Why you should care
Because she aims to be downright revolutionary.
Marine Le Pen is a seductress; she tantalized French men and women alike as she grew from ugly duckling into a veritable political player. Blond and blue-eyed, she has a raspy voice that beckons France to crawl into bed — metaphorically — with her and the National Front. Jocelyne Mercanti, a middle-age voter from northeastern France, is in. “I support the one woman who speaks the truth, and the only one who can help France,” she says of Le Pen.
In a Dynasty-style move, Le Pen, 48, last year expelled father Jean-Marie Le Pen and his virulent racism from the party he founded when she was 4. Softer and more serious, Marine is polishing up the National Front’s (FN) image ahead of next year’s presidential race. Though world-renowned for heading the formerly fringe far-right group — long associated with xenophobia and racism — she’s not expected to win. Still, Le Pen, who didn’t reply to OZY’s request for comment, earned 18 percent of the vote in 2012 and is polling at 25–30 percent now, giving her momentum in a Brexit-and-Trump world. So it’s easy to see her building her legacy for at least the next decade — and once she’s had her go, another pretty and even younger Le Pen is waiting in the wings.
All the social rights [we] have won through social movements and revolutions would be lost.
The country of 66 million is fed up with mainstream politics. Center-right and center-left governments have long failed to effect positive change with regard to jobs, welfare or public services — unemployment hovers around 10 percent, and it’s more than double that for under-25s. Last year’s refugee crisis, and the preceding debt crisis, added fuel to the fire. And then came terror attacks, which she seized upon, telling voters that the 130 deaths stemmed from the government’s “crazy” immigration policy.
The youngest of three born to a family whose patriarch has publicly clung to über-conservative views about women, Marine — née Marion — has proven to be anything but the conservatives’ view of a traditional woman. She earned her law degree, practiced as a lawyer, married, had children, divorced, moved in with her lover — a fellow FN official — and slowly built a political career since the ’80s. At first, she had little going for her but her name, which opened doors, but controversially so, thanks to pop’s penchant for anti-Semitic remarks. To have a shot at the big time, the FN needed to turn its image, along with its Eurosceptic, French-nationalist views, into something that average voters can accept as an alternative to mainstream parties.
Feminine, smart and charismatic, she stands in stark contrast to dear old dad. Her superpower, says Laurent Bouvet, professor of political theory at the Université de Versaille Saint-Quentin, is her identity as a modern woman — a working single mother who lives with her lover, something Bouvet says French females “can identify with.” Strong female leadership is a “very new and very important change for the far right,” he adds. Islam isn’t incompatible with the French republic, for example; Marine’s merely fighting Islamism. In a Trumpian move, she’s told gays and Jews the FN’s opposition to Islamism will protect them — a far cry from Jean-Marie calling crematoriums a mere “detail” of World War II.
Mainstream politicians, competing with Le Pen, have begun co-opting her message, waxing about the need for national sovereignty, toughening up on immigration and refugees and even debating the legality of wearing hijabs in public. “They’re all doing it. Even the left,” says Philippe Marlière, professor of French and European politics at University College London. This means Le Pen can stay quiet while others legitimize the far right’s long-held views. It’s even cushier for her, because such language has begun to backfire on mainstreamers like Nicolas Sarkozy.
But when it comes to policy, there’s not much difference between her and her father. The core ideas remain very much the same, says Marlière, pointing to opposition to immigration, Islamic identity, globalism and Europeanism. Her supporters, though, largely come from the north, which tends to be less conservative than those in the south, where her father and her 26-year-old niece, MP Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, are popular. Northerners, Bouvet explains, are open to gay marriage and abortion, more focused on broader economic transformations, while the southern contingent is closer to the Catholic Church and individual freedoms.
A President Le Pen, Marlière says, is likely to make moves against immigration but will mostly focus on préférence nationale — legislation favoring nationals over foreigners for everything from jobs to social subsidies. Marlière sees this as revolutionary, adding that “all the social rights [we] have won through social movements and revolutions would be lost.” He also believes Le Pen would campaign to leave the EU; Bouvet disagrees, predicting that even ditching the euro would prove difficult. He guesses her tenure would be marked by symbolic measures at first, followed by “business as usual.”
That said, neither thinks Le Pen will actually win. She’s likely to make it to the second round — President François Hollande has already bowed out of the running — and face off with the conservative winner. Their money was on the “very serious, boring” Republican Alain Juppé, who was surprisingly pushed aside for François Fillon this autumn. But if Le Pen garners up to 45 percent of the vote, the FN will enjoy a mandate ahead of legislative elections later next year.
If Marine fails, a younger Le Pen is waiting in the wings: her niece, Marion, the millennial who’s adding a fresh young face to classically conservative views. The conservative family is, in sum, going nowhere for France’s foreseeable political future.