From political pariah to presidential contender: We investigate the rise of Marine Le Pen

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Former leader of France’s far right, Marine Le Pen, has gone from political pariah to presidential contender. So how has she done it – and how serious a threat does she pose in Sunday’s elections? Rachel Sylvester investigates

Photography: Joel Saget

A portrait of Clint Eastwood hangs in the campaign offices of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Instead of a gun, he’s holding a blue rose, the symbol of her party the Front National. However, it’s the Hollywood star’s “tough guy” image that the controversial far-right leader admires. Like Dirty Harry, her message to the established order is: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

But it is Le Pen who is feeling lucky, riding high after beating contenders from all the traditional political parties into the final round of the French presidential election last month. And while it’s her centrist rival Emmanuel Macron who is current favourite to win the contest on Sunday, there is no doubt Le Pen has secured her position as a major figure on the French political scene, exposing deep divisions in the country she seeks to represent.

At the age of 48, Le Pen has just become only the second woman in French history to make it through to the second ballot. In six years at the helm, she has transformed the Front National from an embarrassing fringe sect into a national political force.

The former lawyer has sought to throw off her party’s jackboot image, broadening its appeal among younger and female voters. There is still a strong xenophobic undertone and yet her slogan ‘France for the French’ and her hardline messages on immigration, Europe and Islam have secured the support of more than 7.6 million voters. In a country now accustomed to terrorist attacks, her unashamedly nationalist policies have appealed to the disenfranchised left and the alienated right, winning nine of the ten French areas with the highest unemployment rates.

Controlled and image-conscious, Le Pen is as strategically gifted as she is divisive. When she made it through the first round of voting last month, she immediately declared that she was temporarily stepping aside from the party’s leadership to devote herself to the presidential race. “It’s time to liberate the French nation from the arrogant elites,” she said, describing herself as the “candidate of the people” and her rival as a “hysterical, radical ‘Europeanist’.” Like Brexit campaigners and Donald Trump, she is fighting a culture war rather than a policy battle.

Born to rule

For Marion Anne Perrine (‘Marine’) Le Pen, the personal has always been political. The daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the Front National party in 1972 and has been convicted of racism or inciting racism six times in the French courts, she often appeared in the media as a child, the youngest of three blonde and photogenic sisters who represented his vision of the “real France”. A photograph of her aged six shows her tucked up in bed in a room plastered with posters about fighting the “Marxist cancer”.

When she was eight, a bomb ripped through the family’s Parisian apartment building in the middle of the night. Although no-one was killed, Le Pen woke amid shards of glass and rubble, with one wall of the building blown out. The perpetrators were never caught but the target was generally assumed to be her father. In her 2006 autobiography Against The Flow, she wrote: “That night I went to sleep like all little girls my age. But when I woke, I was no longer a little girl like the others.”

The family moved into a mansion just outside Paris, which had been left to Jean-Marie Le Pen by a wealthy right-winger in his will. The Front National offices were on the first floor, meaning Marine grew up surrounded by far-right ideologues and steeped in politics. According to one of her biographers, Cécile Alduy, she became increasingly socially isolated, losing school friends whose parents did not want to let their children near her “dangerous” right wing and anti-semitic father. Gradually she developed a sense that her family would always be different to others and grew used to being treated with hostility. As she later explained: “A cordon sanitaire was created around us – don’t go near the Le Pens.”

But there was little security at home. Her parents were often away for weeks at a time either holidaying or campaigning, leaving the girls with a nanny. At the age of 15, her need for self-reliance was dramatically reinforced when her mother left the family suddenly with another man, disappearing with all her belongings while the children were at school. She did not see her mother for another 15 years. Friends say she developed a “shell” of emotional toughness as protection from her upbringing.

“Mrs anybody”

This toughness has been on display during her leadership of the Front National. Since she took over from her father in 2011, Le Pen has been determined to rebrand her party, leading what she calls a movement of “de-demonisation”. While under her father the party campaigned using racist, xenophobic banners, she has distanced herself. In the ultimate break with the past she even symbolically “killed” her own parent by throwing him out of the party in 2015 after he described the Holocaust as a “detail” of the history of the Second World War. Her aim has been to remove the fear factor from the far-right and superficially sanitise its ideology. Replacing the traditional red-white-and-blue flame logo with a blue rose, at the launch of her campaign she removed the words Front National as well as her own surname from leaflets and ran simply as “Marine”. Instead of an annual conference Le Pen announced last September that the party would henceforth hold a “summer event,” with posters depicting a seaside sunset in soft pastel colours. She has released “private” photographs of herself stroking kittens, horse riding in a cowboy hat, and in one television interview she talked about her love of gardening as she sat on a wicker chair drinking tea. As the historian Valérie Igounet told BuzzFeed News, she wants to present herself as “Mrs Anybody.”

It is no coincidence that female voters have been crucial to Le Pen’s bid for power. In a country that only gave women the right to vote and serve in public office in 1944 – 26 years after Britain – some say she has deliberately played on her gender to soften her party’s hardline image. While her father was an ageing, macho former paratrooper who wanted women to stay at home and procreate, Le Pen – a lawyer who has been twice divorced and raised her children independently – has deliberately presented herself as a modern woman. Her campaign leaflets reminded voters that she is a mother of three, describing her as “a female politician in a man’s world”. As Manon, 23, a recent graduate originally from Lille says, “She’s created this image of a free and emancipated woman. For many people she’s the incarnation of something strong but different from the political world full of testosterone.”

Rather than talk about equality, Le Pen has sought to merge the issue of women’s rights with the Front National’s traditional concerns – arguing, for example, that immigration risked bringing “social regression” to France. During a two day visit to Lebanon in February, she made headlines by cancelling a meeting with Sheikh Abdellatif Deryan, the country’s Grand Mufti, after refusing to wear a headscarf. “I will not cover myself up,” she told reporters. Women’s groups have denounced Le Pen as a “pretend feminist,” arguing that “she uses the rights of women for racist purposes”, but the strategy appears to have had an impact, particularly among working class women. A survey of more than 9,000 people on the day of France’s first round of voting found that she had won a larger share of support from female voters than any other candidate – 23.9%. “She really cares about all the people, all ages and all social and professional classes, rather than big firms,” says Chloe, 20, a law student who will vote for Le Pen. “I wouldn’t trust a banker to govern our country.”

The youth vote

It’s not just women. According to polling organisation Odexa, she has more support among young people than any other party, with the demographic being attracted by her promises of radical change and better employment prospects. She has won over middle-class public sector employees as well as traditional working class voters; more than half of the police and military now support her, perhaps in response to her tough pact on terrorism – over 200 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in the last 18 months in France. Like Donald Trump, she is more popular among those with lower levels of education and also in areas of inequality. Just as the Brexiteers appealed to the “left behind” voters in the UK, Le Pen has won over those who feel alienated by France’s political system. The further away a person lives from a railway station, the more likely they are to vote for her. And in a country with high levels of unemployment, she offers straightforward answers including increases in welfare and a reduction in the pension age. She promises “Made in France” protectionism to those who feel threatened by globalisation.

“I know a lot of farmers and Marine talks to them and reassures them,” says Vanessa, 30, a real estate agent supporting Le Pen. “She proposes solutions to help with their everyday issues. She is human, she listens to the people.”

Like Nigel Farage, Le Pen sees herself as part of a populist nationalist surge that is challenging the establishment. After a meeting with Vladimir Putin earlier this year she declared: “A new world has emerged.” Mainstream politicians are spooked by her popularity. Even before a single vote had been cast in the presidential election, she had exerted her influence by changing the tone of the political debate as politicians from other parties began borrowing her rhetoric on immigration. The current French administration has introduced a number of controversial policies that play into Front National ideology, such as banning women from wearing the niqab in any public place.

But despite the votes she has gathered, there are plenty that oppose her and the prospect of a Le Pen administration is deeply worrying for the majority of French voters. “I think she’s extremely dangerous,” says Gabrielle, a 30 year-old Parisian now living in New York. “If we compare her to the US, where I currently live, she’s both Donald and Ivanka Trump at the same time. She represents the fashion for ‘fake feminism’. She uses the fact that she’s a powerful woman to advance her politics, but she’s absolutely not advancing woman’s rights.” Moshe Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress has called her ‘no less dangerous than her father’.

And despite all she has done to soften her party’s image – including dropping her party’s traditional opposition to abortion, as well as its hostility to gay rights – her policies remain ‘scary’, according to Lord Ricketts, the former British ambassador to France who described her as a “genuine risk to France and to Europe.” Reducing immigration is central to her pitch: she has promised to cut the number of legal entrants to 10,000 a year, speed up deportations and narrow opportunities for foreign- born nationals to acquire French citizenship. She has also pledged to end free education for the children of undocumented immigrants. “If you come to our country, don’t expect to be taken care of,” she said in a speech in December, adding: “Playtime is over.”

Nor does she make any attempt to hide her hatred of multiculturalism. Insisting that France faces a “civil war between communities”, she wants a full ban on religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf, in public places and describes mosques and “prayers in the streets” as threats to France’s culture and values. “There are a number of neighbourhoods where you are no longer living a French life,” she has said. “France isn’t burkinis on the beach. France is Brigitte Bardot.”

Finally, she has promised a so-called “Frexit” referendum on France’s continued membership of the European Union. She would seek to abandon the euro and reintroduce the franc. She has also spoken about her intention to leave NATO. If she managed to make good on all three promises, they would threaten the global economy and likely destabilize international peacekeeping efforts.

The future

In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked and surprised everyone when he scraped through to the second round of presidential elections – only to be soundly beaten in the final run off by Jacques Chirac. But things aren’t as cut and dried for Marine. Her path to the second round was far more decisive than her father’s. And – at the time of writing – not all of her opponents had rallied to urge their supporters to vote tactically for Macron. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the surprise ultra-left wing candidate who came fourth in the first round, has been particularly reluctant. And with polling results unable to be trusted, the outcome is doubly hard to predict. There is no doubt about it – even if Le Pen does not make it to the Élysée Palace on Sunday, she is now a political force to be reckoned with. However unpalatable that may be.

Who is Emmanuel Macron?

The dynamic leader of En Marche! is Le Pen’s rival for presidency

  • If Emmanuel Macron wins the Presidential contest it will be one of the most meteoric rises in political history.
  • At 39, the former banker, appointed economy minister by François Hollande, would be the youngest president France has ever had. His new political movement En Marche! (On The Move!) was only launched a year ago and has no elected representatives.

  • An economic and social liberal, he is married to his former drama teacher Brigitte Trogneux, who is 24 years his senior – something his rivals are keen to sensationalise.

  • His campaign promises included a 50 billion euro public investment plan, a big cut in corporation tax and more flexibility for companies to renegotiate the 35-hour working week.

  • He also wants to ban mobile phones in schools for under-15s and introduce a 500 euro “culture pass” for 18-year-olds. For centrists across Europe, he represents a symbol of hope that is neither far-right or hard left that can harness the populist mood.

Could more of Europe head right?

France and the UK aren’t the only ones heading to the ballot box. Stylist looks at where the next political earthquake could come from…

Germany: In September 2017 Angela Merkel will run for a fourth term as Chancellor, against the anti-EU Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, among others. Victory for the AfD seems unlikely, but if they do win it’ll mean an abandonment of open-door immigration policy, as well as a referendum on EU membership. Even if Merkel remains, the
election will disrupt the Brexit negotiations. Germany hasn’t had a single-party leadership since WW2 and forming a coalition takes around a month. So talks will stall, making it
difficult for the UK to guarantee a good deal before the break from Europe must be finalised.

Italy: the Eurozone’s third largest economy, next May’s election will have a big impact on the future of the EU, not least because the anti-EU Five Star Movement (led by comedian Beppe Grillo) is polling strongly. As well as a EU referendum, the party has promised a tightening of borders which could effect asylum seekers landing in Sicilian ports. The discontent among voters is perhaps understandable; the Italian economy has stalled and around four million people live in poverty. The Five Star Movement
promises a basic ‘citizens income’ of up to €780 a month, though detractors claim this isn’t economically viable.

Russia: Vladimir Putin has led a corrupt, authoritarian and aggressive regime since 2000 – he was replaced for one term, between 2008 and 2012 by Dmitry Medvedev, who is now Prime Minister. Elections are due in 2018 but at present there is no serious rival who can oppose him. Not only is his current approval rating at 81%, but Alexei Navalny, leader of anti-corruption Progress Party, has just been found guilty of embezzlement and given a five-year suspended prison sentence. Under Russian law convicted felons cannot stand for office, so If he loses his appeal against his conviction, he will be ineligible.

Greece: The ongoing financial turmoil in Greece continues to haunt the Eurozone. Elections aren’t scheduled until 2019, but some experts believe that current Prime Minister Alex Tsipras of the left wing Syriza party may call an early election later this year. However, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, leader of the conservative New Democracy party – accused of being too close to “corrupt capitalists” – is currently 17.5 points ahead of Tsipras in the polls. Another election may lead to another renegotiation of the country’s bailout plan, resulting in further economic uncertainty for the country and Europe.