Le Pen’s Moment

Philip Gourevitch, New Yorker, January 10, 2015

“We’ve been predicting this for a long time,” Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the French radical-right National Front party, said on Wednesday, shortly after the massacre at the Paris office of the radical-left satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. “It was to be expected. This attack is probably the beginning of the beginning. It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism. The blindness and deafness of our leaders, for years, is in part responsible for these kinds of attacks.”

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Le Pen, the former fascist street fighter, relishes his role as a scourge of the establishment as much as the former Communist street fighters of Charlie Hebdo did, and he has always delighted in an opportunity to taunt his adversaries and critics. When I wrote about him in 1997, I reported that he had asked me, “What do I have to do not to be racist? Marry a black woman? With AIDS, if possible?” After the article appeared, he wrote to the magazine, complaining that, as “an Anglo-Saxon,” I had missed the Gallic subtlety of his wit: he had not said “une noire,” a black woman, but “un noir,” a black man.

The cover story of the issue of Charlie Hebdo released on the day of the massacre was about the author Michel Houellebecq and his new novel, “Submission,” a political fiction that describes the takeover of France by an Islamist party in the 2022 elections, following a tight runoff race against the National Front’s current leader, Marine Le Pen (who in reality took the party’s reins from her father four years ago).

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[N]obody in France needed Houellebecq’s novel, or Jean-Marie Le Pen’s I-told-you-so, to recognize at once that the terror played directly to the National Front’s advantage. Whereas Le Pen, the father, was content for most of his career to rattle the political order as a protest candidate, Marine is hellbent on remaking that order in her own image.

“You’re looking for a place at the table,” I said when I met her four years ago, while reporting on Sarkozy’s collapsing Presidency.

“You’re right,” she said. “I’m looking especially for the Presidency of the table.” She laughed. “That’s right,” she said, and added, “It’s true today that we’re in a phase of accession to power.”

Since then, Le Pen’s popularity, and her share of votes, has only increased, and she has managed to present her agenda–anti-European Union, anti-immigrant, anti-euro–as approaching the mainstream, even as she cherishes her status as an outsider, untainted by the past twenty years of deepening French political crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Wednesday, as traffic surged on her Facebook page and she picked up thousands of new followers, she did nothing special to insert herself into the story or to exploit the fears that the Front has long fed on. She reiterated her longstanding call for France to withdraw, unilaterally and at once, from the Schengen Agreement, which allows for open borders within the extended European community, but that was hardly newsworthy. Rather, Le Pen appeared to adopt the time-tested opposition strategy of waiting for the political establishment to make a misstep that would turn attention her way–and she did not have to wait long. Within hours of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the ruling Socialists and a coalition of allied parties of the left announced plans for a massive solidarity rally on Sunday–a silent march through the heart of Paris in the cause of “national unity”–without extending an invitation to the National Front.

The exclusion of the Front was great news for Le Pen. Nobody believed that she would have wanted to go and be associated with the political mainstream, but, by failing to invite her, the Socialists had given her a cudgel. “I don’t intend to submit myself to this blackmail,” she told Le Monde. “It’s a total perversion of the concept of national union. They’ll have to accept the consequences from the voters.” She went on, “This whole thing is a way of pushing aside the only political movement that has no responsibility in the present situation, along with its millions of voters. All the other parties are deathly afraid. They’re thinking of their little elections and their little mandates. Their old reflexes that have frozen political life for twenty years and that dug the chasm between those who govern and the people. If I’m not invited, I’m not going to insist. It’s an old trap. The slightest incident and they’ll say it’s my fault.”

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On Friday morning, President Hollande included Marine Le Pen on the roster of national leaders he summoned to the Élysée Palace for consultations, in the name, again, of “unity.” But Hollande pointedly declined, in their face-to-face meeting, to invite her to the march on Sunday. Meanwhile, his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls–like Hollande, a Socialist–kept the controversy alive by announcing that he had invited Sarkozy to the march. When Libération pressed him on whether he would also extend an offer to the National Front, Valls scoffed at the question. “Are the families of Charlie Hebdo supposed to march with Marine Le Pen?” he asked, seeming to forget for the moment that they were going to march with leaders of nearly every other social and political element that the martyred cartoonists had reviled. In fact, Stéphane Charbonnier, Charlie Hebdo’s late editor, had rebuked the government when it tried to block an Islamic demonstration, saying that his censorious adversaries should have the same freedom of expression that he had.

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