Friday, April 08, 2016

“Marine” Le Pen, her mother once said, “is the absolute clone of her father”; They are both, in their own way, political narcissists

One of the in-depth articles in The Economist's new sister publication, 1843, is the take on Marine Le Pen, l'étrangère by Sophie Pedder, The Economist's Paris bureau chief.

 … The politician who once compared Muslims praying in the streets in France to the Nazi occupation is fast emerging as the scariest, most redoubtable party leader in Europe. On a continent shaken by the double convulsions of Islamist terrorism and the greatest refugee influx in modern history, identity politics is marching back, and Le Pen is in the vanguard. Long before other leaders began to shut the doors and roll out barbed-wire fences, she denounced a borderless Europe and warned darkly of a “giant migratory wave” that would engulf the continent. Today, such troubles play straight into her hands, strengthening her appeal at home and her standing among right-wing nationalists abroad. She believes herself to be on a patriotic mission. She wants to defend a nostalgic version of France from an army of perceived threats – the euro, globalisation, competition, immigration and Islamism. “She is fighting for a sovereign, patriotic, free country,” says Florian Philippot, her closest lieutenant, who came to the party from the nationalist left. In the mind of bien-pensant French, however, Le Pen seeks nothing less than to overturn the liberal order in France and dismantle the post-war project of an integrated Europe. …

Out of the rubble, into a mansion

 … Le Pen shares neither Jean-Marie’s talent for blustery oratory nor his self-destructive narcissism. But her methodical opportunism and street-smart intuition make her a far more fearsome politician. Le Pen père, whose politics dug into a seam of anti-Semitic, ultra-nationalist, Catholic nativism, sought to provoke. His daughter has greater ambitions: to disinfect a marginalised extremist movement and turn it into a serious party ready to govern. “Her father never wanted power, and never tried to achieve it,” says Sylvain Crépon, a political scientist at the University of Tours, who studies the FN: “He avoided responsibility. She on the other hand is building up a network of elected officials, working her dossiers, recruiting experts: exactly what is needed to win power.”

It was not inevitable that she would go into politics. That formative explosion in the bedroom was, she says, a political awakening of “the most violent, the most cruel, the most brutal” sort. It was not just the realisation of her father’s vulnerability that marked her: it was also the shock of discovering the indifference of French officialdom towards her family. No perpetrator was ever caught. No word of consolation came from the local mayor or any government representative, even though at the time Jean-Marie already had behind him a six-year spell as a member of the French National Assembly. His toxic politics meant that his family was ostracised, and the young Marine resented this perceived injustice. She wasn’t just angry; she wanted to rehabilitate the family name and secure the FN the respect she thinks it deserves. “If I’m very honest,” she says today, her tall, broad frame somehow outsized for the tiny sixth-floor office she occupies at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, “at the start of my political career, that was a driving force.”

Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen, known from childhood as Marine, was born in a maternity clinic just outside Paris on August 5th 1968, two months after students started ripping up cobblestones and overturning barricades on the Paris left bank. … Pierrette described their life as “a bit bohemian”, with “friends at all hours of the day or night” dropping by for wine and improvised dinners that usually ended in hearty song, with Jean-Marie blasting out sea shanties learned in his Breton childhood.

 … Two words recur in Le Pen’s recollections of those years, at school in Saint-Cloud and later as a law student in Paris: sacrifice and wound. The FN was on the rise and its leader accused of torture during his time as an officer in the Algerian war (allegations Mr Le Pen has denied). Life at school as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter involved “a series of little humiliations: the parents of my friends who wouldn’t invite me to their house, or wouldn’t let them come to ours; the brutality of certain teachers.” Did this influence her decision to go into politics? Her gaze is unblinking: “We are all the children of our wounds.”

The politics of victimhood

The outsider is a popular pose among politicians. Many try to strike it: think George W. Bush and his Texan reinvention, or even François Hollande, a graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration who ran for the presidency from a faux-humble post as leader of the council of rural Corrèze. David Cameron (wisely) does not even try. Only a few, among them Angela Merkel (a physicist raised in the former East Germany and, like Le Pen, a woman in a conservative, patriarchal party), carry conviction.

 … Despite her dynastic position and her family mansion, the overwhelming impression she leaves is of a politician driven by the angry energy of the authentic outsider. Polite Parisian society certainly sees her that way – and, in a country governed by a tight, self-protecting elite, her status gives her particular power over the political imagination.

Her childhood was decidedly peculiar. Her mother walked out when she was 16, took up with a journalist, who had been researching a biography of Jean-Marie and ended up seducing his wife. Le Pen did not see her mother for 15 years: “My world fell apart.” Huguette Fatna, a Martinican who is godmother to Le Pen’s second daughter, told me that her mother’s exit “tore her apart”. And that was not the end of it. In 1987, after a bitter divorce case, Jean-Marie gave an interview in which he declared of his wife with characteristic bombast, “If she hasn’t got money, she could always become a cleaner.” Pierrette’s response was to pose for Playboy in a skimpy French maid’s outfit. The girls were shattered. Le Pen wrote: “It was an act of unbelievable psychological violence that she inflicted on us.”

 …  “What she lived through when she was young, and then the three babies and the divorce, all reinforced her will to fight,” says Fatna, who helped her at the time. Le Pen puts it this way: “It takes a lot to destabilise me.”

What is so intriguing is that the battle she has chosen to fight is the same as her father’s. This was not a given. If there was one daughter who everybody thought would take up the Le Pen struggle, it was the eldest sister, Marie-Caroline. She was the first to go into local politics, standing as a young FN candidate at her first election in 1985 against Nicolas Sarkozy, then the mayor of Neuilly. Marie-Caroline was later elected a regional councillor in the Paris region, a post she held for 12 years. “Marie-Caroline was far more politicised,” says Edouard Ferrand, who knew the Le Pen girls at the time and is now an FN member of the European Parliament: “And Yann took charge of organising the big political events. But Marine was completely apart from all of that.”

For a while, “she didn’t think about politics”, says Gilbert Collard, a lawyer who represented Le Pen’s mother against Jean-Marie in their divorce case. Le Pen was set on a career as a lawyer, having studied at the University of Paris-Assas and then entered the Paris bar. “She was a very good lawyer. She had conviction and courage and a desire to win,” says Collard, who is now a far-right deputy. Le Pen was not up all night with just her books. She was also known for heavy partying, chain-smoking, and as a bon vivant: “laddish” is the word she uses, unapologetically. “She wasn’t at all uptight,” says Edouard Ferrand, a member of her social circle at the time, with a blush.
 … In the competition for a place on the FN’s national executive, she was up against traditionalist old-timers calling for “Tous sauf Marine” – anybody but Marine.

Yet there is a single-minded ruthlessness about Le Pen, which also explains the calculated charm and professional smile that she can turn on and, just as abruptly, off. When she stood for the FN leadership in 2011, determined to forge a more respectable party, it was against Jean-Marie’s preferred heir, the ultra-nationalist Bruno Gollnisch. Her decision to run stemmed from an unbending faith both in the project and in her capacity to bring about the dédiabolisation (de-demonisation) which her father had systematically resisted, by distancing the party from his anti-Semitic and xenophobic outrages. Over the years, father and daughter had repeatedly rowed about the direction to take the party. “Believe me, he was not at all happy when I decided to run,” she says. In the end, he swung behind her, but only weeks before the vote. “All his life – and he has led this party for over 40 years – he has found it difficult to step back,” Le Pen says. His view, she suggests, was simple: “the FN, c’est moi.”

The ties that bind

 At the heart of Le Pen’s quest for power is this relationship with Jean-Marie: a constant tension between affection and rivalry, duty andrevolt. “With the father these girls have, either you rebel or you surrender,” says Gilbert Collard: “If you don’t react, if you don’t stand up to him, you disappear.”

 … The decision to expel Jean-Marie, says Nicolas Bay, the FN’s secretary-general, was “a moment of personal courage”. Not everybody around Le Pen thought her capable of it. The last straw was when Jean-Marie repeated his claim that the Holocaust was a “detail” of the history of the second world war. It imperilled Le Pen’s efforts to purge the party. The split with her father “was extremely hard on a personal level”, she says. “Jean-Marie Le Pen is an unreasonable personality, with a histrionic, theatrical side,” says Gilbert Collard. “We couldn’t continue our political struggle with all these discordant notes.” Her team insists that the row was not staged, pointing to the public hurt Jean-Marie inflicted on her when he declared himself “ashamed that she carries my name”, urged her to “marry her concubine” (Louis Aliot and Le Pen are not married) and railed against the “gay lobby” of advisers close to her within the party. Collard suggests that, far from feeling wounded, her father revelled in their break-up: “Jean-Marie Le Pen has lived his life through opposing others. He is at ease with conflict.”

Yet the uncompromising brutality of her decision to expel her father underlines how alike they are. “Marine”, her mother once told a French newspaper, “is the absolute clone of her father.” They share the same strengths, including a canny reading of political space and how to exploit it. Jean-Marie built his protest movement around the Fifth Republic’s demands for a strong party system. Le Pen is trying to exploit the traditional parties’ current fragility and engineer their collapse. They are both, in their own way, political narcissists.

 … Above all, father and daughter share a cold and calculating political instinct. She suffered young from his political choices; he became the victim of hers. Le Pen does not deny the likeness. Of the three daughters, she admits, “physically, I am the one who most looks like him, and the one whose character is the most like his.” After all, she could have chosen to stay out of public life, like her sisters (one of whom went off to work for Club Med for a while), and retreat instead to her suburban house west of Paris, where she has lived since a Doberman belonging to her father killed one of her beloved cats. Yet here she is, like her father before her, back on the campaign trail at the price of inevitable absences from her own teenagers. She recognises that she has chosen to make “enormous sacrifices”, and with her eyes wide open. “The heart either breaks or hardens,” she says, quoting a French proverb: “Mine hardened.”

 … Does she ever worry about her own safety? With a chillingly steady gaze, she replies: “I am impermeable to fear.”
More on Marine Le Pen, notably these:

• The Leader of the Front National, Allegedly France's
Equivalent of the Tea Party's Extreme Capitalists,
Says That “Obama is way to the right of us”

• The Question Arises: Is the Le Pen Party Extreme Rightist
or Is It Actually a Reincarnation of the Communist Party?