Can France’s Far-Right Marine Le Pen Use Paris Attacks to Win Power?

Marine Le Pen used the horrific attacks on Paris to push her right-wing brand of politics. Many fear this could be her chance to seize power.

Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty

Marine Le Pen, France’s answer to Donald Trump, lost no time cementing her growing power base as leader of the country’s far-right National Front just hours after the Paris attacks when she called for the “annihilation” of Islamist radicals.

Le Pen, whose stump speeches in the depressed cities of northern France include dire warnings of the “giant migratory wave,” told reporters in Paris on Saturday that the country had to clamp down on Islamist fundamentalism, shut down mosques and expel dangerous “foreigners” and “illegal migrants.”

Le Pen is the daughter of notorious xenophone Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front in 1972. She forced him out of the party this past summer after his latest racist remarks. This weekened, she was just one of Europe's far-right figures attempting to make political capital out of the Paris attacks.

Populist leaders around Europe moved quickly to call for an end to allowing the steady stream of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

The Netherlands’ increasingly popular anti-Islamic far-right leader Geert Wilders demanded Dutch authorities close the borders immediately, accusing them of refusing to face reality about the connection between immigrants and terrorism. Poland’s Europe minister Konrad Szymanski said he would no longer agree to accept un-vetted migrants and refugees.

One of the key questions roiling France after the attacks: Could the brassy blond daughter of a notorious politician who made his reputation on anti-immigrant rhetoric and wingnut Holocaust revisionism end up as the next president of la belle France?

Many in France wondered if this was Le Pen’s moment and if the horrific attacks that killed at least 127 people and injured more than 200 will catapult her into the Elysees Palace as president in 2017 or at least upend the elections. The attacks come just three weeks before key regional contests in which the far-right was already expected to make more electoral inroads than any time in history.

“I believe that she’s intelligent & capable enough to ride this wave,” Jo-Ann White, a longtime leader with Democrats Abroad in France and Italy, told The Daily Beast.

“People are feeling helpless, resigned to the certainty that attacks will happen again. Anyone promising a return to safety, comfort and the good old days will find a following. Those politicians offering quick fixes and easy wins, whether their name is Trump, Carson or Marine Le Pen are attracting huge followings.”

Marine Le Pen, 47, is the acceptable face of her father’s noxious politics.

“Urgent action is needed,” she said. “France must ban Islamist organizations, close radical mosques and expel foreigners who preach hatred in our country as well as illegal migrants who have nothing to do here.

“France and French people are no longer safe… Islamic extremism must be crushed.”

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Moderates now fear that Le Pen and the National Front (FN) will benefit from the latest sickening attacks on Paris.

Edouard Ponsin, 81, a retired accountant who lives in the 11th arrondissement where gunmen burst into a show and killed more than 80 people at the Bataclan, said “these attacks always give political élan to right-wing arrivistes.”

“They jump on the fear of voters in order to elevate their profile and pander to the worst in human nature,” Ponsin said. “Sarkozy is actually salivating over the blood of these victims and can’t wait to exploit this tragedy to put himself back in the Elysee. LePen will exploit this to enrage the right even further, but she can’t do anything, alas, against determined murderers who have a network of support from groups like Daesh. We are a free society, we are generous and there are ingrates among us, young men who feel they have no future and they want us dead. But France will not go down on its knees. We have seen far worse. We are still standing. We are France. France is the gem of the world. We will shine through our tears.”

While survivors raised a defiant tone, political insiders were attempting to game-out the long-term electoral impact.

“The reasoning that the attacks were so massive that there is no miracle policy against Islamic terror and thus, voters will not switch to FN doesn’t work,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a French political analyst specializing in extremism. “A significant part of public opinion thinks France has been way too soft on letting radical Islam grow within the immigrant population. They want tougher policies now, and think Le Pen is the only political leader who has not yet been given a chance to implement her proposals.”

Political analyst Jacob Shein said it was inevitable that the carnage wrought by three teams of Islamic radicals would impact French political discourse.

“I certainly expect her to get stronger and only hope there will be enough people with the good sense to understand what she represents and not vote for her,” he said of Le Pen. “This lady is bad news however you look at it.”

Bad news, perhaps, but more and more acceptable to the French, compared to a time when only voters in the south of France, the country’s answer to Orange County, California, would even consider voting for the National Front.

Founder Jean Marie Le Pen was most recently hauled in front of a French judge in July for saying that the Nazis’s gas chambers were merely a “minor detail” in World War II.

The FN, as the party is called in French, has always had a measure of political power but has never secured a region. Now they are poised to seize three.

Marine Le Pen is hoping to win the presidency of the regional council of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais in the regional elections that begin Dec. 6. Victory would give her a huge platform and major funding going into the 2017 presidential elections. Polls show voters in the north are warming to her ahead of other candidates in part because she is embracing a Bill O’Reilly-type of populist rhetoric that appeals to the increasingly disenfranchised French working class.

In addition, Le Pen has a not-so-secret weapon, her blond, charismatic 25-year-old niece, Marion-Maréchal Le Pen. Marion grew up in the party watching her grandfather and aunt and is considered a real contender for a regional seat in the south of France. The FN’s vice president, Florian Philippot, also has a shot at winning in the east.

But French diplomat Frederic Claveau, 45, who lives in the 11th arrondissement, just yards from the site of some of the attacks, told The Daily Beast he wasn’t sure that Le Pen was a shoo-in to make it to the presidential run-offs. Instead, he said, France’s Friday the 13th might benefit former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

“Marine Le Pen is too extreme,” Claveau said. “She has no real solutions, just fear-mongering. I actually think this could be good for Sarkozy, who’s right-wing but much more middle of the road.”

British-born Michael Cook, who has lived in France for more than 20 years, also said he wasn’t so sure that Le Pen is a lock for the presidency and disagreed with Camus’s take.

“It certainly seems as if this will play right into the National Front’s hands, but I’m not so sure,” he said. “The scope of this disaster was so bloody and barbaric and extreme that I think even the most clueless person is starting to realize that we are fighting a war that seems pretty unwinnable right now—no matter what a politician promises. There’s absolutely bugger-all they can do.”