At first glance Marine Le Pen comes across as a positive, bright-faced politician, never the type of person you would associate with an extreme right-wing nationalist party. However, the reality is that Le Pen represents the Front National, the French nationalist right-wing power that has risen to prominence in recent years. No one could have imagined a decade ago that the brainchild of extremist Jean Marie Le Pen would emerge from the 2012 French presidential elections with 17.9% of the vote. So what is it that has drawn the French people into voting for the far more extreme option? What has Marine done to build on the tarnished, almost ridiculed image her father created in the late eighties and nineties? Has she moved away from the xenophobic, anti-globalisation party of the National Front or has she just rebranded the image of her politics into a more feminine and approachable option for the French voters?
Jean Marie le Pen was always seen as a bit of a joke in French politics. Although he had created a legitimate political party in the form of the National Front, it was difficult for any serious voter to believe the rhetoric of a man who proposed revisionism regarding the atrocities committed during World War II. His nationalist, xenophobic statements twenty years ago were ignored by most and regarded by others merely as the ravings of a madman. However, over the years his popularity slowly began to grow in strength. By the early 2000s the National Front had established a firm following of French voters. It was Jean Marie’s daughter, Marine, who took that small group of people and turned it into a real and potentially powerful voice.
When Marine le Pen was elected president of the National Front in 2011, she had acquired a position of relative power at a vital turning point not only in French politics, but also in current affairs and leadership throughout Europe. She found herself leading a party which could serve as an alternative to the euro-supporting French government of Nicolas Sarkozy. The euro was losing strength and as Sarkozy and Merkel debated over what the chances of its survival were French citizens and Europeans alike began to develop a feeling of unease. In fact, ever sine 2008 we Europeans in the Eurozone have felt rather uncomfortable with the unstable path our currency and the European political system are taking. France, like many other member states of the EU, began to turn back in on itself, focusing more on the national problems and those which uphold the foundations of ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’. People distrusted the faceless leaders sitting in Brussels, drawing strong economies such as France and Germany into negotiations which could save smaller countries such as Portugal and Ireland from an economic meltdown.
Surrounded by the unstable European environment, Marine le Pen stood up last year and proposed a turn away from the EU ideals of transcontinental unity. Suddenly the French were willing to consider the previously laughable Front National as a legitimate power that could possibly help draw their country away form the fiscal furnace that many see in the European Union. Marine le Pen spoke of national unity, of the importance of France’s Christian values and addressed the question of immigration in France. This beautifully dressed and well-presented French woman played on the fears of her country’s people by offering an alternative to the EU focused propositions of fellow presidential candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. She made a point of distancing herself from the extremist policies of her father – those of recreating a white, illiberal, non-globalised country which focused purely on the needs of the real French people. She succeeded in her rhetoric and only a month ago Le Pen emerged with only 10% less than her rivals, Hollande and Sarkozy, in the first round of voting for the Elysée. Even though this meant Le Pen was out of the race, she and her supporters regarded her 17.9% as a real success. Her political party had once again managed to move forward by convincing an even greater number of the French population that a step towards the extreme right was the only answer to France’s inherently unstable fiscal and political position.
However, it is imperative that we read between the lines of this situation. Marine le Pen still represents a party which promotes a real Islamaphobia amongst the French people, a party which has often spoken out about the importance of making France more French and removing the presence of migrants in the process. Often having a woman in charge, particularly a poised, educated and attractive woman such as Le Pen, means that a party can rebrand itself as more caring and warm-hearted group of people. In a recent article in The Guardian a young woman, when asked why she voted for Le Pen, replied : “I had trouble with her father, he was always too outspoken; too brutal. Marine smiles, she talks sense, she doesn’t make outrageous comments. She wants to strengthen the family, help parents, do more for respect and discipline.” A woman in power often represents a more family oriented political line, more empathy for what the people really want.
Yet, Le Pen is still the leader of a party that endorses legislation against migrant workers and that, despite its more moderate 21st century stance, is part of a movement that came from a belief that we should step away from the world of globalization and immigration. Marine Le Pen may not have won the French presidential elections but I doubt that was ever her intent. She has succeeded in raising the profile and popularity of her political party and has created in herself a reasonably respected household name. Europe may be teetering on collapse but is a move towards the extreme right really the answer to the continent’s problems? The recent French presidential results would seem to indicate that people are becoming increasingly inclined to choose the extremist option as a solution to their problems. Marine Le Pen is an intelligent woman, who will continue to play on people’s fears in her attempt to strengthen the political future of the National Front.