France’s far-right Front National has been enjoying a renaissance since Marine Le Pen was elected party leader this year. She is credited with bringing a softer, more feminine image to the party, founded in the 1970s by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose notorious leitmotifs were xenophobia and support for the death penalty.
Marine Le Pen, 43, a candidate in next year’s presidential election, likes to claim she has “de-demonised” the party. “When you see how I am approached by people in the street and treated with kindness and affection, even among those who don’t vote for me, you can see that in the space of 10 years things have changed enormously,” she said.
“Of course some people say I’m the soft face of the devil, or Jean-Marie mark two, and suggest that nothing has changed, but that’s their only way of maintaining the wall to keep us out. If that falls, then we will be elected and they know that.” Others counter that the changes are purely cosmetic. Capital punishment, and halting immigration are still on the agenda, and the Jews have been replaced by Muslims and Islam as targets in a manifesto that is a melting pot of patriotism, protectionism, state regulation and re-industrialisation.
“It’s the politics of scapegoating and always has been,” says Nonna Mayer, an expert on France’s far right, and professor at Paris’ Institute of Political Studies.
Mayer says Marine Le Pen is good at getting her message across, “much better than her father”, but says this has its limits. “Her weakness is that she and the party are still seen as the extreme right. She’s not antisemitic or obsessed with the war like her father, but it’s still the extreme right. There’s no getting away from it.”
The Le Pen factor has been a wildcard in French politics for nearly a decade. In 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen caused a political earthquake when he defeated the Socialist candidate in the first round of the presidential election, losing in the second round runoff to Jacques Chirac.
The party’s star waned afterwards, but Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-of-centre government picked up some of its ideas after he was elected in 2007. When Sarkozy sent riot police with teargas to dismantle Roma gipsy camps in the summer of 2010 and banned Muslims from praying in the streets just weeks after Le Pen likened the sight to the Nazi occupation, it seemed clear some far-right ideas had entered mainstream policy.
Polls a few months ago gave Marine Le Pen support of 22-23%, more than Sarkozy, who hit a low of less than 20%. Although support for her has dropped to 16-17% recently., she is still on a high.