"FUCK MLP.” The graffiti on the building gate, signed by Antifa, is the first indication of the passions provoked by the person behind it. Marine Le Pen’s public depictions range from a modern-day avatar of Joan of Arc to a rancid bigot masquerading as a moderate. Say her name, and people react with fervor: they may despise her, they may revere her, but nobody is indifferent to her.
“Many French people have the feeling that they have known me forever because they saw me growing up,” Marine Le Pen tells me in her second-floor office. Dressed in an...
“FUCK MLP.” The graffiti on the building gate, signed by Antifa, is the first indication of the passions provoked by the person behind it. Marine Le Pen’s public depictions range from a modern-day avatar of Joan of Arc to a rancid bigot masquerading as a moderate. Say her name, and people react with fervor: they may despise her, they may revere her, but nobody is indifferent to her.
“Many French people have the feeling that they have known me forever because they saw me growing up,” Marine Le Pen tells me in her second-floor office. Dressed in an oat-white suit jacket, navy blouse and black trousers, she is striking and charismatic in person: tall, handsome, genial and curious.
As we talk, Le Pen puffs on an electronic cigarette. Her spacious office, lit like a television set, is littered with the props of French patriotism: a marble bust of Marianne, the symbol of the republic, modeled on the actress Brigitte Bardot; a tricolore flag; an antique desk. She expresses concern for Queen Elizabeth, whose Covid diagnosis is in the news when we meet. “She’s a fighter,” Le Pen says. “One can only have respect for the Queen.”
At fifty-three, the scion of Europe’s most notorious political dynasty has arrived at the realization that the electorate which has followed her since she was five has only a “poor” understanding of who she really is. The stoicism and stolidity that have made it possible for her to endure years of personal abuse have also allowed her to be defined by others. Now, making her third bid for the French presidency, the previously familiar yet impassive Le Pen says she is determined to open up and “show the French who I am.” The question is, are they willing to look?
A few weeks before our meeting, Le Pen made a deeply personal pitch at a meeting of her party — recently rechristened the National Rally to purge the neofascist odor of its former name, National Front — at a rally in northern France. She recalled the experiences that shaped her. In 1976, when Le Pen was eight, her family’s home in the 15th arrondissement of Paris was bombed with explosives so powerful that they tore apart the building’s façade. It’s a miracle that anyone survived. But what haunted Le Pen, the youngest of three sisters, into adulthood was the response of France’s haute société cultivée: rather than concern, the insiders and sophisticates radiated contempt for the survivors of a terrorist attack. The unspoken message was that her family deserved what it got — and it deserved it because the head of the family and Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, happened also to be the National Front’s founder and president.
That pedigree both stifled and molded Le Pen. At school, she was shunned and stigmatized by tutors and parents for her father’s politics. She was never invited to her friends’ homes, and they were forbidden from visiting hers, which, for all its outward flamboyance, was falling apart inside. Not long after their home was bombed, the Le Pens relocated to a palatial mansion on a ridge in the private billionaires’ row of Montretout. The house was bequeathed to Le Pen père by an heirless cement baron who also left him his immense fortune. The neighbors held their noses at the new arrivals.
The “small humiliations” that characterized Le Pen’s childhood culminated in the private “violence” of separation at the age of sixteen when her mother, Pierrette, a woman of model-good looks, left her husband for a journalist and later posed for Playboy. Le Pen was so wounded that she could not bring herself to see her mother until she was in her thirties. By then, Le Pen herself was divorced and raising three children as a single parent while practicing law at the Paris bar. Raised a devout Catholic, she had grown accustomed to being taunted by her father’s enlightened critics for betraying the “family values” he preached to others.
She drifted into politics, she told me, to rise above the attacks and to fight for “something more important.” Her name was a gift — she rose rapidly in her father’s party — but also a handicap. In 2012, Le Pen’s first run for the presidency of the Fifth Republic ended in a distant third-place finish. At the last election, five years ago, she lost in a run-off vote against Emmanuel Macron who, despite being a relative unknown, secured his historic victory in no small measure because his opponent was named Le Pen. The prospect of a Le Pen landing in the Élysée prompted traditionally left-wing voters to quarter-heartedly cast their ballot for Macron. His path to victory was animated not so much by hope in him as fear of his opponent. Once again, the “republican front” rallied against the outsider.
The National Front and the ascent of the Le Pens originated in a rebranding exercise in 1972, when Jean-Marie, a former parachutist who had fought in Indochina and French Algeria and served in the National Assembly, was invited by the far-right group Ordre nouveau to sanitize its reputation. To call what emerged from his takeover a coherent ideological movement or even a serious political party is to overthink its purpose. It was a swamp of rage, racism, resentment and antisemitic conspiracies: a ramshackle coalition of thwarted, mutually antagonistic intellectuals who theorized about the perils of miscegenation and published jargon-laden theses on subversive Jewish influence.
What held it all together was the pugilistic personality of its leader. Jean-Marie’s success lay not in winning elections — he got 0.74 percent of the vote when he first ran for the presidency in 1974 — but in converting, through toil and persistence, his prejudices into political issues. Over the next two decades, he not only built a formidable far-right party in submission to its leader, but also bequeathed a political dynasty to France.
As he aged, Jean-Marie’s penchant for provocation, particularly antisemitic provocation, became a burden for his party and family. He shrugged off the gas chambers as a minor detail, declared that the German occupation of France had not been “particularly inhumane,” welcomed Ebola as a solution to Africa’s population growth, and responded to a Jewish celebrity who criticized his party with a promise to “make a batch next time.”
When the philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff visited him in 2016, Jean-Marie, then eighty-eight and sitting by a calendar adorned with a bust of Vladimir Putin, dispensed a lecture on the intellectual gap between Europeans and Muslims: “Europeans’ intellectual progression forges ahead in a straight line, drops off slightly at thirteen, then continues in an upward trajectory. In the Muslim world, at eleven or twelve, bam! Everything suddenly stops.” Why, asked Eltchaninoff. “Masturbation,” answered Jean-Marie: “As Europeans, we are not prone to this obsession because of our religion… whereas among simple people it is let loose.”
Marine inherited the party’s leadership in 2011. Since then, Le Pen has pursued an arduous process of dédiabolisation — “de-demonizing” her party and her image — and oriented it toward the new populism. In his affecting memoir Returning to Reims (2018), the philosopher Didier Eribon writes about the “reconfiguration” that was occurring under the surface of French society — a metamorphosis ignored by elite political consensus. Eribon had grown up in a family that was miserably poor, occasionally violent, staunchly secular and unwaveringly communist. He left home as a young man, ashamed of his class origins. When he returned decades later, he discovered that the fashionably left-wing students of his youth were the new bourgeoisie, “defenders of a world perfectly suited to the people they had become.” His mother, meanwhile, abandoned by the left and still cleaning houses, had matured into a strident supporter of Marine Le Pen.
Many expected this year’s elections — the first round is on April 10 — to loft Le Pen into the Élysée, third time lucky. What made her presidency seem plausible was Macron’s barely concealed disdain for a substantial segment of his compatriots from the moment he took office. France’s aloof and self-cherishing president seldom squandered an opportunity to scoff at the “privileges” of the French working class. A millionaire former investment banker, he exhibited the kind of exasperation that comes naturally to people who believe they have figured everything out. A year after his election, when a young gardener explained to Macron his difficulty in finding work, there was no presidential empathy on offer: not even a perfunctory look of sympathy crossed Macron’s features. Instead, he blamed the gardener for his misfortune.
Despite the favorable climate, Le Pen struggled to procure the 500 signatures from elected representatives across France to qualify for the race. She had begun her appeal in September but was still a hundred short when I met her toward the end of February. Privately, she was being told by mayors that they wished to support her. But, because their signatures are made public, they feared reprisals from the government. “They all say ‘I’d like to sponsor you, but I’m afraid my grant will be taken away from me if I ever do’.” Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and the Socialist candidate, had more than 1200 signatures despite polling at under 2 percent — more endorsements from the establishment, the joke went in Paris, than the number of votes she would ever get from the public — but Le Pen’s candidacy was on the verge of being blocked.
“Despite the thickness of our skin, we suffer,” Le Pen tells me. “We suffer from attacks, we suffer from betrayal.” The betrayals have been piling up recently. In the days leading to our meeting, she sacked Nicolas Bay, one of her closest confidants and a regional councilor in Normandy, for apparently leaking campaign secrets to Éric Zemmour, who has outflanked her to the right on Islam and immigration.
Le Pen is contemptuous of Zemmour, a crotchety television pundit and author convicted by a court in January for inciting racial hatred (for the third time in a long career of provocation). Zemmour burst onto the electoral scene just when Le Pen’s outlook for victory seemed brightest. At the time of writing, Zemmour is polling behind Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election in April; in the second-round run-off against Macron, he trails her by ten points. Rather than treat him as a legitimate challenger, Le Pen regards him as an unfit interloper hyped up by the media to split the French right wing and derail her candidacy just when she has the chance to seize executive power.
“The emergence of Éric Zemmour is no coincidence,” she says, claiming that the French media has used Zemmour as an instrument to weaken her. He is, she says, “the only chance for Emmanuel Macron,” and has “barely hid” that fact. “His objective is not to win, but to make me lose.” Still, she appears disconcerted by the speed with which Zemmour was able to lure away some of her key supporters.
The defection that seems to have most unsettled her is of her niece, Marion Maréchal. Elected to the National Assembly in 2012 at the age of twenty-two — the youngest person ever to be voted to parliament in France’s republican history — Maréchal feuded with her aunt, retired from politics in 2017, retreated to Lyon and founded a school. She emerged last year, having shed her Le Pen surname, to endorse Zemmour.
Maréchal’s action, Le Pen tells me, plunged her “into an abyss of perplexity” for two reasons. First, because “there are very strong ties of affection between me and the little girl who was Marion, for whom I was very much present in the first years of her life.” Second, because Zemmour “cannot win this presidential election.” The polls back her claim that she, not Zemmour, is “best-placed to win against Emmanuel Macron,” and that Zemmour is “completely at the back of the pack of candidates who could possibly prevent Macron from being reelected” in the second round. Maréchal’s choice, she says, is “incomprehensible” on both counts.
However much Le Pen professes not to take Zemmour seriously, his entry raises a peculiar challenge for her. She has spent years revamping her political brand, stamping out the antisemitic fixations of her father’s generation and developing a politics that addresses the cultural anxieties of the right by deploying the secular vocabulary of the left. In 2015, she permanently expelled her own father from the party as punishment for another of his grotesque rhetorical forays into antisemitic territory. At that point her base, consolidated over decades, had nowhere else to go. Emancipated from the duty to endlessly pander to its prejudices, she was free to assail Macron from an anti-corporatist position. The ideology for which he stood, she said, “far exceeds mere globalization”: its objective is to “to encourage nomadism, the permanent movement of uprooted people from one continent to another, to make them interchangeable and, in essence, to render them anonymous.” These words were not so different from former British prime minister Theresa May’s exhortation that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
Le Pen spoke of and for the blue-collar communities abandoned by the chic ruling elites, and attacked the “Europeanist monster being built in Brussels, which defines itself, in a semantic fraud, as ‘Europe,’ but is nothing less than a conglomerate under American protection, the antechamber of a total, global world state.” Her philippics against immigration were accompanied by calls for the fortification of an equal citizenship predicated on the rule of law and assimilation, and her speeches liberally quoted from socialists and heroes of the Third Republic such as Clemenceau, Jaurès, and Zola. Anyone from anywhere, she told me, could be French, provided he or she merged into France.
When I asked her if Islam was compatible with Frenchness, her answer was emphatic and expansive: “Yes,” she said. “Nothing in Islam makes this religion incompatible. My fight is not a religious fight. My fight is a fight against Islamist ideology, which is a totalitarian ideology like Nazism. And this ideology is contrary to the French constitution. But once again, the Muslim religion is a religion like any other and I have no war to wage against a religion in France.”
In a country that has endured behead-ngs, stabbings, and mass shootings by self-proclaimed Islamists, her position, despite its allusion to the totalitarianism of the Third Reich, is not so radically different from Macron’s condemnation of “Islamist separatism.” Her belief that Islam, in its private religious form, is completely congruous with the French identity accords with French republican tradition. But now, after all her work to detoxify herself and her party, and after making considerable inroads into the left’s terrain, she faces the possibility of being deserted by her traditional voters. Zemmour’s astringent oratory, employed in service of his unapologetically sulfurous ultranationalism, is draining away supporters from her strongholds. His maiden presidential event, held on the same day as hers, drew a much larger crowd. And Macron’s reelection, which looked uncertain only weeks ago, is now being shored up by circumstances beyond France’s frontiers.
The shooting war in Ukraine, which erupted two days after I met Le Pen, suddenly rendered her acutely vulnerable to accusations of being a marionette of Vladimir Putin and his strongmen epigones in Eastern Europe. Macron engaged in high diplomacy at a long table in Moscow. He burnished his reputation, but failed to avert the war. That failure is of no help to Le Pen, who now looks suspiciously friendly to Putin.
In 2014, her party received loans from an obscure Russian aircraft parts company. Her current presidential campaign is financed by borrowings from a Hungarian bank. The reason she uses foreign financial institutions is that, despite guarantees from the French state to repay loans taken by political candidates who obtain a certain percentage of the vote, no French bank will touch her party. That detail, always little appreciated, cannot however wash away the public perception, especially in this febrile moment, that she is beholden to foreign authoritarians.
Le Pen does not adjust her opinions on this subject to suit the prevailing mood. When I ask her to name the leaders she most admires, she answers without hesitation: Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin. “I have respect for Vladimir Putin because he defends the interests of Russia,” she clarifies, adding that she also admires Angela Merkel for the same reason: Merkel may have gone against France, but she “defended the interests of Germany.”
Le Pen does not exude the same warmth for the current American leadership. She is coldly realistic in her assessment of relations with Washington. “I have a lot of friendship for the American people,” she says, but not so much for their leaders. When “they use the extraterritoriality of American law” to harry other states, “they go too far.” France must belong in neither camp, Le Pen believes, and should guard its interests by maintaining “relations that are at a respectful equidistance” with both Moscow and Washington. This is not a fringe view in French politics, which have always contained a thick streak of skepticism towards America, but the audience for it may have shrunk in recent weeks.
Once Russia launched its military campaign in Ukraine, Le Pen was one of the first to condemn it “in the strongest terms.” When I contacted her after our meeting, she told me that Russia’s conduct was “not defensible”; “the sovereignty of nations is not negotiable, the freedom of nations is not arguable.” She even offered assistance in taking refugees from Ukraine, while reiterating that she still believes in “independence, equidistance and constancy in our defense policy.”
From a prewar, pre-pandemic vantage point, 2022 looked, at least on paper, like Le Pen’s year. She had come out of her father’s shadow, effectively decapitating and banishing the old bigot into retirement. She had deodorized the family name to the best of her ability and instilled discipline into her party. She had cast herself convincingly into the role of the champion of the left-behinds and sublimated the neglected grievances of her supporters into a cohesive ideology to reclaim France.
Ludwig Knoepffler is a London-trained political scientist from a cosmopolitan family who recently left a lucrative career in the private sector to work for the National Rally. He told me that what drew him to Le Pen was not something grand but something rather basic: her unwillingness to give up. It’s wrong to believe that she is animated by a hunger for power, he told me. “She could have inherited a small world that worshiped her family name and remained confined to it,” an Asian diplomat who has interacted with her explained. “Instead, she rejected that world and chose to engage with the hostile universe” to “broaden her base.” Jean-Marie was a self-amusing provocateur who was never interested in winning power. “Marine is protective of the French people the same way a wolf mother is protective of her children,” Knoepffler told me. “That love makes her compassionate and kind, but also fierce and dangerous.”
Should Le Pen lose this election, an outcome that looks increasingly likely, she will have stacked up three consecutive defeats. If she makes it to the second round, she may survive. But before she can mount another campaign in five years’ time, when she will be fifty-eight—still young by the standards of French presidential elections—she will have to first unify a right-wing fractured by Zemmour, who appears determined to displace her as the champion of the left-behinds. Rather than directing a lofty fight from the presidential palace to protect what she calls “the interests of France,” she will be forced to wage intra-ideological trench warfare to preserve her party and its support base. She has done it before, and it would be foolhardy to bet against her ability to do it again. But even if she succeeds in that battle, she may ultimately have to cede the crown to the younger generation.
National Rally, for all its setbacks, is replete with new talent. Jordan Bardella, her pugnacious twenty-six-year-old deputy, is viewed by many as the next leader. His approach to politics is more reminiscent of Jean-Marie than Marine. So even if she quits the presidency of her party, her aides say that she will be forced by the party rank and file to stay on in an honorary role— if only to temper the destructive impulses of her “children” in the same way in which she tamed her father.“If she does not become queen,” a supporter of Le Pen’s told me, “she will at least end her career as a kingmaker.”
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s April 2022 World edition.