Le Pen fille wants to make fascism a family business

Marine Le Pen is the pretender to her father's National Front throne. As she prepares to stand for election in Paris tomorrow, John Lichfield reports on the modern face of the French far right
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The Independent Online

Father and daughter march into the hall, arm-in-arm, with matching, melon-slice smiles. The warm-up - "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and French popular tunes from the 1930s - gives way to portentous Wagnerian chants, dramatic light effects and to the rhythmic baying of the frontistes.

Father and daughter march into the hall, arm-in-arm, with matching, melon-slice smiles. The warm-up - "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and French popular tunes from the 1930s - gives way to portentous Wagnerian chants, dramatic light effects and to the rhythmic baying of the frontistes.

"Le-Pen-Le-Pen-Le-Pen-Le-Pen." Everyone says that Marine Le Pen is a dead ringer for Jean-Marie, her dear old dad. Her estranged mother, Pierrette, calls her youngest daughter "le clone". There is a clear family resemblance: the jutting chin, the pompous stiff-legged walk, the wrestler's physique.

As they stand together on stage, there is also something softer, less vulgar, less brutal, about Marine, 34. With her long, loose, blonde hair, her rumpled, charcoal suit and her pink T-shirt, she might be a young businesswoman or a teacher. Imagine the actor, Stephen Fry, in drag.

This is the last big, far-right rally before the first round of the French regional elections tomorrow - Marine Le Pen's first solo flight in politics. She is the standard-bearer for the National Front - papa's party and the Le Pen family business - in the greater Paris area, the Ile-de-France, which is not the most fertile ground for Lepennism.

It is her first big, political trial: the test of whether she can emerge as a new force within the party, and eventually, its leader: someone who can give the NF a life after Jean-Marie, and a more moderate and modern image.

Fascism with a pretty face? Nationwide, everything looks good for the NF, two years after Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked France and the world by reaching the second round of the presidential elections (only to be steam-rollered 82 to 18 per cent by Jacques Chirac and a wave of national revulsion in the second round).

True, M. Le Pen managed to get himself kicked off the ballot paper in the Marseilles-Nice area last month after he failed to prove that he had any local connections. The old immigrant-baiter was declared an illegal immigrant in his own country.

Nonetheless, the final opinion polls put the nationwide score of the NF tomorrow at around 14 to 16 per cent. The NF usually out-polls the polls by two or three points. The anti-immigrant, anti-European, anti-American party will not win any regional governments in the second round next Sunday but it will probably do well enough to hand serial victories to the left and humiliate the centre-right President, M. Chirac, and his Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Everything favours a big far right (and significant far left) headline score tomorrow: economic downturn; the Islamist terrorist threat to Europe; renewed talk of corruption within M. Chirac's party; opposition to the modest economic and social reforms attempted by M. Raffarin; low turnout through indifference towards politics and especially regional politics.

Above all, M. Raffarin - who presented himself as a man of " La France d'en bas", the little people - has failed to reverse the growing conviction of a swath of the working and lower middle classes that France is run by, and for, a narrow, Parisian elite.

In the long term, the result which may matter most is Marine Le Pen's in the Ile-de-France. For years now, haters of Le Pen Snr (and 77 to 85 per cent of French people regularly say that they cannot stand him) have clung to one unalterable statistic: M. Le Pen's age. He is 76 in June. He will be 78 at the next presidential election (a little old, even for the gerontocratic politics of France).

Without him, everyone once agreed - inside the Front and outside - it would be difficult to keep the extraordinary coalition of mutually hating tribes within the NF together: the Vichy sentimentalists; the Algérie Française die-hards; the extreme conservative Catholics; the royalists; the anti-EU sovereigntists; the pagan white supremacists; the covert neo-Nazis; the jew-haters; the Arab-haters; the ex-Communist blue-collar workers; and the small shop-keepers.

M. Le Pen's nominal number two, Bruno Gollnisch, is a charisma-free academic, who could not cause an explosion in a fireworks factory. M. Le Pen's one-time deputy, Bruno Mégret, who was kicked out and formed his own party five years ago, has virtually disappeared without trace.

In the past two years, a new, and unexpected, pretender has emerged to Le Pen's throne - Marine.

To the fury of M. Gollnisch and many others on the traditionalist wings of the party, the youngest of Le Pen's three daughters, the toughest, the most politically talented, has been pushed, partly by herself, partly by dad, to the front of the stage.

Marine is detested by many people within the NF. She is a woman in a man's party in a country where women have rarely prospered in politics. She is a divorcée. She has dangerously liberal views on some things. (She is pro-abortion, pro-contraception and vaguely pro-European).

She chooses not to push all the old, anti-Semitic, racist buttons, coded or otherwise, manipulated by her father (although she pushes some).

Marine once said: "I am not far right. Far right is ... the people with small brains, who like to wear grey-green uniforms and big boots and hate anyone who does not have a white skin." It is Marine's declared intention to make the NF respectable, to de-demonise it; to bring it into the 21st century; to give a veneer of coherence to its incoherent programme of big tax cuts and vastly increased spending (on whites only). She wants to move into the territory occupied by M. Chirac's centre-right party, the UMP, and destroy it. At a minimum, she wants the NF to copy the Italian and Austrian far right and become younger, more plausible and better dressed.

On this night, in a modern hall on the far southern outskirts of Paris, it is Marine who speaks first. She is no great orator. If anything she quietens the hall. She speaks about the issues in the Ile-de-France: taxes and trams, social allowances and transport strikes. And immigration. Immigration. Immigration.

Marine cites all monetary figures, without apology, in euros. Papa still never talks in anything but francs.

After 30 minutes it's dad's show. He abandons the lectern and prowls up and down the stage, like an American TV preacher or a stand-up comic. He is by turns funny, violent, vulgar and self-pitying. The speech is mostly not about the Ile-de-France, nor even about France, but about Le Pen; his persecution by the political elite; his scandalous exclusion from the ballot in the south.

Then, abruptly, and adroitly, he predicts the "Third World War". The train bombings in Madrid are, he declares, the first "skirmishes" in a war which will leave as many casualties as the First World War. This time the enemy lies within, in the enclosed, communities of Islamic immigrants, ready to break out at any moment and "sow desolation" in France. The rally, excited again, roars its approval.

Later that night, it is Marine who appears on a television news show, charming, convincing and calm. M. Le Pen, although compelling on stage, is generally poor on the screen, like a bad-tempered bull-dog. He has appeared little on television during this campaign.

Marine Le Pen was born in 1970 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a rich, western, inner suburb of Paris. At the time her father was a political curiosity who wore a pirate's eye-patch. He was a marginal and much-jeered figure who kept the flame of far-right opinion just about alive during the 1950s and 1960s when Gaullist nationalism and state interventionism presided over France's remarkable recovery from the Second World War.

His big breakthrough came in the European elections in 1984, when Marine was just 14. Two years later, her mother, Pierrette, left home. The three daughters stuck with dad. Her eldest sister, Marie-Caroline, was already 24, her middle sister, Yann, was 21. It was Marine, 16, who spent most time with her father and came most directly under his influence.

"I never had a crisis of adolescence. I never rejected my father or my mother," she once said. "Then my mother left in disgusting conditions, which dragged us all through the mud. That's when my adolescent crisis came." In 1986, in the midst of a general election, Marine's mother, Pierrette Le Pen, in an act of revenge, posed naked for the centre-fold of the French Playboy.

It was at that moment, Marine says, that she formed the "shell" that she needed to make her own career in politics. Her older sister, Marie-Caroline, was also attracted to a political career but deserted dad five years ago when her husband became part of Bruno Megret's NF breakaway party. The sisters remain bitterly divided.

Marine originally chose a career in the law. As a young, on-duty lawyer, she was once allocated the case of an Algerian immigrant, fighting deportation, and won. She cites this case today as an example of her racial tolerance.

Her law practice failed to prosper, largely she says, because no one wanted to consult a Le Pen. In 1998, she became the chief legal adviser to the NF.

Marine married a lawyer and has three children, five-year-old Jehanne (the real name of Joan of Arc, an official NF heroine) and four-year-old twins, Louis and Mathilde. She and her husband split three years ago and she re-married an obscure National Front official called Eric Iorio.

Marine Le Pen first emerged as a political figure in her own right with a series of confident television appearances during the presidential and parliamentary election campaigns two years ago. Her rise has been resisted, up to a point, by party apparatchiks and even grassroots party members, who reduced her from 10th to 36th in popular ranking in the national committee at the NF conference in Nice last year.

With her father's help, and the support of a band of other "modernists" in the party, Marine has continued to ascend, nonetheless. One of her backers on the national committee, Jean-Pierre Schenardi, says that the survival of the NF depends now, not on Jean-Marie, but on Marine.

"We can't let the old guard, welded to ideological, philosophical or religious attitudes, hold us back. Otherwise, we will end up meeting in a telephone box," he said.

Even before the present campaign, Marine had been wooing business leaders - up to two dinners a week - to explain that the NF is changing and was never as bad as the hated media portrayed it. With her warm smile and her barmaid's self-deprecating laugh - she loves especially to joke about her own size - Marine goes down well in small gatherings.

The more extreme NF positions, she implies at such meetings - even the pledge to take France out of the EU - could be negotiable.

Does her moderate, modern exterior hide a moderate, modern interior, as many NF die-hards fear? Marine Le Pen says that she is a nationalist, rather than a racist. Much of what she says could, if you switched the word "immigrant" for "asylum-seeker", appear in a Daily Mail or Daily Express editorial.

But occasionally the mask slips. Throughout this election campaign, Marine has said that 95 per cent of immigrants in France are unemployed. The real figure is 20 per cent. Marine's particular area of responsibility in the NF is the youth movements. The Front National de la Jeunesse is run by one of Marine's greatest supporters, Samuel Maréchal, her brother-in-law, husband of her self-effacing older sister, Yann. (The NF truly is a family business).

Every young person who came to the Paris rally this week was handed a little brown plastic bag on behalf of the Marine Le Pen and Samuel Maréchal's youth movement. Each little bag contained a copy of the NF youth magazine Agir, with an article about "superior races". It also contained four posters.

One showed a skinhead threatening immigrants,carrying a baseball bat, holding a pit-bull by the collar. The caption was "You are fucking France ... Clear off!" Another poster said "End immigration" and had a crude cartoon of a half-Bin Laden, half-Jewish-looking figure in a fez.

The others showed a blonde, blue-eyed young woman and a blonde blue-eyed baby, presented as typical ethnic French people, threatened with unemployment because of immigration.

Marine is blonde and blue-eyed. Few French people are. A strange obsession with Aryan purity lies only just behind the veneer of modernity in Marine Le Pen's de-demonised National Front.

Her declared medium-term aim (before or after Jean-Marie bows from the scene) is to attract young votes, and, crucially, women's votes, and make the National Front the single largest party in France.

People who know the NF well from the inside say that the problem for Marine, and the party, is the same as it has always been. It cannot move forward (even under camouflage) without provoking civil war between the tribes within its own ranks.

The core of the party, or several cores of the party, are more committed to their fundamentalist beliefs - whether extreme Catholic conservatism or scarcely disguised racism - than they are interested in gaining political power.

Marine may be good at sound-bites and TV chat shows, insiders say, but she does not have the brutal charisma needed to keep the NF together.

On the other hand, Marine has several blessings. She has her surname, her looks, her age, a quick mind and - above all - the dismal quality of most mainstream politicians in France (with the exception of the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy).

A good score as head of the list in the Paris area tomorrow will establish Marine, not just as a force in the NF but as a new force in French politics.