Marine Le Pen, Rassemblement National
French president Emmanuel Macron faces a major challenge from the French right’s National Rally and Marine Le Pen. Photo credit: © Maxppp via ZUMA Press

Recent European Parliament elections resulted in a surprise surge from the right. Could the US be about to experience a similar phenomenon?

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Before Donald Trump, France had Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder and longtime leader of France’s far-right National Front movement. More articulate than Trump, Le Pen captured the secret to any charismatic, populist politician’s success when he declared, “I say out loud what you feel in your gut.” What Le Pen and Trump both failed to mention is that the emotions you feel in your gut can at times be pretty ugly. Not only that, they may prove to be the opposite of what is actually needed to live in a civilized society. 

Today, Le Pen is 95 years old and no longer a player on the French political scene. The National Front has metamorphosed into the Rassemblement National — the National Rally. Le Pen’s youngest daughter, Marine Le Pen, has replaced her father as head of the movement and has just delivered an electric shock to both France and Europe by scoring more than twice the votes in recent European Parliamentary elections as the party of French President Emmanuel Macron. The National Rally/National Front movement is not in the driver’s seat yet, but along with other right-wing, fascist-leaning movements in Europe, it has maneuvered itself within striking distance of eventually seizing real power. 

Marine Le Pen is a much smoother politician than her father, and she has learned to cosmetically shape her notion of politics into a more palatable package. Still, in the end, her ideas are not very different from her father’s. The main question for Americans disturbed by the political right’s surge in the recent European Parliamentary elections, and Donald Trump’s increasingly unhinged rhetoric is: Could it happen here? 

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who got the ball rolling towards the extreme right by creating France’s National Front, always seemed an unlikely candidate for higher office. A convinced fascist, open admirer of Hitler, and purveyor of Nazi literature, he ran his own publishing house distributing vinyl records of speeches by Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. When a French television program in the mid-1980s remarked that Le Pen was openly selling records of Nazi Waffen-SS marching songs, I went around to his shop at Rue du Bac on Paris’s left bank. The store manager confirmed that the items were for sale, “But this has nothing to do with the National Front,” he explained. “This is Monsieur Le Pen’s personal business.” I later asked Le Pen about the time he was prosecuted for stating that Hitler was a democratically elected politician. “The French courts and I have a difference of opinion,” he said.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, National Front

Jean-Marie Le Pen at the presidential convention of the National Front, February 25, 2007, Lille, France. Photo credit: staffpresi_esj / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Le Pen’s career started inauspiciously. In contrast to Trump, Le Pen actively sought   military service. However, his timing was always a bit off. He was too young for World War II, and by the time he could enlist, France’s former colonial empire was already disintegrating. 

After his father was killed when his fishing boat was blown to bits by a German mine in the early days of World War II, Le Pen spent his adolescent years as a ward of the state. He tried to join the French resistance toward the end of World War II, but was rebuffed because at 16 he was too young. Instead, he took to distributing Action Française, a newspaper dedicated to the restoration of the French monarchy. At the same time, he became involved in one street brawl after another and was repeatedly charged with assault and battery. 

Finishing his law studies in 1949, with no real interest in the law, he joined the French Foreign Legion as a lieutenant. The Foreign Legion had already earned a reputation for not asking too many questions of recruits with shady backgrounds, and its unofficial motto was, “The Legion is our family.” Le Pen was dispatched to Indochina, arriving just after France’s catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu, a clear signal that the dissolution of France’s once expansive colonial empire was well underway. He was then sent to Suez, where he learned that Egypt’s charismatic upstart Gamal Abdel Nasser had successfully seized control of the Suez Canal. Le Pen’s military experience, in short, involved one depressing defeat after another. 

Returning to France, Le Pen linked up with Pierre Poujade, a frustrated bookstore owner who launched a right-wing campaign incorporating small-shop owners opposed to excessive French taxes. As a small-shop owner himself, Poujade was even more upset at the increasing competition from shopping centers and supermarket chains. Poujade organized mass protests of small-shop owners across France, and Poujadism, as the movement was called, became a slang term for reactionary resistance to postwar modernization.  

Taking advantage of Poujade’s brief surge in popularity, Le Pen managed to get himself elected as one of the youngest parliamentary deputies in France’s National Assembly. Partway through his term in office, Le Pen took a leave of absence for several months so he could serve with French paratroopers attempting to suppress Algeria’s struggle for independence in what came to be known as the Battle of Algiers. Numerous witnesses reported that Le Pen not only enthusiastically engaged in torturing suspects but also urged fellow soldiers to be even more brutal in their handling of prisoners.  

Returning to France, Le Pen attached himself to Hubert Lambert, the heir to a cement fortune, who also had dreams of restoring France’s monarchy. Lambert regularly dabbled in extreme-right movements, and Le Pen enthusiastically encouraged his fantasies, suggesting that if he ever came to power, he might make Lambert his minister of defense. Lambert was heavily into drugs and alcohol, and Le Pen and his wife, Pierrette, were suspected of accelerating his demise. Before Lambert died at age 40 he signed a will, turning his fortune and his mansion over to Le Pen and his wife Pierrette. 

Le Pen used the money to launch the National Front in 1972, which he soon merged with another small neo-fascist group calling itself the Ordre Nouveau (New Order). That group was banned the next year after it engaged in a violent brawl with communists during a protest against immigration. The National Front continued on. 

Le Pen began building his movement gradually. He competed unsuccessfully in French presidential elections in 1974, 1988, 1995, 2002, and 2007. Although he never got much more than 15 percent of the vote, his ideas clearly expressed the sentiments of a small, but significant portion of France’s population. His ideology earned the title Lepenisme

In 1984, he managed to win a seat in the European Parliament elections and secured enough votes to be repeatedly re-elected after that. 

The European Parliament’s impact on domestic French politics was always indirect, but the fact that Le Pen could marshal significant support began to be taken seriously in France. 

After the 1984 election for the European Parliament, journalists began looking more deeply into Le Pen’s past. Both the highly respected Le Monde, France’s equivalent to The New York Times, and Le Canard Enchainé, a satirical magazine that specialized in investigations, reported that Le Pen had engaged in torture. When Le Pen sued the two publications for libel, both found victims who had been tortured by Le Pen and brought them to Paris to testify. In the process, the witnesses also produced a Nazi Waffen-SS dagger with Le Pen’s name inscribed on the handle. Le Pen had lost the dagger when he was a paratrooper breaking into houses during the Algerian War. The paratroopers had returned several times to search for it. 

Le Pen escaped prosecution as a war criminal mostly because France had amnestied all the crimes committed during the Algerian War. The court, nevertheless, dismissed the libel suit on the grounds that since Le Pen clearly approved of torture, he could hardly consider being labeled a torturer libel. 

In 2002, Le Pen managed to get nearly 17 percent of the vote in the first round of France’s two-round presidential election, enough to qualify Le Pen for the final round of voting. Le Pen’s strong showing had largely been due to the weakness of the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, but it was enough to spark a panic concerning a possible Le Pen victory in France. A million people took to the streets, chanting, “A crook is better than a fascist. Chirac is better than Le Pen.” Jacques Chirac carried the second round of voting by 82 percent.   

Marine Le Pen was only 16 years old in 1984, when her mother, Pierrette, agreed to a divorce from her father. Pierrette was so infuriated by Le Pen that she posed nude in the French edition of Playboy just to humiliate her soon to be ex-husband. 

Marine formally joined the National Front two years later at the age of 18 and held a number of regional positions. In 2004, she was elected to the European Parliament, and in 2011, she was elected president of the National Front, with 67.6 percent of the vote.  Jean-Marie le Pen, who had led the party since its creation in 1972, became its president emeritus. 

In her first attempt at running for the president of France, Marine placed third with 17.9 percent of the vote. In her second attempt in 2017, she placed second in the first round with 21.3 percent of the vote, just behind France’s current president, Emmanuel Macron. In the second round, she managed to win 33.9 percent of the vote. At that point, she had to be considered a serious contender.  

Marine handed the day-to-day operations of the party over to Jordan Bardella, a youthful 28-year-old politician, in 2021, and Bardella was formally elected the party’s president in 2022, but it is clear that Marine still calls the shots. Her reason for stepping back from active management appears to be the need for more time and resources to compete seriously in France’s next presidential elections in 2027. Distancing herself a bit from the party’s daily operations may also help to give her a more acceptable image. 

Jean-Marie Le, Marine Le Pen

Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen speak in front of the Opéra Garnier in Paris, France, May 1, 2012. Photo credit: Blandine Le Cain / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

While Jean-Marie Le Pen, like Donald Trump, preferred to express his unfiltered, unvarnished emotions, Marine has focused on turning the movement from a protest movement into a credible political organization that might one day actually govern. In 2018, as a first step,t Marine ichanged the party’s name from National Front to Rassemblement National — National Rally. She then expelled some of the party’s more outrageous racists, anti-semites, and Nazi sympathizers.  Her own father,had already been banished in 2015, after he refused to attend a disciplinary meeting convened to deal with his comment that Nazi gas chambers were little more than a mere detail of what had taken place during World War II. Even for Marine, that was a bit too much. 

Although Marine gave the impression that she wanted to detoxify the party, she nevertheless still agrees with many of her father’s xenophobic notions. She is critical of immigration, opposed to globalization, in favor of economic protectionism, and opposed to giving any  authority to the European Union. She wants to separate France from American influence, would like France to drop out of NATO, and wants to replace the World Trade Organization and abolish the International Monetary Fund. 

She opposes multiculturalism and wants to de-Islamize French society, which took in a large number of pro-French Algerian immigrants after France lost the Algerian War. Like Trump, she would like to put a moratorium on legal immigration. Also, like Trump, she’d like to move France much closer to Vladimir Putin, his authoritarian, muscular vision, and his disdain for mealy-mouthed Western democracies.  

Unlike her father, many of Marine’s ideas sound just reasonable enough to win over a significant number of French voters. If she were to actually win a presidential election, it’s reasonable to expect that France would take a few steps back from attempting to work towards a global understanding and revert back to the kind of raw nationalism that has already led to two world wars. Marine Le Pen doesn’t care about that. Already in her mid-50s, divorced twice and involved in her third relationship, she is thinking about the here and now, not the future. 

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For Macron, the real threat from Marine is France’s next presidential election in 2027. French law bans Macron from running for a third term and the vote for the European Parliament was the last chance to see how well French political parties are doing before the 2027 showdown. Macron’s party, which calls itself Renaissance, is not doing well. Le Pen’s National Rally won twice as many votes. 

Macron’s decision to call snap elections for France’s National Assembly not only shocked everyone, it inspired genuine fear in just about anyone not associated with Marine Le Pen’s movement. 

As it turns out, Macron had already privately discussed his own party’s weaknesses during a private dinner with his closest associates, nicknamed the Musketeers, last May. Realizing that Le Pen would probably do well in the election for the European Parliament, they suggested calling for snap legislative elections immediately after the vote, reasoning that if Le Pen’s National Rally won a majority, Macron would still be president and could weaken Le Pen before the more crucial upcoming presidential election. And the snap election would awaken France to the danger. It would also provide Macron with a chance to clean out members of his own party who have frustrated his policies. Current projections show that the National Rally is likely to substantially increase its representation in the National Assembly, but fall short of an absolute majority. 

The elections, which are to be held within three weeks, will precede the Paris Olympics in July. Macron’s camp hopes the Olympics will defuse any negative sentiment after the snap elections. 

The election will help determine whether the French public still considers voting for Le Pen’s National Rally to be a protest against the party in power, or whether they are willing to switch sides and abandon France’s progress towards creating an inclusive society embedded in the modern world. Right now, no one knows. It’s hard not to see a parallel to the current political situation in the US. When Trump won the 2016 presidential election, it was seen at least partly as a protest against politics as usual. Trump managed to pull together a following of disgruntled voters by espousing many of the xenophobic notions that earned Jean-Marie Le Pen his following. Not too long ago, the National Front was seen as unacceptable in France. Now, no one is really sure about that. 

Not too long ago, the idea that Americans might choose a convicted felon, serial philanderer, and chronic liar to be their commander in chief also seemed unimaginable. Now, no one is sure about that. In the end, Donald Trump, like Jean-Marie Le Pen, might prove too extreme to be acceptable to the majority of voters. The real danger is that someone comes along whose rhetoric and manner appear to be less extreme, but who promulgates the same destructive ideas. In France, Marine Le Pen looks like that person. In the US, we will have to wait and see. 


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