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Should we be scared of Marine le Pen?

Marine le Pen, L’Etrangere

Sophie Pedder examines the brutal beginnings of Marine Le Pen, leader of the nationalist revival sweeping Europe

Sophie Pedder examines the brutal beginnings of Marine Le Pen, leader of the nationalist revival sweeping Europe

Sophie Pedder | April/May 2016

At 3.45am on a cold November night in 1976, 20 kilogrammes of explosives ripped the exterior wall off an apartment building in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. The block was in Villa Poirier, a quiet street in a residential stretch of southern Paris, near the Metro station Sèvres-Lecourbe. Twelve apartments were destroyed; a baby, falling from the wreckage, was saved by the branches of a tree.

In her bedroom in a fifth-floor apartment that night, an eight-year-old girl awoke to find her room covered in glass shards and clouds of plaster. She was Marine Le Pen, the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the far-right National Front (FN). The bomb was supposed to kill him, but he survived. His daughter, in some ways, never recovered. “From the time I awoke”, Le Pen once wrote, “I was no longer a little girl like everyone else.”

The politician who once compared Muslims praying in the streets in France to the Nazi occupation is fast emerging as the scariest, most redoubtable party leader in Europe. On a continent shaken by the double convulsions of Islamist terrorism and the greatest refugee influx in modern history, identity politics is marching back, and Le Pen is in the vanguard. Long before other leaders began to shut the doors and roll out barbed-wire fences, she denounced a borderless Europe and warned darkly of a “giant migratory wave” that would engulf the continent. Today, such troubles play straight into her hands, strengthening her appeal at home and her standing among right-wing nationalists abroad. She believes herself to be on a patriotic mission. She wants to defend a nostalgic version of France from an army of perceived threats – the euro, globalisation, competition, immigration and Islamism. “She is fighting for a sovereign, patriotic, free country,” says Florian Philippot, her closest lieutenant, who came to the party from the nationalist left. In the mind of bien-pensant French, however, Le Pen seeks nothing less than to overturn the liberal order in France and dismantle the post-war project of an integrated Europe.

Each time liberal politicians claim that her popularity has hit a ceiling, she shatters it. Back in 2002, her father, a classically edu­cated former paratrooper who fought in Algeria and Indochina, shook France by making it into the final run-off of the presidential election, where he secured 18% of the vote against the Gaullist Jacques Chirac. She succeeded her father as leader of the party in 2011 and its popularity has risen steadily since. In elections last December in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, a region more populous than Denmark, 41% voted for her. Her sights are now set on France’s presidential elections in 2017. Over the coming year, her mix of homespun nationalism, identity politics and star appeal will allow her to frame the public debate in France and beyond. It is a measure of the difficulty that politicians on the traditional right and left have in countering her message that the only near-certainty about next year’s presidential election is that she will be one of the two candidates on the ballot paper in the final run-off. She is exceedingly unlikely to win, but remains untroubled by that fact: she believes that her struggle is a long one, and that history is on her side.

 

Out of the rubble, into a mansion
On a sunny morning, Le Pen takes her campaign to Doullens, a small red-brick town on the flat plains of northern France, near the battlefields of the Somme. Locals line the streets, well before her car pulls up outside a rifle shop on the high street: families with battered pushchairs, retired couples in nylon anoraks, over-excited teenage girls clutching smartphones. She steps from her car in a faux-fur collared coat, and for nearly an hour inches her way through the thick crowd and into the market, past the charcutier and the fromager, stooping to embrace a man in a wheelchair, or for a selfie with a child. “I don’t agree with all her ideas,” says one middle-aged woman, “but she’s a real star.”

The young girl scarred by her father’s battles has found a way to connect with France’s discontented. She calls this electorate “the forgotten of the French republic” – the young people struggling to find work and the working poor battling to make ends meet, who in the past might have turned to the Communist Party.

Le Pen shares neither Jean-Marie’s talent for blustery oratory nor his self-destructive narcissism. But her methodical opportunism and street-smart intuition make her a far more fearsome politician. Le Pen père, whose politics dug into a seam of anti-Semitic, ultra-nationalist, Catholic nativism, sought to provoke. His daughter has greater ambitions: to disinfect a marginalised extremist movement and turn it into a serious party ready to govern. “Her father never wanted power, and never tried to achieve it,” says Sylvain Crépon, a political scientist at the University of Tours, who studies the FN: “He avoided responsibility. She on the other hand is building up a network of elected officials, working her dossiers, recruiting experts: exactly what is needed to win power.”

Get me out of here Pierrette, Jean-Marie and two of their daughters

It was not inevitable that she would go into politics. That formative explosion in the bedroom was, she says, a political awakening of “the most violent, the most cruel, the most brutal” sort. It was not just the realisation of her father’s vulnerability that marked her: it was also the shock of discovering the indifference of French officialdom towards her family. No perpetrator was ever caught. No word of consolation came from the local mayor or any government representative, even though at the time Jean-Marie already had behind him a six-year spell as a member of the French National Assembly. His toxic politics meant that his family was ostracised, and the young Marine resented this perceived injustice. She wasn’t just angry; she wanted to rehabilitate the family name and secure the FN the respect she thinks it deserves. “If I’m very honest,” she says today, her tall, broad frame somehow outsized for the tiny sixth-floor office she occupies at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, “at the start of my political career, that was a driving force.”

Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen, known from childhood as Marine, was born in a maternity clinic just outside Paris on August 5th 1968, two months after students started ripping up cobblestones and overturning barricades on the Paris left bank. Marine was the baby of the family, younger sister to eight-year-old Marie-Caroline and four-year-old Yann, the middle sister given a masculine name because her father had wanted a boy. Their mother, Pierrette, was a rather gorgeous, fashionable figure. A photo from Paris-Match at the time shows her reclining nonchalantly on a sofa, in velvet flares and platform shoes, a sort of cross between Twiggy and Raquel Welch. Pierrette disappeared on a trip for a while when Marine was just weeks old, leaving the infant in the care of a father “who didn’t even know how to cook an egg”.

The family initially lived in the flat in Villa Poirier, in an unremarkable district. From the end of the narrow street, where it meets the Rue Lecourbe, the tip of the Eiffel Tower is just visible above the zinc rooftops. When the girls were growing up, Jean-Marie was often absent – at his editing business, meeting political friends or goodness knew where. Pierrette described their life as “a bit bohemian”, with “friends at all hours of the day or night” dropping by for wine and improvised dinners that usually ended in hearty song, with Jean-Marie blasting out sea shanties learned in his Breton childhood.

Life changed abruptly for the Le Pen family not long after the bombing. A rich cement magnate with far-right leanings, Hubert Lambert, died without children, leaving his mansion and fortune to the struggling FN leader. So the family left their narrow Parisian street for the rarefied and gated 19th-century estate of Montretout, which stood on a ridge in Saint-Cloud to the west of the capital. Elegant villas sit behind glossy black gates; cedars and plane trees rise from broad gardens; and the silence is broken only by birdsong. The Le Pen mansion, constructed during the reign of Napoleon III, has a breathtaking view of the capital.

Into this bourgeois world erupted the unwieldy Le Pen clan – parents, three girls, their cats and dogs. They did not fit comfortably into Montretout’s discreet monied set. They threw “flashy parties which set tongues wagging”, writes Caroline Fourest in a biography of Marine Le Pen. The villa was left virtually untouched after Lambert’s death. It had dark brown walls and shabby furniture, and “stank of death” according to Yann.

Two words recur in Le Pen’s recollections of those years, at school in Saint-Cloud and later as a law student in Paris: sacrifice and wound. The FN was on the rise and its leader accused of torture during his time as an officer in the Algerian war (allegations Mr Le Pen has denied). Life at school as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter involved “a series of little humiliations: the parents of my friends who wouldn’t invite me to their house, or wouldn’t let them come to ours; the brutality of certain teachers.” Did this influence her decision to go into politics? Her gaze is unblinking: “We are all the children of our wounds.”

 

The politics of victimhood
The outsider is a popular pose among politicians. Many try to strike it: think George W. Bush and his Texan reinvention, or even François Hollande, a graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration who ran for the presidency from a faux-humble post as leader of the council of rural Corrèze. David Cameron (wisely) does not even try. Only a few, among them Angela Merkel (a physicist raised in the former East Germany and, like Le Pen, a woman in a conservative, patriarchal party), carry conviction.

Over a period of two months late last year, I was granted unusual access to Le Pen, her inner circle and closest political advisers, both in Paris and Strasbourg, where she is a member of the European Parliament, and while she was on the campaign trail for regional elections. Despite her dynastic position and her family mansion, the overwhelming impression she leaves is of a politician driven by the angry energy of the authentic outsider. Polite Parisian society certainly sees her that way – and, in a country governed by a tight, self-protecting elite, her status gives her particular power over the political imagination.

Her childhood was decidedly peculiar. Her mother walked out when she was 16, took up with a journalist, who had been researching a biography of Jean-Marie and ended up seducing his wife. Le Pen did not see her mother for 15 years: “My world fell apart.” Huguette Fatna, a Martinican who is godmother to Le Pen’s second daughter, told me that her mother’s exit “tore her apart”. And that was not the end of it. In 1987, after a bitter divorce case, Jean-Marie gave an interview in which he declared of his wife with characteristic bombast, “If she hasn’t got money, she could always become a cleaner.” Pierrette’s response was to pose for Playboy in a skimpy French maid’s outfit. The girls were shattered. Le Pen wrote: “It was an act of unbelievable psychological violence that she inflicted on us.”

Bretons see themselves as made of granite, hardened by whatever the ocean flings at them. Le Pen’s ordeals toughened her further. “She suffered greatly”, said Fatna, “but it made her stronger.” Le Pen agrees: “It forced me very young to confront a brutality that is generally spared children of that age. That forges a certain character.” Such resolve served her well later, when, having given birth to a daughter and twins in quick succession, she separated from her first husband and became a young single mother. Political life and working motherhood bring the odd challenge. Le Pen tells of once locking herself in the lavatory while on the phone for a live radio interview, with her daughter yelling outside the door that her brother had just ripped the head off her Barbie doll. “What she lived through when she was young, and then the three babies and the divorce, all reinforced her will to fight,” says Fatna, who helped her at the time. Le Pen puts it this way: “It takes a lot to destabilise me.”

What is so intriguing is that the battle she has chosen to fight is the same as her father’s. This was not a given. If there was one daughter who everybody thought would take up the Le Pen struggle, it was the eldest sister, Marie-Caroline. She was the first to go into local politics, standing as a young FN candidate at her first election in 1985 against Nicolas Sarkozy, then the mayor of Neuilly. Marie-Caroline was later elected a regional councillor in the Paris region, a post she held for 12 years. “Marie-Caroline was far more politicised,” says Edouard Ferrand, who knew the Le Pen girls at the time and is now an FN member of the European Parliament: “And Yann took charge of organising the big political events. But Marine was completely apart from all of that.”

For a while, “she didn’t think about politics”, says Gilbert Collard, a lawyer who represented Le Pen’s mother against Jean-Marie in their divorce case. Le Pen was set on a career as a lawyer, having studied at the University of Paris-Assas and then entered the Paris bar. “She was a very good lawyer. She had conviction and courage and a desire to win,” says Collard, who is now a far-right deputy. Le Pen was not up all night with just her books. She was also known for heavy partying, chain-smoking, and as a bon vivant: “laddish” is the word she uses, unapologetically. “She wasn’t at all uptight,” says Edouard Ferrand, a member of her social circle at the time, with a blush.

Yet the pull of politics got the better of her. She was frustrated as a lawyer – “my character doesn’t predispose me to being a spectator” – and struggling to build up clients. The name didn’t help. Politics engulfed her, as it did the entire Le Pen family. The clannish nature of the movement and the constant blurring of lines between family and party – when dinners would turn political and politics turn into love affairs – drew the daughters in despite themselves. Le Pen’s first husband was not a political figure but her current partner, Louis Aliot, is an elected FN official, as was her second husband, Eric Iorio. Marie-Caroline is currently married to a former FN activist, Philippe Olivier. Yann was married to Samuel Maréchal, a former leader of the FN youth wing, and their daughter, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a rising FN star, was elected to parliament in 2012 at the age of 22. Life, politics and family merge in a powerful but explosive manner.

“I WANTED TO DO OTHER THINGS,” SAYS LE PEN: “BUT POLITICS IS A VIRUS. IF YOU HAVE IT, YOU CAN NEVER GET AWAY FROM IT”

It was another family falling-out that opened the way for Le Pen to build a political future. She had already chosen to give up the bar, and set up a legal service within the FN, when the party was itself torn apart by a splinter movement led by a would-be moderniser, Bruno Mégret. Her elder sister, Marie-Caroline Le Pen (and her then husband), backed Mégret against Jean-Marie, and in doing so fell out with him, just as Le Pen did some 15 years later. The eldest sister’s rift with their father opened the way for the youngest. “I wanted to do other things,” says Le Pen: “But politics is a virus. If you have it, you can never get away from it.”

Even then, Le Pen’s path to the top of the party was not guaranteed. When I first interviewed her, in 2003, she was a gravelly voiced chain-smoker, with an untidy shock of long blonde hair, trying to find her place in a party of macho traditionalists espousing family values. It was not obvious that she had what it would take, or that the party, like most far-right movements steeped in masculinity and informed by Catholic orthodoxy, would take to her, a divorcee who refused to condemn abortion. In the competition for a place on the FN’s national executive, she was up against traditionalist old-timers calling for “Tous sauf Marine” – anybody but Marine.

Yet there is a single-minded ruthlessness about Le Pen, which also explains the calculated charm and professional smile that she can turn on and, just as abruptly, off. When she stood for the FN leadership in 2011, determined to forge a more respectable party, it was against Jean-Marie’s preferred heir, the ultra-nationalist Bruno Gollnisch. Her decision to run stemmed from an unbending faith both in the project and in her capacity to bring about the dédiabolisation (de-demonisation) which her father had systematically resisted, by distancing the party from his anti-Semitic and xenophobic outrages. Over the years, father and daughter had repeatedly rowed about the direction to take the party. “Believe me, he was not at all happy when I decided to run,” she says. In the end, he swung behind her, but only weeks before the vote. “All his life – and he has led this party for over 40 years – he has found it difficult to step back,” Le Pen says. His view, she suggests, was simple: “the FN, c’est moi.”

 

The ties that bind
At the heart of Le Pen’s quest for power is this relationship with Jean-Marie: a constant tension between affection and rivalry, duty and revolt. “With the father these girls have, either you rebel or you surrender,” says Gilbert Collard: “If you don’t react, if you don’t stand up to him, you disappear. ” In this view, it was rebellion that drove Le Pen initially to reject politics – although she followed her father in studying law. Yet her desire for her father’s approval at the same time drew her back. She recognises that, as a teenager, she was “not her parents’ priority”. At one point it dawned on her that, if Jean-Marie was to be interested in her life, she would have to venture onto his territory.

Le Pen’s reinvention of the FN is usually understood as a break, both political and filial, with her father. Up to a point, this is right. She expelled him last year out of exasperation: his unhinged provocations amounted to perpetual sabotage. Le Pen père once spoke of “the inequality of races”, and was ordered to pay a fine to the Union of Jewish Students in France after a court case, one of dozens brought against him over the decades. Le Pen fille treads more carefully, to broaden her appeal and keep her (mostly) out of the courtroom. She does not speak out against Islam, but “Islamification”: the radicalisation of mosques, the wearing of the burqa (which France bans in public places) and any indulgence of Muslim demands, such as school meals without pork, that she considers “not French”. Although she was taken to court (and acquitted) for hate speech after she compared Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi “occupation”, she professes shock at the idea that one might consider the FN racist. She has called the gas chambers the “height of barbarity”, rejected explicit anti-Semitism or racism, and appealed instead to shared secular rules against public displays of religiosity or proselytism. Voters, of course, can hear the message they choose.

The decision to expel Jean-Marie, says Nicolas Bay, the FN’s secretary-general, was “a moment of personal courage”. Not everybody around Le Pen thought her capable of it. The last straw was when Jean-Marie repeated his claim that the Holocaust was a “detail” of the history of the second world war. It imperilled Le Pen’s efforts to purge the party. The split with her father “was extremely hard on a personal level”, she says. “Jean-Marie Le Pen is an unreasonable personality, with a histrionic, theatrical side,” says Gilbert Collard. “We couldn’t continue our political struggle with all these discordant notes.” Her team insists that the row was not staged, pointing to the public hurt Jean-Marie inflicted on her when he declared himself “ashamed that she carries my name”, urged her to “marry her concubine” (Louis Aliot and Le Pen are not married) and railed against the “gay lobby” of advisers close to her within the party. Collard suggests that, far from feeling wounded, her father revelled in their break-up: “Jean-Marie Le Pen has lived his life through opposing others. He is at ease with conflict.”

Yet the uncompromising brutality of her decision to expel her father underlines how alike they are. “Marine”, her mother once told a French newspaper, “is the absolute clone of her father.” They share the same strengths, including a canny reading of political space and how to exploit it. Jean-Marie built his protest movement around the Fifth Republic’s demands for a strong party system. Le Pen is trying to exploit the traditional parties’ current fragility and engineer their collapse. They are both, in their own way, political narcissists. Her team emphasises how “grounded” she is in her role as a mother who does her own shopping at Monoprix, a supermarket chain. But to see her perform on-stage, standing with arms stretched wide at the end of a speech, a redemptive pose she selected for the front cover of her latest book, is to witness a woman powerfully energised by the approbation of others.

I love you all! Love me back! A rally in Béziers, southern France  

Above all, father and daughter share a cold and calculating political instinct. She suffered young from his political choices; he became the victim of hers. Le Pen does not deny the likeness. Of the three daughters, she admits, “physically, I am the one who most looks like him, and the one whose character is the most like his.” After all, she could have chosen to stay out of public life, like her sisters (one of whom went off to work for Club Med for a while), and retreat instead to her suburban house west of Paris, where she has lived since a Doberman belonging to her father killed one of her beloved cats. Yet here she is, like her father before her, back on the campaign trail at the price of inevitable absences from her own teenagers. She recognises that she has chosen to make “enormous sacrifices”, and with her eyes wide open. “The heart either breaks or hardens,” she says, quoting a French proverb: “Mine hardened.”

What keeps her at it? Ultimately, she seems both driven by the need for personal triumph and intoxicated by her patriotic mission. She cleaves to leaders who mix national pride, muscular force and flag-waving. She named her first daughter after Jeanne d’Arc. Her party secured a loan from a Russian bank with reported links to the Kremlin. Push her on those ties and her smile evaporates. She is not “backed” by Russia, she snaps. It is just that Putin, in her view, is a “great man of state”. She learned young about the power of a crowd fired up by such breast-thumping. She was 16 when she first attended one of her father’s rallies. She had been so used by then to the abuse hurled his way that the rapturous audience left her in tears. “I discovered for the first time what it was to see a crowd go wild: hundreds of people who called and chanted ‘Le Pen! Le Pen!’…I was overwhelmed with pride.” The “fervour that evening”, she said, “made up for everything.”

Today, hers is the name the crowds are chanting – often just two syllables: “Ma-rine! Ma-rine!” It electrifies her, in a way that sets her quite apart from a camera-shy woman like Angela Merkel. At the municipal theatre in Saint-Quentin, a town in northern France, during a regional election campaign last autumn, she emerges radiantly onto the stage. Her ear for a simple slogan – “They built Europe on coal and steel; now there’s no more coal and no more steel!” – has turned her rallies into a strange form of family entertainment. About half the faces in the audience are female, and almost all white. One couple has brought their three little girls, who sit patiently twirling their hair as Le Pen, in white jeans and a navy blazer, does her stand-up routine. There are flat moments. “We will help small companies when they have cash-flow difficulties!” One of the three girls yawns. Then there is an outbreak of thunderous applause, as Le Pen mocks the government’s efforts to relocate migrants from the refugee camp in nearby Calais. “They fly them out to the regions by private jet, and they come straight back by train!” She pauses to soak up the approval. “She has a natural capacity to talk to ordinary people,” says Sylvain Crépon, the political scientist: “When she speaks, it may be simplistic, but at least you can understand what she says. Ordinary voters say: she’s like us.”

However poisonous her politics, it is an impressive reinvention: the schoolgirl raised in a mansion in Saint-Cloud becomes the champion of France’s discontents. “Being close to the people is not about where you grow up; it’s a state of mind,” insists Florian Philippot. A resolute inner drive and an instinctive popular touch make for a potent and fearsome mix. This is a woman who knows that she has tapped into something, and has steeled herself for the fallout, both public and private. In this respect, she is so very like her indefatigable father.

Before the rally in Saint-Quentin, there are reports that anti-fascist demonstrators might have infiltrated the crowds queuing up on the main square to watch Le Pen. Backstage after her speech, while FN activists sip champagne from white plastic cups, she sits nonchalantly on the dressing table, swinging her legs and puffing on an electronic cigarette. Three satsumas are perched inside her open black handbag. Does she ever worry about her own safety? With a chillingly steady gaze, she replies: “I am impermeable to fear.”

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