How Marine Le Pen made a party co-founded by Nazi collaborators mainstream
As French voters head to the polls on Sunday, their choices are stark. Elect former investment banker, Emmanuel Macron — whose newly minted En Marche! movement is barely a year old — or watch Marine Le Pen become president of France.
Marine Le Pen rose to fame as the leader of the far-right National Front party, which she inherited from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. And although she temporarily stepped down as party leader last week, French journalist Agnès Poirier says Le Pen remains very much aligned with her father's party, and his political legacy.
"Detoxifying" the party's image
That legacy is a controversial one to say the least. Jean-Marie Le Pen co-founded the National Front in 1972, accepting one-time Nazi collaborators into its ranks. In 2012, he was convicted of contesting crimes against humanity for saying that Nazi occupation of France was "not particularly inhumane." And in 2015, he called Nazi gas chambers "a detail of history."
Marine Le Pen has gone to great lengths to distance herself from this rhetoric, even expelling her father from the party. And according to Poirier, she has been somewhat successful.
The question I ask myself is: is it an illusion?- Agnès Poirier
"She has little patience for the Second World War, and she purged the party of its most vocally racist, anti-semitic, and dodgiest characters … The question I ask myself is: is it an illusion?"
Playing the gender card… but not in the way you think
Of course, Marine Le Pen's gender has also played a role in her perceived 'softening' of the National Front's image. But Poirier says the presidential candidate has deployed gender in other ways as well. Namely, to bolster support for her anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism agenda.
"For instance with the niqab ... she says it breaches women's rights. And of course that resonates with French women because secularism and feminism is something that is a shared ground in France."
She uses her gender for xenophobic purposes.- Agnès Poirier
Indeed, women are only mentioned twice in Le Pen's 24-page, 144-point political manifesto, and one of those references attacks Islam for restricting women's "fundamental rights."
"It's a convincing illusion," says Poirier. "She uses her gender for xenophobic purposes."
The rise of the far-right in France
To some extent, French voters have been here before. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen himself made it to the run-off vote for the presidency, alongside conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac. But the end result was a landslide victory for Chirac, and large-scale protests across the country.
"There couldn't be a starker contrast," says Poirier. "Fifteen years ago, I remember very well, the shock of seeing Jean-Marie Le Pen's face. And we did demonstrate every day! I remember taking part in a demonstration in Paris where I think we were close to two million [people]."
In the lead-up to Sunday's vote, meanwhile, Marine Le Pen has been polling around 40 per cent. And although there have been some demonstrations against her campaign, none have rivaled those of 2002. After decades spent on the fringes of French politics, the far-right seems to have become a legitimate option for voters.
This success is in spite of occasional cracks in the veneer of respectability Le Pen has managed to cultivate for her party. Most recently, she came under fire for denying French culpability for the Vel d'Hiv Roundup — a mass arrest of Parisian Jews for deportation to Nazi concentration camps in 1942.
"It's as if, suddenly, we see Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father, appearing in front of our eyes!" - Agnès Poirier
Poirier says these slips, combined with Le Pen's rhetoric on Islam, make it clear that Marine's National Front may not be such a far cry from the party her father founded after all.
"It's as if, suddenly, we see Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father, appearing in front of our eyes!"
Ni le banquier, ni la fasciste!
Meanwhile, many voters are threatening to abstain altogether on Sunday, spray painting slogans such as 'Ni le banquier, ni la fasciste' on bus shelters and billboards across the country, and uniting behind hashtags such as #SansMoiLe7Mai.
According to Poirier, this movement comes in response to a widespread desire for change, following two decades of being governed by the country's establishment political parties — the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement, and the centre-left Socialist Party.
She says this anti-establishment attitude is one that could have repercussions well beyond Sunday's vote.
"If, tomorrow, Emmanuel Macron is elected, then he's got a lot of work to do. Because if he doesn't address those burning issues, Marine Le Pen is almost assured to become president in five years' time."
To hear guest host Rachel Giese's full conversation with Agnès Poirier, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.