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Madame Rage

Marine Le Pen's Populism for the Masses

French politician Marine Le Pen is attracting new voters to the National Front, the right-wing populist party founded by her father, by railing against immigration and globalization. With France's elections a year away, Le Pen is already polling ahead of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Thursday, 7/7/2011   11:30 AM

When Marine Le Pen walks into a room, she dominates it physically. She is slim, wears tight jeans and blazers and has dyed blonde hair, and yet she seems as if she were walking into a ring, tense and ready to lash out.

The 42-year-old French politician has inherited her father's broad shoulders and wide face. She is unmistakably the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, but she is also very much her own person. She fascinates people because she both resembles and contrasts with the man who was the bête noire of French politics for decades.

She also has her father to thank for a powerful voice that booms even when she is speaking normally. It sounds deep and hoarse. It is the voice of a woman who has been smoking for years, but most of all it is the voice of a fighter. There is aggression in her voice, and even a hint of vulgarity. Marine Le Pen bills herself as someone who comes from the bottom and is determined to stick it to those whom she calls "the caste" -- France's political elite.

Hard-Hitting Words

On a sunny afternoon in Metz, a city in the Lorraine region of eastern France, Le Pen is speaking in a tiny, jam-packed conference room at the Hotel Technopole, a shabby concrete box of a building in an industrial area. The venue seems at odds with the larger-than-life image Le Pen has acquired through countless cover stories and television appearances. But despite the surroundings, her words are full of raw energy, and it quickly becomes clear that she is an extremely talented politician.

Using her notes instead of a prepared speech, she speaks in short, hard-hitting sentences. She talks about issues like the loss of buying power, and about people who have no more than €50 or €100 ($71.50 or $143) left over at the end of each month. She warns against refugees from Tunisia, and against immigrants in general. She demands social welfare systems for the French instead of for immigrants. And then she finally gets to her central issue: the fight against globalization, which Le Pen says is destroying France.

She wants to leave the euro, reintroduce customs borders and nationalize banks. Her vision is the antithesis of a Europe that hardly anyone, even in France, believes in anymore. "What are the others, the conservatives and the socialists, proposing? Nothing! They are busy fighting the National Front!" She rants and she is audacious, unlike the well-trained spin doctors normally seen on television, and she appeals to many people.

"Elections are sexual affairs," the author Christine Angot wrote recently in the daily newspaper Libération. "Marine Le Pen appeals to 20 percent of us and fascinates 80 percent. A mannish woman, phallic, we like that. A woman who dominates her father and gets better results."

In Second Place

Since January, Le Pen has been the chairwoman of the right-wing populist National Front (FN) party, a position in which she succeeded her father. France is obsessed with her. With the next presidential elections less than a year away, some polls place her in second place, ahead of unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy and just behind Martine Aubry, the socialist politician who announced her candidacy last week. This could put her in the run-off election -- which would be a triumph for Le Pen.

When her father managed the same feat nine years ago, on April 21, 2002, many French perceived it as a national catastrophe. In the first round of voting, Le Pen was ahead of Socialist Lionel Jospin. By the next day, protesters were shouting "Never again!" and French citizens formed alliances against the radical right wing. In the run-off election, 82 percent voted for Jacques Chirac and only 18 percent for Le Pen. The villain had been driven out once more.

When Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front in the 1970s, he also invented European right-wing populism. With his slicked-back hair, horn-rimmed glasses and the eye patch he wore in the early years, he was the caricature of the ugly right-winger, notorious for his efforts to downplay the Holocaust. Le Pen came across as a tyrant, a monster from another time, a man who did not hesitate to shout at and even physically assault his adversaries. His supporters included deeply conservative Catholics, right-wing extremists and Vichy diehards -- but the majority were disappointed protest voters.

The party's greatest success was followed by a rapid decline. The National Front, divided to the point of rupture, almost went under. The party needed a new face and, ironically, found it in the old man's youngest daughter. It now looks as if it needed precisely her to transform the FN from a coalition of the despised into a party like any other. According to opinion polls, the majority of the French already see it as a regular party -- and as a party that one doesn't just vote for out of dissatisfaction, but because one is in favor of Marine Le Pen.

On First Name Terms

Modern European right-wing populism no longer aims to shock people, but rather seeks to advance into the heart of society. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders and the Danish politician Pia Kjaersgaard have already made it, while Marine Le Pen is still hard at work, doing what she calls "de-demonization." The difference between her and her father is that she seems normal in a way that inspires confidence, the kind of woman one would expect to run into with her children at the local sports field. The French refer to her by her first name -- as if she was an old acquaintance.

The FN is most successful in provincial towns like Hénin-Beaumont in the north and Metz in Lorraine, where industry has migrated abroad and unemployment is high. There is no feeling of radical change at Le Pen's appearances in these cities. Instead, the audiences she addresses in drab rooms are sheepish party members who are quick to point out that they are not racists before the issue is even raised. Only when Le Pen is standing in front of them do they suddenly straighten up, as if this person were someone who could clear them of all suspicion.

In Metz, she attacks the political class, what she calls the "UMPS system," a fusion of the acronyms for Sarkozy's conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and the Socialist Party (PS). She disparages their politicians as nothing but graduates of elite schools who "have colonized politics for the last 30 years." The National Front, she says, aims to produce a "new elite from the ranks of the people." "They don't like that!" she thunders. "They say to themselves: Who are these workers, these housewives, these students?"

She talks about politics the way ordinary people talk about politics. "This is shocking," she says. "Outrageous!" Le Pen is selling rage, and people are buying it. The National Front has long been the strongest party among blue-collar workers, and now it hopes to capture the middle class.

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