Last weekend, the New York Times Magazine (!!) featured a largely fair and sympathetic story on the new leader of France's Front National, Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, the long-time warrior of the nationalist Right.
With Sarkozy floundering and the likely Socialist candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of sodomizing an African chambermaid, Le Pen most certainly has a shot at the presidency. But as the Times alludes to, if Le Pen were to do well, the "mainstream" Left and Right would, no doubt, combine forces in order to prevent the ascension of an "extremist," much as Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin teamed up against Jean-Marie in 2002. Despite its pretensions of "liberal democracy," the Western world is essentially a one-party state.
I'm generally well disposed towards the Front National; indeed, I remember being enthusiastic during its 2002 insurgence. But after reading the Times profile, my feelings about Marine are decidedly mixed.
About a decade ago, Marine began to emerge as the daughter with the guts and political skills to take over the family business. She became a lawyer and worked behind the scenes in the party, with her father’s help, to become its vice president, edging past older male figures in the hard-nosed battle to succeed him. Jean-Marie Le Pen built the National Front out of a collection of fringe parties with overlapping but often conflicting agendas. The original core included avowed fascists, former members of the Vichy government that had been loyal to Hitler, anti-Jewish zealots, anti-immigrant nationalists and staunchly conservative Catholics. Jean-Marie held them together in part by using rhetoric that spoke to their fears and goals; that the same rhetoric kept the party isolated from the mainstream didn’t matter, because governing was never his objective.
Marine Le Pen has bigger ambitions, as the pollster Frédéric Micheau puts it, “to refresh the image of the far right.” Indeed, she insists she is not a figure of the far right at all and has belittled its racism as something for “people with small brains.” She has gambled that it is time for the party to leave the baggage of World War II behind. Or, as she said, “I have damage to repair, damage between the French people and the National Front.”
There are some obvious differences between Le Pen and her father, which partly account for her success and which she spelled out for me: “I’m a different person, a woman, a mother, in my 40s, of another generation.” There is also her political astuteness. The day before I met Le Pen, Claude Guéant, Sarkozy’s interior minister, caused a stir by saying in a radio interview that “French people, in the face of uncontrolled immigration, sometimes feel they are no longer in their own home.” The words went against the careful line Sarkozy had been taking and echoed sentiments that Le Pen expressed. That same evening, she appeared at a press conference brandishing a laminated National Front membership card printed with the name Claude Guéant and invited him to join the party. The ploy made headlines across the country.
“Whose idea was the membership card?” I asked as we sat down. Le Pen shot up her hand with the sharp eagerness of a schoolgirl and smiled slyly. Then, clearly proud of her craft, she produced the card and laid it in front of me.
Le Pen works assiduously at the fine political balancing act of remaining loyal to her father — and maintaining the support of the party’s base — while distancing herself from the elder Le Pen’s outrageousness. She has jettisoned her father’s frank anti-Semitism, but she keeps the anti-immigrant policy plank as a central feature of the platform and will occasionally use headline-grabbing rhetoric, as when in December she likened the French having to endure Muslims praying on their streets to living under Nazi occupation.
She insists that her message on immigration is not xenophobic but rather commonsensical. She pointed repeatedly to the United States as a model: “In France, we often say the U.S. is a multicultural society, but it’s not. It’s multiethnic but one single culture. I don’t say that nobody should enter our country. On the contrary, in the old days immigrants entered France and blended in. They adopted the French language and traditions. Whereas now entire communities set themselves up within France, governed by their own codes and traditions.”
The economic crisis in the European Union has worked to her advantage as well. As a French nationalist and an anti-E.U. voice, she has called for France to drop the euro and return to the franc.
The real secret to her success, however, may be in her adroit scrambling of traditional leftist and rightist positions. Signaling a clear break from her father and the right in general, she has come out with a detailed critique of capitalism and a position promoting the state as the protector of ordinary people. “For a long time, the National Front upheld the idea that the state always does things more expensively and less well than the private sector,” she told me. “But I’m convinced that’s not true. The reason is the inevitable quest for profitability, which is inherent in the private sector. There are certain domains which are so vital to the well-being of citizens that they must at all costs be kept out of the private sector and the law of supply and demand.” The government, therefore, should be entrusted with health care, education, transportation, banking and energy.
When I pointed out that in the U.S. she would sound like a left-wing politician, she shot back, “Yes, but Obama is way to the right of us,” and opined that proper government oversight would have averted the American financial crisis.
First off, I unequivocally endorse Le Pen's desire to move the nationalist Right beyond the Second World War. Refighting these old battles is not only increasingly irrelevant but often become ruinous to building alliances between European nationalists.
That said, I've become rather tired of this largely symbolic argument that real conservatives should support some degree of socialism vis-à-vis unfettered capitalism (or what in Europe is referred to as “neo-liberalism.”)
As Guillaume Faye points out in his recently translated Why We Fight, in the Western world, the great divide is not between state regulation and laissez-faire but between a declining and degraded White middle class and the bureaucratic, socialist, and banking elite, strangely united with Third World immigrants. The result is a combination of the worst aspects of socialism and capitalism.
In lieu of the social solidarity promised by the Left, we have the social fracturing of mass immigration, as well as the entrenchment of a useless governmental class with “set for life” salaries and pensions that simply cannot be paid without currency debasement. In lieu of the liberty and prosperity promised by the Right, we have inflation, mass indebtedness, a casino-like financial sector, and, ironically, centralized planning.
I don’t know the best way out of this morass--besides, of course, rooting for the system’s inevitable collapse--however, the reality is that Marine Le Pen’s demands that the state protect the citizenry from the “profit motive” is entirely compatible with the worldview of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
I’m also skeptical of the way in which Marine formulates France’s “culture war.” Sure, most of us want to live in a country in which homosexuals and adulteresses are not routinely stoned. That said, Islam cannot be opposed in terms of protecting a secular-humanist Euro-Disney from the ravages of Muslim conservatives who actually believe in their religion. Europe must oppose Islam with its own cultural and racial identity.
Whether Marine Le Pen is up to the task of forging this identity remains to be seen.