France’s Sarah Palin takes the spotlight

marine le pen 4
Marine Le Pen attends a press conference after being announced as the new
of French nationalist party Front National. Marine Le Pen, daughter
of outgoing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been elected to lead the
party, beating 60-year-old Bruno Gollnisch.
Photo By Patrick Durand

By Jake Lamar
NPR

She has become the face of the far right in her country. She is a constant, controversial presence in the media, extolling the glorious history of France, warning against the tide of immigration, adamantly calling for law and order, ferociously defending herself against criticism.

She has an uncanny talent for employing divisive rhetoric that thrills her followers and disturbs the majority of the country. She freaks out the conservative political establishment as much as she does the left wing. There is no doubt that she will run for president in 2012. But would she be easy to beat in a general election? She seems relentless. How do you say “a pit bull in lipstick” in French?

Meet Marine Le Pen. Last weekend she became the head of France’s Front National, succeeding her father, the infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen. Once underestimated as an extremist fringe party, the FN became a consequential political force in 2002 when the elder Le Pen made it to the final round of the presidential contest, going one-on-one against the center-right incumbent, Jacques Chirac. Le Pen got crushed, 82 percent to 18 percent. But with the urban riots that rocked France in November 2005, the FN’s anti-immigrant, tough-on-crime attitude went mainstream.

By the 2007 presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy, representing the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, knew he had to peel off votes from the FN in order to guarantee a win against the Socialist Party. Calling urban rioters “scum,” stirring up a debate on French national identity and cracking down on immigration did the trick. But seeking re-election at the end of his five-year term, President Sarkozy finds himself in the political fight of his life. His approval rating is an anemic 34 percent.

Back in 2007, Jean-Marie Le Pen complained about his former supporters preferring Sarkozy’s “FN lite” rhetoric to the unvarnished real thing. Today Jean-Marie Le Pen is 82 years old. With the next presidential race looming, the bombastic, jut-jawed founder of the FN recognized that it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of leadership — to his bombastic, jut-jawed, 42-year-old daughter.

The coronation of Marine Le Pen took place at a convention in the city of Tours last weekend. In his final speech as party leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen told the delegates, “I entrust you with the destiny of our movement … its unity, its pugnacity.”

Marine, the youngest of Le Pen’s three daughters, is every bit as pugnacious as her papa. Last month she compared Muslim worshippers who pray in the streets outside overcrowded mosques in France to an “occupation of parts of the territory.” The reference to the Nazi occupation of France during World War II was so explicit that a prosecutor is weighing a charge of incitement to racial hatred against Madame Le Pen.

Yet the FN hopes that Marine’s image as a modern woman — she is a lawyer, the twice-divorced mother of three — will help make the party more palatable to the average voter. And Marine made clear in her acceptance speech last weekend that she’s got President Sarkozy in her crosshairs.

Most French voters consider the prospect of a President Marine Le Pen as scary as many Americans consider the prospect of a President Sarah Palin. Perhaps the key difference between the two women is that Marine is a deadly serious politician. The French won’t be seeing her in any reality-TV shows. It’s impossible to imagine her choosing media stardom over holding high office.

If Marine, like her father in 2002, made it to the final round of the presidential contest, would she really stand a chance of winning? One Sarkozy ally was dismissive: “The Front National has changed its first name, but it has kept the same message and the same methods.” But Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate for president in 2007, sounded a bit more worried, calling Marine Le Pen “a more credible, more dangerous candidate than her father.”

Jake Lamar is a novelist living in Paris.

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