The Seductive Madame Le Pen

She is the rising power in French and European politics, but what lies behind the smile?

The woman who says she wants to tear the European Union apart—to watch it “explode,” as she puts it—has a focused smile and a warm handshake. She may be the heir to a French political party built by her father and often denounced as a holdover (or hangover) from Fascism, but Marine Le Pen ain’t her old man. She has long since left behind the rhetoric of anti-Semitism and thinly disguised race baiting that made her father’s partisans notorious.

Over the last three years the indefatigable Marine has edged her party to the center while disgruntled voters have been flooding to the right, and her National Front today is the rising power in French politics. It can no longer be ignored; it has become incontournable, which is to say inevitable and inescapable. If, as expected, Le Pen’s party makes a very strong showing in municipal elections at the end of March and in European Parliamentary elections this May, the whole continent will shiver with a combination of fear and excitement.

“I think rejection of the European construct in France will be felt throughout Europe,” Le Pen told members of the Anglo-American Press Association at her party headquarters in the dreary Paris suburb of Nanterre this morning. Already she is well on her way to forging an alliance with the peroxide-blond bad boy of Dutch politics, Geert Wilders, as well as with Great Britain’s UKIP, and right-wing populists in Belgium, Scandinavia and Austria. But she draws the line at cooperation with Greece’s Nazi-style Golden Dawn party and the anti-Semites of Hungary’s Jobbik, whom she finds politically (and perhaps morally) unacceptable.

Over the course of two hours this morning, Le Pen responded to question after question, then stood around when the session officially ended to answer a few more.

She told “les anglo-saxons” that she sees no parallel between faltering attempts to forge a union of Europe’s ancient nations and the “sui generis” creation of the United States of America from virgin territories. Nor does she think there’s much sense in drawing a parallel between Europe’s right wing and the American Tea Party movement, which probably would think her “a socialist,” she said.

Le Pen has argued consistently that, unlike the Tea Party, she believes in the power of the state to do good for its people—just not the power of the supra-state represented by the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. She wants to restore national sovereignty over borders, the currency, legislation and the economy, no matter how impractical that may seem. “I am only looking for one thing from the European Union, and that is that it explode,” she said.

It’s fascinating to watch Le Pen up close as she drops these rhetorical bombshells. The far-right in Europe is accustomed to speak in a kind of code, not least because there are legal sanctions against explicit racism and other forms of blatant bigotry in many European countries. A lot of the winks and nods from Le Pen’s allies are obvious: denouncing the “ideology” of Islam, for instance, is an excuse for Geert Wilders’ followers to rationalize their hatred of dark-skinned immigrants. Whenever he can, the provocative Wilders tries to draw his critics off sides. Just last month he was promoting a bumper sticker written in Arabic on a field of green that read: “Islam is a lie. Mohammed is a crook. The Quran is poison.”

Le Pen, who insists her party embraces all French citizens regardless of religion, told me this morning that she and Wilders “diverged” when it came to his Muslim-baiting.

In fact, Le Pen’s style is at once more subtle and more passionate than other figures in Europe’s far right. And trying to read her up close is a little like watching a skilled and garrulous poker player for the tells that might give her game away.

This morning Le Pen, 45, was dressed in a gray tweed pantsuit cut, perhaps, a little more closely than one of Hillary Clinton’s, over a sleeveless white blouse that exposed a silver pendant. Her brown hair was frosted blonde; her makeup was understated, and her nails were manicured with gray polish, which I’m told is rather fashionable these days. When she was making a point, she would sit upright and pull the sides of her jacket slightly to better cover her chest.

Le Pen’s voice is striking. It’s husky and comes from deep inside. Perhaps it’s a smoker’s voice (there were no signs of cigarettes) but the slight rasp certainly gives it character. And even in the conversational session with American and British reporters, as she started to hit the applause lines that draw huge cheers from her supporters, the rabble-rouser came out in the timbre of her phrasing and the forcefulness of her gestures.

There’s not much question about the basic game Le Pen is playing, or what she wants to win at the end of the day. That, obviously, is the presidency of France in 2017. Although her father, through something of a fluke, got into the second round of the presidential race in 2002, the French public was in such shock at his victory in the first heat that people turned out en masse to reelect the lackluster Jacques Chirac. Jean-Marie Le Pen was crushed in the 2002 finals by a margin of more than five to one.

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In 2011 Marine Le Pen took over the helm of the party and in 2012 she made her first play for the presidency. She came in a respectable third behind the incumbent conservative, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the victorious Socialist Party candidate, François Hollande. The fact that Hollande’s approval ratings look like a polar vortex, hovering around 20 percent, has raised hopes among all his potential rivals that he’ll be a one-term wonder.

Le Pen’s mission at the moment is to pull together the kind of grassroots infrastructure that the National Front never had before. In the upcoming municipal elections, the Front intends to field candidates in all cities and towns with populations greater than 10,000. And while Le Pen said she didn’t expect to win in Paris or Marseille, she has high hopes for smaller cities like Perpignan. In the course of the campaigns, win or lose, her party will be building its bases and organization.

Are there racists in her party? She allowed that there are, but said there are racists in many parties, and what’s important is to sanction them, which she says she does. Why does she talk about “anti-French racism”? “Because it exists,” she says, straightening her jacket. “All racisms should be fought,” she says. Someone mentions that her octogenarian father is a friend and defender of the comedian Dieudonné, whose satire has turned so virulently anti-Semitic in the last few years that French Interior Minister Manuel Valls has called on municipalities to ban the performances. Le Pen leans forward, her eyes narrowing a little, blaming the Hollande government for stifling freedom of speech but insisting her party has no connection with the comedian at all.

Now the toughness starts to come out. Le Pen is asked what it was like growing up as her father’s youngest daughter. “It was extremely comfortable to be the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen,” she says, joking. Anything could be said or done to attack her father and members of her family, she said. (She doesn’t mention it, but when she was eight, someone tried to blow up her home.) Today, she says, she has “drawers full of death threats.” But normally she doesn’t see any reason to talk about those, she says. She’s not a whiner like some people, she suggests, contrasting herself with the Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, who has spearheaded the Socialists’ same-sex marriage law and other controversial policies. Taubira is from the overseas French département of French Guiana, and was married to an independence fighter, a “terrorist,” says Le Pen. (He was convicted for his role attacking oil installations in the 1970s.) That Taubira is a woman of color need not be said at all. Le Pen’s smile is gone. She adjusts her jacket.