You can tell Marine Le Pen is a daddy’s girl the moment you meet her. With her thick-set features and booming voice, the 42-year-old is clearly a chip off the formidable old block of Jean-Marie Le Pen, 82, who on Sunday handed her the reins of France’s Front National (FN).
Marine was weepy-eyed as she accepted the party leadership at its annual conference in Tours, making it clear that the family resemblance is not solely physical. If there’s anyone who can build on the emotional bigotry stirred up by Le Pen over the past four decades (he founded the FN in 1972 and has been its figurehead ever since), then it will be Marine.
But won’t a twice divorced mother of three let the side’s macho image down, alienating many of the unreconstructed thugs who turn up at party rallies? As someone who has interviewed both Jean-Marie and Marine, I would suggest that there’s no such thing as a Le Pen Lite. While Jean-Marie was a man of his time – a burly, ex-army bruiser who saw far-right “patriotism” as the answer to all socio-economic problems – Marine can also do punchy prejudice.
Don’t forget that her first experience of radical political action was surviving a bomb attack on the family’s Paris home when she was eight years old. “It was then that I realised that there were people who had something against my father,” she told me matter-of-factly. Despite such childhood traumas, Marine joined the FN when she was 18, supporting her father through many of his five presidential election campaigns. Her proudest moment came in 2002 when – astonishingly – he was runner-up in the first round before losing to Jacques Chirac in the second.
Marine has not cultivated one of the hoarsest voices in French politics for nothing. It’s the result of years spent canvassing in the smoky hotspots of high-immigration cities such as Marseilles. She can push and shove with the worst of them, mimicking her father’s outraged face when necessary, and then relaxing into back-slapping bonhomie to seal a vote. Beyond this – and in contrast to her father – Marine understands focus groups, internet networking and all the other strategic essentials of 21st century electoral success. She has been particularly dynamic in building up her party’s “inclusive” nature, pressing the flesh in suburban communities who feel alienated from mainstream political life.
When she met me for the first time in Paris before the 2007 presidential election, Marine gently played on my ethnic origin (I come from a French Algerian background), fixing me with a beaming white smile and declaring: “We could do with plenty more like you in the party – you’re very welcome to join.” Why should a woman like me support an overtly racist party, which places an “anti” before almost every policy statement, whether it relates to globalisation, Europe, Islam, or anything else, I asked? “Because first and foremost we’re all French – it’s a question of loyalty,” Marine replied enigmatically, displaying her fondness for the banal soundbite traditionally associated with successful rabble-rousers.
Marine has certainly worked hard to play down her core values and soften the FN’s image. She has disassociated herself from some of Jean-Marie’s more outrageous sentiments, which include viewing the Holocaust as a “detail” of the second world war and complaining that there were too many coloured players in France’s 1998 World Cup-winning football team.
There are no figures for the ethnicity of voters in the secular French republic, but Marine claims that 8% of the FN’s votes in the 2007 election came from people with an Arabic background. She points to the fact that six of the FN’s candidates out of 22 in recent regional elections were women, and says that female votes are “growing”.
What is inescapable is that the current thrust of French politics is towards the right. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who last year instigated anational identity debate aimed at making people feel proud about their Gallic culture, is as aware as anyone that the 15% of voters who support the FN will prove crucial at the 2012 presidential elections.
There has even been talk of a coalition between the FN and his ruling UMP party. Marine’s strategic guile will be crucial to the contest. Those who write her off as pampered “daughter-of” will, in the months and years ahead, be unpleasantly surprised.