Head of the French far-right party Front national (FN) and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen
Head of the French far-right party Front national (FN) and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen

The remarkable life of Marine Le Pen, the far-right politician who is well placed to become France's first female president

Barbara Tasch
Wednesday 22 February 2017 17:28

Marine Le Pen is France's most controversial politician.

Over the past five years, she has taken far-right National Front party — which was founded by her father — from a marginalised voice to one of the most important forces in French politics.

Le Pen officially launched her election campaign on February 5, and the latest polls show she is set to win the first round of the presidential election in April.

Polls then project she will lose the second round, which will ultimately decide who becomes president, to either centrist Emmanuel Macron or conservative François Fillon — but the gap between the candidates is diminishing quickly.

Though she has been in politics for the better part of two decades, and members of her family are in politics too, not much is known about Le Pen's private life, which she guards ferociously. This is a look at what we do know about Marine Le Pen, the controversial, charismatic far-right politician who might become the first woman to lead France.

Le Pen was born on August 5, 1968 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a commune just outside of Paris. She is the youngest of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his first wife Pierrette's three daughters.

They grew up between Paris and the palatial manor of Montretout in Saint-Cloud — a fact that journalists and politicians often point out when Le Pen says she is "the candidate of the people."

Jean-Marie Le Pen was an unpopular figure, which meant Marine's childhood was far from the ordinary. At some point she was even pulled out of school for over a month and hidden with family friends in the south of France because of a surge in death threats against her father.

The most notable of those incidents was the bombings of their Paris apartment in 1976, which was reportedly aimed at killing the whole family.

Marine Le Pen is overcome by emotion after learning that her father had overtaken French socialist Lionel Jospin as principal contender to incumbent French president Jacques Chirac in French presidential elections on April 21, 2002.REUTERS

Le Pen's parents separated when she was 17 years old and the divorce, as well as the media furore that surrounded it, had a profound impact on her life.

Her mother ran away with the journalist writing a biography of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen later called it one of the most painful events in her life and railed against the media that, according to her, had little regard family's privacy.

One of the most extraordinary moments of the divorce was Le Pen's mother's naked shoot for Playboy, which she reportedly did to get back at her ex-husband. Le Pen harshly condemned her mother's actions, likening her to a "public dump," and did not see her for 15 years following the divorce.

Throughout different interviews, the Le Pen sisters all characterised their father and mother as absent parents — Yann Le Pen, Marine's older sister, even told Vanity Fair she wondered why her parents had children.

But the drama in the Le Pen family did not stop with their parents. Although all of the Le Pen girls fell out with their mother following the divorce, only Yann still speaks to her father now. The eldest daughter, Marie-Caroline, fell out with her father during an internal fraction of the FN in the late 1990s. Marine Le Pen also fell out with her other sister Yann in recent years and Yann's daughter also recently feuded with her aunt. Their latest spat was over abortion rights.

Le Pen read law at the Université Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas from where she obtained a Master in law in 1991. She passed the bar in Paris and worked as a lawyer until 1998 when she took up a role in the legal department of the FN.

She has been married twice: First to Franck Chauffroy who at some point worked for the FN, in 1997, with whom she had three children — a girl born in 1998 and twins born in 1999. Le Pen divorced Chauffroy in 2000 and got remarried, to Éric Iorio, who also worked for the FN, in 2002 before divorcing him in 2006.

She is currently in a relationship with Louis Aliot, the vice-president of the FN in charge of training and events.

A difficult relationship with her father

In 1983, Le Pen had her first contact with the political world when she accompanied her father as he campaigned for municipal elections. She says she decided to go with him because she wanted to get to know her father and wanted her father to know her. Following him onto the political terrain was the only way to do that, Le Pen explained in a televised interview in 2006.

The pair campaigned and worked harmoniously side by side for decades — even when minor episodes and his recurrent attempts to humiliate her in public caused some tension. Their relationship started to really sour when Marine Le Pen took over as head of the Front National from her father in 2011.

As soon as she took over, she has led the "de-demonisation" of the party. In order to make the party more palatable to the mainstream voter, Le Pen aimed to rid the party of its overly anti-Semitic and racist connotations.

In order to do so, Le Pen had to get rid of her some of the party's most outwardly racist and anti-semitic members — many of whom were close friends of her father and, as it turns out her father himself.

The "de-demonisation" culminated in 2015 when she ousted her father from the party he founded in 1972.

In the past, he said Hitler's gas chambers were a "detail" of World War II and that the Nazi occupation of France was "not particularly inhumane." The decision to oust him followed renewed anti-Semitic and racist comments, as well as a comment about France needing to get along with Russia to save the "white world."

Since then, the pair have not reconciled and he has regularly spoken out against her decision to overhaul the party. He has accused the current FN's vice-president and senior advisor to Marine Le Pen, Florian Philippot, of being behind those "leftist" changes.

In 2015, Jean-Marie Le Pen even told French newspaper the Journal du Dimanche, that he would not vote for his daughter in 2017 if she continued with her current political line.

One of the most public and damaging episodes for the pair's relationship came during the party's annual May Day tribute to Joan of Arc rally in Paris. Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was still honorary President of the party at the time, made a surprise appearance on stage, just before his daughter was due to start her speech.

He came up on stage to salute the crowds of militants reportedly because he did not appreciate having been banned from making a speech at the FN's biggest annual rally. After being applauded by the crowds, he left in a car and did not listen to his daughter's speech.

What followed inside the FN's ranks after Jean-Marie Le Pen's exclusion was described by a member of the party "a genuine purge of all the 'lepénistes'" who helped him get on stage that day.

But even if Marine Le Pen wants to rid the party of scandals, she herself has also been embroiled in many controversies. A notable outburst came in 2010, when she linked public Muslim prayers in the streets with World War II and said it was "an occupation of sections of the territory."

French NGOs lodged complaints against her following the comments but she was acquitted of "inciting hatred," because her statement did not "target all of the Muslim community" and was protected by freedom of expression.

During that incident and throughout her interviews in general, Marine Le Pen and her entourage — much like US President Donald Trump — constantly blame the media for misrepresenting her party, herself and her family. She also accuses the government of trying to discredit her.

Le Pen's brand of leadership

Marine Le Pen has often praised Vladimir Putin as a strong leader

Determined to change the image of her party inside and outside of France, Le Pen put an end to an alliance her father had built with some extreme right-wing European parties, such as the Hungarian Jobbik and Greek neo-Nazis Golden Dawn.

She has favoured other more "liberal" far-right European parties such as the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Flemish Vlaams Belang, and the Freedom Party of Austria.

Part of her "de-demonisation" plan has also been to change some her party's long-time stance on issues such as the death penalty, gay rights, and abortion — again, something her father blames on Philippot, his daughter's second-in-command.

These changes have caused some of the most radical members of her party to criticise her choices, and most notably caused a row between her and her niece, Marion-Maréchal Le Pen, a Member of Parliament for the FN, who is even more conservative than her aunt.

Hoping to emulate her father's huge upset in the 2002 presidential elections, in which he progressed to the second round of voting before losing to Jacques Chirac, Le Pen started campaigning for the 2012 presidential elections almost as soon as she became party leader in 2011.

Le Pen came in third during the first round of the presidential election with 17.9%, behind candidates François Hollande (28.6%) and Nicolas Sarkozy (27.1%). Although she did not make it through to the second round, her score was widely seen as a win for her party and a proof that the FN was now part of the French political landscape.

There was another boost in 2014 when the FN won a whopping 25% of votes in the European elections and became the country's top party in the European Parliament.

But Le Pen also suffered a blow during the 2015 French regional elections. Although the party won the first round of the elections – which took place two weeks after the Paris attacks that left 130 people dead – and came top in half of France’s regions, the FN ended up not winning a single region. (Although the FN exceeded its previous record number of votes.)

Her critics hope this will be repeated in this year's national election, with voters rallying around either Emmanuel Macron or François Fillon simply because they are not Le Pen.

'Au nom du peuple'

Le Pen's slogan for her 2017 presidential campaign translates to "in the name of the people," and she presents herself as exactly that, the saviour of the French public, French culture, French language.

She launched her campaign and presented 144 promises she would turn into reality if elected president. The most important ones include taking France out of the eurozone and a return to the French franc. She also promises a referendum on France's membership of the European Union.

Other main measures include banishing from France any immigrant convicted of a crime, boosting the police force and creating 40,000 additional prison places. She also wants all religious signs to be banished from the public space.

Although the Front National has had trouble raising money for the campaign (Le Pen had to borrow money from her estranged father) and she has also been ordered to pay back over £250,000 to the EU parliament over fake EU parliamentary assistant jobs — none of this seems to have an influence on the determination of her supporters.

Much like Trump in the US or the Brexit vote in the UK, it seems no matter what the FN or Le Pen do, its supporters will stand by them. She intends to capitalise on this wave of nationalistic movements sweeping across the West.

Just last week, she told the Daily Telegraph: "Brexit has been a powerful weapon for us. In the past our adversaries have always been able to say that there is 'no alternative' but now we have had Brexit, and then Trump.

"A whole psychological framework is breaking down. I think 2017 is going to be the year of the grand return of the nation-state, the control of borders and currencies."

After years of cleaning up her party's name and trying desperately to distance it from her father's racist and antisemitic outbursts, it seems that Le Pen believes she has now found the perfect sweet spot between being mainstream enough to get votes, but also being seen as enough of an outsider to bring about change.

And Le Pen has struck a chord with a large part of the public.

In a country where over 230 people have been killed by terror attacks since January 2015 and unemployment still stands at 10% nine years after the financial crisis, a growing part of the population is ready for a radical change.

"Financial globalisation and Islamist globalisation are helping each other out... Those two ideologies want to bring France to its knees ... The divide is not between the left and right anymore but between patriots and globalists," Le Pen told a cheering crowd during her campaign launch.

The latest polls show Marine Le Pen is ahead of the other candidates in 9 out of 12 regions, and every poll now shows her coming out on top in the first round of the election.

Although every poll also shows her losing to either Fillon or Macron in the second round of the election, the gap between her and the other candidates is narrowing. But if political events of 2016 have taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected.

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