “rupture” with the way his predecessors had done things. Swing voters put two and two together. They understood Sarkozy to mean that France had been allowed to drift away from what was essentially French about it, into something global, multicultural, undifferentiated—and that a Sarkozy presidency would mean a restoration of an older kind of Frenchness. Sarkozy created a yearning for rupture, but, for all his programmatic tinkering, no rupture happened. 

Maybe the biggest cultural event in France over the past year has been the success of the film Of Gods and Men, the story of seven Trappist monks kidnapped and beheaded in Algeria in 1996. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) claimed responsibility for the killings. Much as the American movie Juno (2007) was discussed for its attitudes towards abortion, even though it is not really about that, Of Gods and Men is a movie about Christian teachings on peace that has provoked a lot of anxiety about Islam. Such anxiety has been brewing for a while. In the rue Myrha in Paris’s 18th arrondissement, hundreds of Muslims fill the street every Friday afternoon for prayers. The practice is unpopular among local residents, it is much discussed on YouTube, and Marine Le Pen has capitalized on it. “Those who pray in a public thoroughfare are acting like an occupying power,” she said in Lyon in December. 

But Sarkozy has been wrong-footed by it. You can make the case—many do—that Muslims are praying in the street because they don’t have mosques, and that the French government should do its part to make sure they are able to build them. So Sarkozy has called for a “debate on Islam.” But this has not satisfied his voters. I attended a magazine editorial board meeting in Paris in February and found the editors in agreement that such a debate would do Sarkozy no good. “The only place this ‘debate’ can wind up is with platitudes like ‘Ninety-nine percent of our Muslim fellow-citizens are good Frenchmen,’ and so on,” said one of the editors present. “It cannot wind up making contact with anything real.”

This is not to say that Sarkozy’s attitude towards immigration and assimilation has been too “soft.” His problems lie just as much in the other direction. Sarkozy’s model of race (or ethnic) relations bears an uncanny resemblance to the carrot-and-stick mix of harsh punishments and easy promotion on which Richard Nixon built his own approach around 1970. Sarkozy has sought to promote the offspring of immigrants to cabinet and sub-cabinet positions, angering a lot of loyalists who were passed over. But he has also placed an unprecedented emphasis on law and order. Last July he spoke in Grenoble after two episodes of ethnic violence. The city had just seen three nights of battles between police and rioters in the neighborhood of Villeneuve, and that came on the heels of an attack on the police station in St-Aignan by 50 Roms, or gypsies, armed with axes. 

Sarkozy gave a speech that leapt way beyond the usual boundaries of tough-on-crime rhetoric. “We are suffering the consequences of 50 years of immigration, insufficiently regulated, that have led to a failure of assimilation,” he said. He urged the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences of unheard-of severity—30 years for serious attacks on police. And he called for stripping French citizenship from any newly naturalized citizen convicted of such a crime. Sarkozy’s critics on the left quickly pointed out that denationalizations had not been carried out since the dark days of the middle of the last century. It was the sort of policy which the National Front has repeatedly been accused of secretly favoring, and here Sarkozy was espousing it openly. While Sarkozy’s Grenoble talk may have pleased some voters, it surely left others wondering why there was a taboo on voting FN in the first place.

The Socialists’ unearned mandate

Sarkozy’s low rating in the polls creates a situation somewhat similar to that of the United States in 2008. The country is growing more conservative, while the unpopularity of a conservative president makes the election of a president from the left look almost inevitable. The left, however, has estranged itself from its old electoral base in recent decades. More interested in multiculturalism than in socialism, it is now a deeply fragmented collection of elite hobby movements, with little connection to the working class. 

This fragmentation explains why the example of 2002 haunts the Socialists so much. There were plenty of votes on the left to beat Jean-Marie Le Pen with, but they were divided among Communists, Trotskyites, Revolutionary Communists, Greens, and others. The very experience of that makes a repeat of the outcome less likely. The think tank Terra Nova, whose members describe it as the French equivalent to the Center for American Progress, has devised an American-style system of primaries intended to assemble the left into a broad front. It hasn’t completely succeeded—a variety of charismatic ecologists remain outside the fold—but it will probably gather enough voters to advance a candidate to the second round. That is why people talk as often of an upside-down 2002—with Sarkozy getting ousted in the first round—as they do of a straightforward repeat.

The Socialists have another problem, though. Their party seems booby-trapped against producing a candidate the electorate at large can tolerate. Martine Aubry—the mayor of Lille and daughter of Jacques Delors, the great technocrat of the European Union—may be the most partisan figure in French politics. This gives her the best network within the party and the worst prospects in a general election. A solution to this problem is at hand, but it is not certain the Socialists wish to take it. Dominique Strauss-Kahn—statesman, economist, author—is outstripping everyone in nationwide polls. He has not yet announced that he will be a candidate, but his American-born wife, Anne Sinclair, has hinted broadly on her blog that he will run. Strauss-Kahn not only sits at the pinnacle of the world banking establishment, he was the minister of finance for a Socialist government that privatized more enterprises than any in recent French history and ran a considerably tighter fiscal ship than New Labour did in Britain. These are both good things to a free-marketer’s eye, but they are not viewed in that light in the Socialist party, particularly not after the financial crisis of 2008. Nominating Strauss-Kahn is a “false good idea,” as one political philosopher put it, the equivalent of the Democrats’ nominating Robert Rubin for president. Strauss-Kahn would win, but Socialists, after four years of pillorying Sarkozy as the “president of the rich,” might have to bite their tongue to nominate someone who simply is rich.

European Front

The number of French people who don’t naturally gravitate either to the Socialists or to Sarkozy’s UMP is large, and there is reason to believe it is growing. Hannah Arendt wrote somewhere that right-wing movements appeal to the “déclassé of all classes,” and Marine Le Pen is frank about wanting those votes. “The working class, the unemployed, young people” is Marine Le Pen’s first description of who votes for the FN, but she is quick to note that women are backing the party in greater numbers. 

Her offices are up a flight of stairs in a modernistic blue cube of a building in a sleepy residential street in Nanterre, a working class suburb a few miles west of the Arc de Triomphe. Ms. Le Pen is wearing jeans and boots, as she has just returned from campaigning among farmers at the annual Salon de l’Agriculture, a command performance for politicians. (Sarkozy, visiting the Salon three years ago, made the newspapers when he called a man who had insulted him an “asshole.”)

Ms. Le Pen has a difficult balancing act. It would be unseemly, as a politician, to embrace the anti-Semitic ideas that Jean-Marie Le Pen harbored within the FN. But it would be unseemly, as a daughter, to repudiate her father. As one would expect, she is vague on the personal question, beyond saying that the image of her father, whom she always refers to as “Jean-Marie Le Pen,” was “rather sulfurous.” But she is straightforward on the political question. “For a long time there has been a suspicion of anti-Semitism hanging over the FN,” she says. “I think any statements that would feed that suspicion are out of place. The FN isn’t racist, it isn’t anti-Semitic. Its politics are not based on religion, race, or national origin but on what’s best for France and French people. That goes without saying, even if it’s sometimes necessary to say it.”

One prominent Socialist told me he thought Ms. Le Pen was an “exceptional leader,” and when I asked him what made her so he said only that she had not been alive during World War II. She is used to this. “You know,” she says, “politics is about the people who practice it. By changing personalities, the National Front has, by definition, changed its vision. .  .  . I have three kids I raise alone for reasons that are tied to my personal life. That gives me a sensibility that is different from [Jean-Marie Le Pen’s] and brings me closer to certain kinds of French people.” 

But if, as the Socialist says, the new popularity of the FN under Ms. Le Pen’s leadership were just a matter of her personality or experience, that would imply that the ostracism of the FN in years past was only a matter of personality, too. And it clearly was not. The FN’s old ideology of interwar rightism was worthy of rejection, and is still. If Ms. Le Pen is winning the allegiance of 19 percent of poll respondents, where her father never rose above 12 percent in preelection polls, there must be some new ideological element. 

And that is provided by the European Union. The fact is that, despite the continued enthusiasm for it among their governing classes, the French people have more Europe than they want. In 2005, in an electoral battle as contentious as any in the past half century, a sizable majority voted “no” on a referendum on a new continent-wide constitution. Their reasons may have been varied—some voted no out of nationalism, others out of a conviction that EU membership made France more capitalist than it should be—but their verdict was unambiguous. That majority has been ignored, and much of the constitution was subsequently enacted through the so-called Lisbon Treaty. Clearly, European peoples have lost hold on the levers by which they once held their politicians accountable, and in France, the FN is the only party that speaks squarely for those who are bothered by this development.

Once Europe is identified as the problem, a political program comes into view—one aimed at restoring powers, formal and informal, that have been relocated abroad. Ms. Le Pen likens her movement to the Tea Party. To an extent that would surprise those familiar with the old FN, Ms. Le Pen is comfortable talking about economics. She would withdraw from the European Union and from the euro, which she rejects on the grounds that it is not an “optimal currency area,” in the sense laid out by the economist Robert Mundell. Who can dispute that? Her reading of the austerity plans being imposed on Greece and Ireland is that “they are destroying the peoples to save the currency.” 

Whether or not Ms. Le Pen’s program is workable, it has a logic to it that Europe’s major party programs have lacked. Parties of the left tend to regulate business while accepting the free movement of labor, roughly speaking, and parties of the right promote entrepreneurship while cracking down on migrants. Outside of Europe, France would acquire two new policy tools—borders and a currency—and Ms. Le Pen shows an inclination to use them to regulate both labor and capital. She deplores the EU’s having opened continental markets to Chinese textiles, and she describes immigration as the “little sister of globalization,” not a compliment in her book. “It’s meant to lower wages,” she says. “That’s just supply and demand.”

Ms. Le Pen’s chances of winning the presidential election next year are vanishingly slim. The FN has a long, mostly unpleasant history with the French electorate, and French voters would be shallow indeed if they forgot it overnight. But the party is evolving, and what it is evolving into is a genuine antiglobalist alternative to the UMP and the Socialists, both of which are sufficiently tied to the present state of affairs that they cannot respond to the French electorate’s clearly expressed views on the EU. Recent European history offers a number of instances of parties on the hard right evolving into responsible governing parties. The Flemish nationalist movement in Belgium has produced more than one of these. Gianfranco Fini, Silvio Berlusconi’s former coalition partner, began as leader of the Alleanza Nazionale, a party descended from Mussolini, but now he might fairly be considered a politician of the center left. The enthusiasm for Marine Le Pen may be a fad. But it may also be the beginning of a long process, at the end of which we will be left with a new kind of Western European opposition party.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.

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