Armed with an arsenal of barbs, low-blows and ripostes, the top two female candidates in the 2012 French presidential race have been waging a war of words in recent days, setting the stage for a perfect media storm.
Politically, Marine Le Pen, the 43-year-old leader of France’s far-right National Front, and Eva Joly, the 68-year-old Green Party candidate, stand on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum.
Personally, the two women have little in common. The youngest daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, the younger Le Pen was born in the upscale Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine and grew up in the French rightwing political establishment.
Norwegian-born Joly came to France as a 20-year-old au pair in the early 1960s before rising to become one of France’s best-known investigative judges, famed for tackling corruption among the business and political elite.
With her trademark red glasses, Joly is a household name in France and French viewers have grown accustomed to her Norwegian accent. When she won her party’s primary race earlier this year, Joly, who holds joint Norwegian-French nationality, became the first dual national to run for the French presidency.
The latest hostilities have seen the two women airing political and personal differences in speeches and on the airwaves.
The first salvo was fired by Le Pen on December 19 during a visit to a Christmas market on the majestic Champs-Elysées in Paris.
In a speech focused on French-made products and re-industrialising the economy, Le Pen said Joly lacked legitimacy since she was an “SPF”–an acronym for the French “sans patrie fixe,” or without a fixed country.
‘Every time Eva Joly opens her mouth, it turns into a gaffe’
The very next day, Le Pen took her jibes a step further on a French radio station. This time, Le Pen accused Joly of being a Francophobe, or a person who hates France and French culture.
“All her proposals are delusional and are often Francophobic. [Eva Joly] regularly expresses her hostility toward all things patriotic,” said Le Pen on Europe 1.
“Every time Eva Joly opens her mouth, it turns into a gaffe,” Le Pen continued. “One wonders why is she running for the French presidential office when clearly everything French makes her bristle.”
The National Front leader then proceeded to explain why she believed Joly was a Francophobe, enumerating themes familiar to the French public. The diatribe included allegations that Joly “wants to scrap July 14”–when France marks its National Day–and that the Green Party candidate has criticised the xenophobic underpinning of the “made in France” slogan that has turned into a campaign buzzword for many French presidential candidates.
Earlier this year, Joly sparked a controversy when she suggested that the July 14 Bastille Day military march should be replaced by a civilian parade. Her suggestion saw members of the ruling UMP party–including French Prime Minister François Fillon–chastising her for “not being French enough” as well as calls for her to “go back to Norway”.
The July 14 fracas proved embarrassing for Fillon when the media noted that Joly gained French citizenship in 1967, before Fillon–then 13–had even left school. Joly herself, appeared to have the last word with a witty comeback, when she told Fillon that she had “not just stepped off the Viking ship”.
‘I’m the only one to have chosen France’
Never one to be outwitted, Joly’s reply came the very next day on the same radio station. And it was as quick as it was biting.
“I chose France, I have lived in France for nearly 50 years, I’m the only one to have chosen France,” said Joly before going in for the kill. “It’s not for the daughter of a millionaire, an heiress to a party, heir to a torturer in Algeria, to decide who is French or not,” she added.
A former lieutenant in the French Army during France’s brutal Algerian War (1954-1962), the senior Le Pen has been accused of practising torture in the former French colony. The National Front founder has vehemently denied the charges although he lost a defamation suit against leading French daily “Le Monde” over the accusations and in another case, a French court ruled that it was legitimate for three other French publications to publish these assertions.
Needless to say, the Algerian War is a sensitive topic in the Le Pen household and Joly’s latest barb is quite likely to spark another round of verbal hostilities from her opponent on the far right. All of which will make for a lively campaign season.