There’s no mistaking the Front National’s headquarters in the western Parisian suburb of Nanterre. Outside the entrance stands a martial statue of a Joan of Arc in full body armour. Inside there is a garish, gigantic plastic coq gaulois. Further inside sits the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, a handsome 42-year-old blonde in heels, tailored jeans, frilly blouse and no make-up. Bob Tyrrell, editor-in-chief of the American Spectator, and I have been granted what is (for foreign media) a rare audience with the most forceful new character in French politics.
It is impossible to dismiss Le Pen or her party as a fringe force in French politics. Since being elected party leader eight months ago, she has been nothing short of a phenomenon. She is a smash hit in the television studios and narrowly trails Nicolas Sarkozy in the opinion polls ahead of next year’s presidential elections. She puts her lawyer’s training to use when laying out her party’s agenda for a stronger state, law and order, nationalistic protectionism and social welfare. Her party is known best for its policies on immigration, but since becoming leader she has been keen to broaden the FN agenda. When we meet, the conversation starts with Brussels.
‘The EU has become the Soviet Union of Europe,’ she says, matter-of-factly. ‘It was created without the consent of the people, and often against the people. It crushes us with rules, regulations and norms, while suffocating our economies with the straitjacket of the euro.’ And the euro itself? ‘Collapsing now, before our very eyes,’ she says. ‘And when it goes, the EU in its present form will disappear along with it. Then the nations of Europe will recover their sovereignty.’ And then? ‘We would simply return to the franc. The parity would be one franc for one euro.’
She thinks France should take a second look at its ties with the United States. ‘A French president’s first responsibility is to defend the interests of the French people,’ she says. ‘Often our interests coincide with those of the US, but sometimes they don’t. It’s perfectly natural for France to keep its independence vis-à-vis the US, but Nicolas Sarkozy has failed to do that. He faithfully follows America’s lead.’ What about the operation in Libya? Surely Sarkozy, along with David Cameron, had taken the lead there? She dismisses the idea with a wave of her hand. ‘Sarkozy wanted to give the impression he was leading. But you may be sure he would never have started operations there if Obama had opposed it.’
She looks forward to the dissolution of Nato as well as the European Union. ‘There is no longer any reason for Nato to exist,’ she says. ‘Many people are concerned about a clash of civilisations. It’s true that our civilisation is in danger, but the recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, for example, are more likely to cause that clash than prevent it. They play into the hands of Muslim fundamentalists and turn public opinion against the West, especially when civilians are killed by our bombs.’
France’s Islamic community is arguably the largest in Europe: an estimated six million Muslims, a tenth of the population. Le Pen has demanded that French Muslims assimilate and accept the country’s Christian heritage — and talks up fear of the country being Islamified. ‘It’s a great danger here,’ she says. ‘Those governing us today are cowards. They give in to every demand made by ethnic and religious groups. And those making the demands are always the hard-liners. Today there are entire neighbourhoods in France where our republican laws are not applied. Often they are run by Islamists.’ Multiculturalism is the basic problem, she insists. And her solution? ‘We must actively discourage immigration. That means cutting social benefits to foreigners, no access to public housing, and giving preference to French citizens for jobs.’
That sounds like protectionism, and inddeed Le Pen is no defender of the free market. ‘The unfettered free market has shown its limits,’ she says. ‘It now consists of producing goods made by wage slaves, and selling them to consumers who have lost their jobs due to off-shoring.’ Her economic remedy is dirigisme, not deregulation. ‘The state should regulate the free market’s excesses and the abuses of globalisation,’ she says. ‘The government should favour French companies for public sector contracts, for example.’
So is she laying out the manifesto of a classic far-right party? ‘Not at all,’ she shoots back. ‘The party is 40 years old and has participated in all elections during that time. We are the only one that favours proportional voting so all parties can participate. We are the only ones calling for the people’s right to initiate referendums on important subjects. We’re no more far right than Charles de Gaulle.’
Surely, though, her father created the Front from a motley collection of nostalgic Vichyites, anti-Semites, violent skinheads and so on? ‘No, that’s wrong,’ she counters. ‘Jean-Marie Le Pen created a party that welcomed everyone. It’s true that there were some members who had worked with Vichy, but there were also former members of the wartime Resistance. That was in 1974, and he said it was time to put all that behind us and create an all-inclusive party of patriots. Our adversaries try to frighten the public by labelling us “extreme right”.’
She seems confident, however, that the public are not scared of supporting her. ‘All the polls show us with about the same numbers as Sarkozy,’ she says. ‘I think we have a good chance of making it into the second round of voting and reaching power. I can’t predict the future, it could be in 2012 or later. But populist parties are rising all over Europe with programmes like ours. It’s a strong trend.’
Joseph A. Harriss is the American Spectator’s Paris correspondent.