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Portrait of a Populist

As a child, Le Pen would accompany her father to party meetings and rallies, where she learned the arts of emotional rhetoric and political finesse
By The News · 21 of February 2017 09:27:38
Marine Le Pen, FN political party leader and candidate for the French 2017 presidential election, speaks during a news conference after meeting with Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces, in Maarab, Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for the French 2017 presidential election, speaks during a news conference after meeting with Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces, in Maarab, north of Beirut, Lebanon February 21, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir, photo: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

On Monday, I wrote about the growing popularity of France’s Front National (FN) anti-European Union, anti-immigrant presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (see “France’s New Age of Protectionism,” which ran in this space on Feb. 20).

But for many outside observers, Le Pen is still relatively unknown on the international political stage.

So who exactly is this 48-year-old firebrand who is yanking at the heartstrings of France’s discontented middle class?

The youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, convicted anti-Semitic and disgraced founder of the FN party over which she now presides, Le Pen is the product of a staunchly political upper-middle-class home.

As a child, she would accompany her father to party meetings and rallies, where she learned the arts of emotional rhetoric and political finesse.

In 1986, she officially joined her father’s party and, two years later, was elected as a regional councilor.

She became a member of the European Parliament in 2004, which launched her first candidacy for the FN presidency in 2011, where she won with an impressive 68 percent of the vote, defeating her academic opponent Bruno Gollnisch.

In 2012, Le Pen placed third in France’s presidential election, with 18 percent of the vote, behind François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.

But Le Pen felt her party had been irreparably handicapped by her father’s seditious reputation as a racist, and finally, in 2015, she permanently expelled him from the FN in a Lizzie Borden-like political patricide.

She then proceeded to reinvent and repackage the Front National with a softer, more tolerant image, publicly advocating for civil unions for same-sex couples, accepting unconditional abortion and condemning any hint of racism within the party.

This new, more palatable FN, wrapped in the implicit charm and French chicness that are Le Pen’s trademark allure, has appealed to many of Land of the Franks’ politically marginalized blue-collar masses.

Through a grassroots campaign against globalization (which she identifies as the key cause of French cultural and economic decline) and Islamic jihadism (which she blames for the uptick in terrorist acts throughout Europe), Le Pen has been able to solidify and channel the innate fears of the French populist movement.

Currently, Le Pen is a political rock star for many French blue-collar workers who are afraid that their historic sovereignty, cultural identity and national security are at stake in a now-raging battle against the Big Bad Foreigner.

Like a perfidious Joan of Arc for the modern French peasantry, Le Pen is exploiting her newfound fame and celebrity for her own political ambitions.

She is someone whose hunger for power and willingness to manipulate her followers for her own gain know no limits.

Le Pen is ruthless and determined and will say whatever it takes to win the French presidency.

But once in power, she is not likely to turn out to be the great champion of the French underdogs she now claims to represent.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therese.margolis@gmail.com.