The upcoming French presidential election, at the end of April and the start of May, is no different to past votes. It is keenly followed by the electorate, and the arguments and accusations fly in the charged atmosphere, even more so in the current climate of economic crisis.
Among the frontrunners is Marine Le Pen, the leader of her father’s party, the Front National, now no longer an extreme right-wing outfit she claims, just a “patriotic right” fierce in its defence of national interest, and eurosceptic.
Her positions on security and immigration are hardline, but she has tried to pull her party away from its obsession with these two themes to broaden its appeal, ditching much of its previous uncompromising anti-semiticism for example, and that may make her more dangerous especially as many claim the leopard has not changed its spots.
Her votes, come April, will weigh heavily on this election.
Marseille is France’s second-biggest city and a key hunting ground for the FN. 3000 people came to see her at this rally to judge how Marine is coping with her first-ever presidential election campaign. Her father fought four, and is still in the background. The party faithful are unanimous in their support for Marine, and the following comments are typical:
“The Le Pen family’s been fighting for France for 30 years, and for ordinary people, not the rich.”
“I’m 18 years old, and for me Marine Le Pen symbolises France, and the future of us young people.”
“She’s exceptional, a fighter, and tenacious.”
“We don’t have any other choice. The only one is Marine Le Pen, the two others are just the same, and will just continue with more of the same.”
“The handover of power was done in a way all the party members hoped it would be, and I believe it is what the people, the French who are not yet FN supporters, were also waiting for.”
Marine Le Pen took over the FN family business in March 2011, when her father made way after founding and leading the party for 30 years.
Its high-water mark came in 2002 when Jean Marie Le Pen scraped into the second-round presidential runoff by a hair’s breadth, relegating the Socialists to observers in the showdown, which Jacques Chirac won easily with 82% of the votes.
It was a political earthquake and signalled the beginning of the rise of Marine through the party hierarchy. She disposed of her rivals with her father’s help, and polished her image of a single mother battling against all odds.
She claimed to be a new broom that would sweep the FN clean of the policies that made it unelectable. She banished its neo-nazi skinhead wing to the sidelines and cracked down on anyone making nazi salutes. On taking the presidency, she promised to clean up the brand and make it a respectable vote-winner.
“My father was for many a wake-up call for a whole series of problems France found itself in, and which today are hitting us hard. We wanted to build something, a new chapter in the FN that would take us to power. That’s what we want, to take power and then apply our ideas,” she said in a euronews interview last year.
And what ideas they are! The packed hall in Marseille is greedy for them. Gilbert Collard is a slick media-friendly lawyer running her campaign.
“She’s a brave woman who uses every ounce of her energy, a rare thing nowadays, to back her convictions which are not improvised in order to mop up votes,” he maintains.
The FN has always done well in Marseille, with its large immigrant community, so Marine makes sure the lion’s share of her hour-long scripted speech hits the security and immigration buttons.
“We went from assimilation to integration, and then when that failed we dropped any demands at all on immigrants to respect our ways. Today we have far more immigrants than before, and very often they are imposing their rights and cultures on the French people. Every year more of them arrive…
When we see whole districts around our towns, or in our towns, or even whole towns themselves given over to gang rule, then we are right to be worried…
Marseille has become the sad symbol of Nicolas Sarkozy’s terrible law and order failure. Where’s the clean-up he promised?”
While Le Pen paints her main rivals, the Socialist’s François Hollande and the UMP’s Nicolas Sarkozy as being cut from the same cloth, her main target is the outgoing president. After 45 minutes of reading from her script, something her father never needed as he famously improvised every word, she lets her hair down with this ad-lib attack:
“Nicolas Sarkozy repeats his broken promises of 2007..in fact, that’s all he does…
I recorded a TV programme this morning; don’t you think I look a little younger? That’s because every Saturday I take five years off my life, my own little youth cure, when I hear Sarkozy make the same promises as in 2007.”
On international and European questions the Marseille crowd hears nothing; nothing about pulling France out of the euro for example. Le Pen insists she supports a “Europe of nations”.
“As soon as I am elected to the presidency I will name a minister of Sovereignties and undertake a massive renegotiation of European treaties. I will do this with friendly nations, with European nations who, like us, are seeing their electorate’s rising democratic aspirations for, at last, the construction of a Europe of Peoples.”
Father Jean-Marie Le Pen is still the FN’s honorary president, and is usually present when his daughter speaks. At the end the old bruiser is invited to lead the crowd in its rendition of the Marseillaise, and it seems like he has never been away.