Marine le Pen: Mightier than her père?

Daughter of the Right lays out for John Lichfield the future course of a party she says was 'misunderstood'

Marine Le Pen was late back from lunch. This is a common condition among French politicians but very unusual for Marine Le Pen. She is known for being always on time and for being polite, charming and, unlike her father, difficult to dislike. She arrived "only" 20 minutes late. And she wanted the readers of The Independent to know that they had been misinformed for years about the National Front, which is, she says, not a racist party, or a xenophobic party, not even a far-right party but a "patriotic party" of neither left nor right.

If she takes over its leadership from her father in January (which she almost certainly will), she intends to "sweep away the caricatures" and transform the National Front from a party of protest into a "party of government". She said: "To exercise power is the objective of all politicians. The National Front is still a young party. We should now be ready to take a step upwards and have no fear of assuming responsibility. If the party does not want to win, I don't want to lead them. That wouldn't interest me. I'm not ready to settle for a permanent posture of complaint."

When she entered politics, Jean-Marie Le Pen's youngest daughter was a large and somewhat lumbering woman. She looked like Stephen Fry in drag. Ten years later, as she prepares to replace her father, 42-year-old Marine is slender, elegant and tanned. She wears a grey jacket, a grey blouse, tight blue jeans and high heels. Her supporters hope – and her enemies inside and outside the party fear – that she will achieve an equally startling transformation (or, in French, un re-looking radical) of the National Front.

Alain Duhamel, France's shrewdest political commentator, says: "Marine is just as demagogic as her father and even more dangerous. Jean-Marie Le Pen wanted only to be a player, to be noticed, to show off. Marine Le Pen wants to win and to rule."

Her 82-year-old father will retire as president of the National Front in January. A party conference will choose his successor from a short-list of two. The candidates are his bookish, grey, unreconstructed, hard-line deputy, Bruno Gollnisch, 60, and the youngest of his three, daughters, Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen, always known as "Marine". Jean-Marie, the founder and colossus of the party, has already made it known that he thinks that Marine will, and should, win.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who won the French Presidency in 2007 partly by reclaiming votes from the NF, is worried. His decision in July to make a theatrical link between foreigners and crime by declaring war on Roma immigrants from eastern Europe is admitted in the Elysée Palace to be part of an "anti-Marine" strategy.

But is her drive to "sweep away misconceptions" about theNF not, de facto, an attack on her dear old dad? She says that the media "demonised" the NF. But what about Jean-Marie Le Pen's own extremist statements over the years? (Too many black players in the France football team; immigration is a Jewish-led conspiracy to destroy France.)

That was then, she says. This is now. "It's true that, 30 years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen maybe used a few provocative remarks to make himself heard when the political and media classes would give no space to our ideas. There is no need to use such methods today because, in so many areas, the facts have proved that the National Front was right. On uncontrolled immigration. On the EU. On globalisation. On ultra-capitalism. Even President Sarkozy seems to agree with us on a number of subjects. We are now in a position where we can offer solutions, not just try to convince people that we have identified the right problems. That changes everything."

Marine Le Pen believes that not only in France, but all across Europe, the time is right for a less histrionic, more pragmatic form of populist nationalism. This would be anti-immigration but "not racist"; anti-EU but not anti-European; anti-globalisation but not anti-market. Every country is different, she says (as a good nationalist should) but the rise of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Gianfranco Fini in Italy and a middle class, populist right in Flanders, all point in the same direction.

"In many European countries, there is a growing tide of anxiety driven by uncontrolled immigration, globalisation and the rules of the EU," she says. "People feel pushed around, threatened with losing their identity, their traditions and their jobs."

In her quest to modernise, and "de-demonise" the Front, she says wants to "abolish a number of ambiguities linked to our past". What does she mean? "I will give you an example. People say we are a free-market party. Yes, we believe in free-enterprise but we are not an ultra-capitalist party. We believe in frontiers. We also believe that the state should have a strategic role in the economy. We fight against 'ultra-liberalism', which we consider to be a totalitarian system which insists on the free movement of people, goods and capital, something we reject." In American terms, she says, the NF, is not a right-wing party. It is certainly much less right wing, she says, than the Tea Party movement, which distrusts all government and hates all taxes.

OK, d'accord, lets consider another "ambiguity". Marine Le Pen insists that she is not a racist, that France is "not a racist country" and that the NF was "never a racist party". Why then, I asked, did she tell her first campaign meeting in the Var in southern France that all the other parties wanted to "Islamise" France and that they had plans to introduce "sharia law" into the country? How could a country which is about to ban the burka be said to be preparing to live under sharia law? In any case, France now has large black, brown and Islamic communities. Many of them are French citizens, born in France. Like it or not, multi-culturalism is a fact of French life.

Marine became a little heated for the first time. "We are are in a trial of strength between Islam and the secular values of the French republic, an insidious trial of strength and one that we are losing," she said. How so? The signs are all around us, she said. Her evidence scarcely seems overwhelming.

Several swimming pools have allowed women's-only times for Muslim bathers; 22 Quick burger restaurants (out of many hundreds) now sell only halal meat; pork has been taken off the menu in some schools, and a few streets are occasionally blocked to allow Muslims to pray in the open air.

"You say to me that a multi-cultural country can live in peace," she said. "I don't think that can ever happen. Anywhere that communities with different cultures have tried to live together in the same territory, we have had tragedies, we have had conflicts."

Marine is distrusted by many within the NF, a disparate coalition of mutually suspicious tribes from die-hard patriots, to Catholic fundamentalists, to pagan nature-worshippers. Her support for abortion and the rights of homosexuals angers social conservatives. Her arguments for the "secular values" of the French Republic irritate the fundamentalist Catholics.

Marine says she knows that she is not to everyone's taste in the party but she does not care. "That's the beauty of this [internal] election," she said. "It gives me the chance to be very clear about what I stand for. I don't want to seduce the National Front. I want to convince it. For nine years now I have been defending our values to my own music. Lots of factors, the polls, the anxiety within [President Sarkozy's centre-right party] the UMP [Union pour un Mouvement Populaure] suggest that I am the person best placed to take the Front's ideas as far as they can be taken."

On the door of her office are photographs of three beautiful children. She says, proudly, that she had them "all in one year", 11-year-old twins and a 12-year-old daughter, Jehanne, the original spelling for Joan of Arc. Marine has twice been married and twice divorced. Her parents divorced, spectacularly, when she was 19. She is a lawyer, a Euro MP and a town councillor in Hénin-Beaumont, near Lille in northern France.

A recent poll in the Nouvel Observateur magazine suggested that Marine would come third with 13 per cent of the vote in the first round of a presidential election. This is not an extraordinary breakthrough but it is better (by five points) than her father was polling two years before he took 17 per cent of the vote in the 2002 presidential election and reached the two-candidate run-off.

Marine says that a spectre is haunting Mr Sarkozy's UMP. What really worries them, she says, is that she will come ahead of Mr Sarkozy in 2012 and go into the second round against a candidate of the left. "In 2002, all the left-wing voters turned out to vote for Chirac in the second round and against my father. Faced with the same choice, would the great majority of UMP voters cast ballots for the left and not for me? I don't think they would. And many people in the UMP don't think they would."

During an hour of polite probing and pushing, Marine remained resolutely on-message. Only occasionally did she stray beyond what might have been repeated by a Conservative Party right-winger or an editorial in the Daily Mail.

But she did make one startling declaration. Seventy years ago, she said, she would have been on the side of Charles de Gaulle and les résistants". She would not have been on the side of Marshal Philippe Pétain and Vichy. This may seem like a banal statement. In the context of the tribal, history-soaked politics of France – and especially of the National Front – it is a striking declaration of who Marine Le Pen thinks she is. Or at least who she wants people to think she is.

Vichy-sympathisers, people who believe that Marshal Petain was a hero, not a Nazi collaborator, in 1940-44, are one of the many tribes of the NF. Jean-Marie Le Pen has always been morbidly obsessed by the Second World War. (The gas ovens, he famously said, were only a "detail" of history, and the occupying Germans behaved "on the whole correctly" in France.)

As far as I know, no one has ever publicly asked Marine a question about the war. So I asked her. Twice. She did not specifically repudiate Marshal Petain as a traitor but she did eventually say: "Many French people resisted. They were right to do so. They were only a minority. That doesn't mean that all the rest were collaborators. Most were neither. But my instinct would have been to be on the side of the Resistance."

So there it is. Marine Le Pen would have been wearing a beret and a trench-coat and planting bombs under German troop trains in 1940-44. Her statement will anger many Vichy sentimentalists within the NF Front. It remains to be seen, when (not if) she is elected, whether she can hold the disparate clans of the NF together.

Marine believes that she can put the nationalist-patriotic, anti-European, anti-immigration, anti-globalisation argument in ways that appeal to previously moderate voters of both the right and left. She believes that the populist far right (a term she rejects) can finally be on the right side of history. With President Sarkozy floundering and the French centre-left still muddled, in 2012 she could be a very dangerous opponent indeed.

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