Neo-Nazis No Longer? Marine Le Pen Tones Down France's Far Right

The father of the French far-right National Front Party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a famously Holocaust-minimizing (he called the Nazi occupation of France "not particularly inhumane"), anti-immigrant and anti-European Union leader, is teetering toward retirement. But not before the National Front has yet another phoenix-like return from sworn obsolescence. 

Political commentators throughout the middle of the last decade promised that the tough immigration policies of President Nicholas Sarkozy (at times so aggressive they seem pulled directly from the playbook of the extreme right) would siphon off voters from the right-wing margins and bring them under the umbrella of the center-right mainstream. Indeed, Sarkozy's controversial anti-burqa law (and fines that have already gone into affect) is believed to be meant to appease the rabid right wing. But while many far-right voters supported Sarkozy in the last elections, in the regional elections last month, the National Front surged ahead in the French rural areas, dampening any talk of their imminent demise.

Part of that success may be because the National Front has spent the last few years regrouping, reconsidering its position, and gently maneuvering a newer, younger, and, frankly, more beautiful face into the limelight. That new face belongs to Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, and an elected member of the European Union Parliament for the last six years. "[S]he is widely expected to succeed Jean-Marie Le Pen as leader of the National Front, the persistent far-right party preaching French purity and exceptionalism, opposing immigration and the European Union, and which she wants to bring into the media age. More and more, she is the face of the party in television debates and national campaigning," The New York Times wrote last week. "She sees herself as having a destiny now, if not one so lofty as that of the party's emblem, Joan of Arc, chosen by Mr. Le Pen as a symbol of French sanctity and resistance to invaders."

In fact, Marine Le Pen, 41, has been jockeying for position behind her father for some years now, softening the image of the National Front with support for gay rights, women's rights, and, perhaps more surprisingly, given the history of the National Front, an outstretched hand to the Jewish community. (Whether they shake back is another story.)

As Anton Pelinka, professor of political science and nationalism studies at the Central European University in Budapest, and director of the Institute of Conflict Research in Vienna, told me a few years ago, "Europe has to be much more careful [than the United States] with respect to right-wing extremism, and for that reason, right-wing extremists claim to be something else -- they claim to be much more moderate than they are in reality."

About five years ago, Marine began outspokenly condemning attacks on Jews by North African youth. "The French Jewish community, who are increasingly victims of attacks by Islamic radicals, should be able to turn to us for support," she told the Jerusalem Report in January 2005. It was a way of distancing herself from the other potential heir apparent to the head of the National Front, Bruno Gollnisch, a man who openly questioned the numbers of dead in the Holocaust -- a means of minimizing the tragedy. 

Marine also petitioned to march with the Jewish community of France after Ilan Halimi, a young Sephardi mobile phone salesman, was tortured and murdered by a rogue band of Muslim immigrants in January 2006. At first she was turned down, but some months later she marched alongside mainstream politicians in protest of the murder. 

Le Pen's Pushing back against the image of anti-Semitism -- the British press has reported that Marine was furious with her father for his continued anti-Semitic outbursts -- has been a smart move politically. Marine Le Pen knows well that the taint of anti-Semitism can roll back progress for a far-right party. "To be openly anti-Semitic," Anton Pelinka, the Austrian political scientist said, "even in Austria, could be the end of a political career" because of Europe's brutal 20th century history of the Holocaust. It has certainly marginalized her father – and by extension herself. She calls herself a victim "collateral damage," from fallout around her father and her party's anti-Semitic statements.

Le Pen, la fille, has also spoken openly against both the hijab, or veil, and the burqa; she often makes what might be called a feminist argument for extreme right-wing politics – even though the far right has roots in conservative gender roles and Marine Le Pen herself -- twice divorced and a working woman -- is not particularly traditional. Of Muslim immigrants, "They have to adapt to our values," Marine Le Pen told me when I met her in the spring of 2006. We were at the headquarters of the National Front, in a suburb of Paris. "But our Republic must not adapt itself to Islam. Because some values do exist which are, effectively, contrary or opposite to ours. Equality between men and women is non-negotiable." She continued, "There are dozens of countries in the world that apply Sharia. But us, we will not change. You like it, or you don't like it. But you cannot [for example] attack a gay man because he is gay. Those, those are the values of France."

It is the traditional expression of National Front xenophobia on the one hand, and totally mainstream, on the other. Who on the left would argue against the point about gay men? Or equality between the sexes? That said, the context, purposefully, makes many uneasy. But that is the savvy oratory of the younger Le Pen.

"In France," Le Pen said, speaking in rapid French made husky by years of smoking, "our republic, our schools are facing pressure from radical and Islamist organizations. Teachers find it more and more difficult in some places to talk about the Holocaust. They can no longer evoke Darwin. Seriously! We cannot learn English. Because English is the language of imperialism. It is against this that we are fighting and that we accuse the French political class of having left this . . . to develop. To have done nothing to preserve our Republic and to firmly reaffirm the principles of the French Republic."

Knowing how the far right is perceived in French politics -- in other words, badly, at best -- Marine has continued to work to better her image. It particularly galled Le Pen the younger, a lawyer by training, as she watched the encroachment of then-interior minister and now-President Nicholas Sarkozy onto the traditional territory of the National Front. "We were the first to raise the alarm on globalization and its consequences," Le Pen told me. "We were the only ones to put in the center of the debate the problem of immigration by saying that the big influx of migrants was going to be theproblem of the 21st century," she complained. "Some in the political class are looking to take over the branches of this debate for electoral reasons . . . I think they are saying the same thing we are saying to prevent us from saying it."

In 2006, Marine Le Pen launched a remake of her identity: by presenting, French style, a book, "A Contre Flots-- Against the Tide – and revealing, Oprah style, a weight loss and a new, more glamorous appearance. She is slim and nearly 6 feet tall. When we met she wore jeans and a filmy silk shirt. It is very unusual for a French politician to be so casually dressed when she meets with a journalist. Politicians are a class of people who favor well-tailored suits.

Marine Le Pen is seen as a softer alternative to the old guard of the far right. But there are those who question her Islamophobia, masked as feminism, and her attempts to modernize what has always been a bogeyman at the margins of French society. As Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far right in France and a researcher at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégique, told me a few weeks after I met Madame Le Pen: "People on the far right say Europe is no longer Europe, it is becoming something new, colonized by Islam and the values of Islam. This is a massive fear, not only on the extreme right, but among average people. This gives fuel to the extreme right." Marine Le Pen draws on that fear, normalizes it, and channels it as she jockeys for position at the helm of the National Front.