Face to face with the far right: meeting Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen, leader of ‘Le Front National’ Photo: Reuters

Perhaps it’s her very reasonableness that makes her dangerous. I don’t know, but Marine Le Pen has certainly put a rather charming face on a particularly uncharming party.

The meeting of ‘Le Front National’ was in a smallish room in an unfashionable district of North-Eastern Paris, her audience entirely white (though, without a trace of irony, all those securing the venue for her were black); everything about it reeked of respectability. None of the accoutrements one has come to expect of gatherings of the far right were in evidence: the shaven heads, the air-cushioned boots, neither insignia nor regalia.

I saw a fair bit of demagoguery on this visit to France - angry anti-immigrant rhetoric, the waving of arms and recitation of grievances against supposed threats to the French way of life, the baying for more from a large and excitable crowd waving hundreds of French ‘tricoleurs’. But that had been the night before, at Nicolas Sarkózy’s rally in Nancy.

Marine Le Pen has changed the style, if not the substance of the party of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. She has given it a veneer of respectability and more importantly, acceptability. It was only 10 years ago that her unreconstructed father caused a ‘tremblement de terre’ in the French body politic by beating the hapless socialist Lionel Jospin into third place, and giving the French people an unedifying choice between the right and the far right in the second round. Which is why, this time, his telegenic and more softly-spoken daughter was thought to be in with a real chance of beating a deeply unpopular Sarkózy for a place in the run-off. It hasn’t worked out like that at all.

Marine Le Pen has changed the style, if not the substance of the party of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen Credit: Reuters

In our brief interview she predicted that we (the press in particular) were all in for a big surprise come polling day, but this was just boiler-plate politico-speak for ‘I know this has all gone wrong but somehow I have to keep going until the end’. She’s failing for two reaons: Sarkózy has parked his tanks firmly on her lawn, and she has singularly failed to sound serious on the economy.

Le Pen is clearly pretty bitter about Sarkózy. “There was a once a con-man who sold the Eiffel Tower”, she said. “And he sold it not once, but twice”. What she means is that Sarkózy won last time on a promise to tackle immigration and crime and the ‘threat’ of Islam. He then spent five years doing nothing about it whatsoever, but here he is trying to pull the same trick again. And, worst of all, he seems to be succeeding.

Marine Le Pen is clearly pretty bitter about Nicolas Sarkózy Credit: Reuters

The ‘Front National’ may not have been as vulnerable to having their most popular policies stolen from under them if they had spent the last few years sounding even vaguely serious about the economy. It’s the subject that dominates almost any national election anywhere in the world, and after two years of the Euro-crisis no one would expect France in 2012 to be any different. But her response to recent events has been been to advocate a return to protectionism, a French departure from NATO, renunciation of the authority of the European court and an immediate exit from the Euro. This might go down well to a Daily Mail reading audience in the UK, but one of the features of this recent crisis is that European institutions are still widely seen on the continent as being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. That is undoubtedly still true in France.

So, much of Le Pen’s speech yesterday was spent denouncing the evils of the financial markets in general and of overpaid financiers in particular, offering populist and popular bromides to tackle the ills of modern capitalism, but it all sounded deeply unserious. She has freely admitted that she knows little of economics, but says that she has brought in very good people to handle all of that. So far there is little evidence of them or their ideas. It’s not so much an achilles heel as huge target pinned to her chest saying “hit me here, this is my weak spot”.

The result is that rather than challenging for second place in this election, she is fighting not to slip to fourth or even fifth place behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far-left and François Bayrou coming up in the centre-ground. To lose to Mélenchon, the leader of what is, in effect, the reconstituted French Communist party, would be a particular humiliation, and possibly fatal to Le Pen’s claim to be leading a serious political force. Sarkózy may not be the only French politician facing the end of their political career in this election.