France's National Front: Will Marine Le Pen take the reins?

Founder Jean-Marie Le Pen is silent on who will next lead the National Front party: Marine Le Pen, his populist daughter, or Bruno Gollnisch, his 'purist' right-hand man.

Jacques Brinon/AP
France's National Front party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, center, flanked by his daughter Marine Le Pen, right, arrives at a wreath-laying ceremony at the statue of Joan of Arc, within the party's traditional May Day march May 1, in Paris.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who heads France's National Front party, has long peppered politics with right-wing bons mots. (Nazi occupation was "not especially inhumane," he once said.) Now his daughter, Marine Le Pen, is showing that she, too, can make headlines.

She called on President Nicolas Sarkozy to step down if implicated in a bribery case dating to 1995. She recently knocked France's racially diverse World Cup soccer team: "I don't see myself represented by this France team."

And after police on June 15 banned a provocative "pork sausage and booze" party that was to be held in a heavily Arab-Muslim quarter of Paris, Ms. Le Pen said, "the French state has capitulated once again."

Succession campaign in full swing

Her higher visibility comes as a National Front succession campaign is in full swing. The senior Le Pen is set to retire as champion of a proud France that, he's long said, is being invaded and cheated by foreign hordes, Brussels bureaucrats, and globalization. He also decries what he calls excessive Jewish influence in the media.

An often-vicious party fight is under way between Ms. Le Pen and Bruno Gollnisch, Mr. Le Pen's stalwart right-hand man. The battle is over the face and direction of the far right, whose influence here has always outweighed its numbers.

Ms. Le Pen, tall, blond, and articulate, wants to move the Front away from the splendid isolation of its 5 to 12 percent vote and appeal to a mainstream that has also moved right. She has rebuffed her dad's anti-Semitism and speaks inclusively of gays and feminists – while nourishing an anti-immigrant, antiburqa, anti-Islam line that plays to a silent majority.

Mr. Gollnisch, serious, gray-haired, a professor and ultranationalist who speaks Japanese and Malay and is deeply loyal to Mr. Le Pen, wants the party to remain a haven for fellow travelers. His anti-Semitism is intact; a 2004 speech saying Holocaust facts are a "dispute of history" landed him in court.

Most French think the daughter, with her populist touch, will win. But in party ranks, Gollnisch is seen as a standard-bearer who put in time and hard work. He told Le Figaro newspaper: "I want … to defend the French identity, which appears more threatened than ever."

"She's a pure product of her father, and she's got the leader's name. That has weight," says Arun Kapil of the American University in Paris. "But to the card-carrying party member, Gollnisch has legitimacy. He goes way back to the '70s."

He adds, "If Marine wins, the Front national has a chance to break out … if Gollnisch wins, they retreat to 2 percent."

Gollnisch insists that he has the moxie to move the party out. He casts himself as a "little guy from the provinces." But so far he isn't even talking to the main center-right party of Mr. Sarkozy, where the voters are. His hatred for political correctness is reputedly visceral. "He prefers to fish in silent, dark waters," a Paris political analyst says.

His outreach is to figures like Philippe de Villiers, a denizen of the extremes who opposes the European Union, the euro, Islam, and Turkey in Europe; who wants riot police to use live ammunition; and who this month tried to ban a heavy-metal concert as "Satanist."

Ms. Le Pen, meanwhile, is taking on figures like Sarkozy and getting quoted almost daily. On the socialist left, she is compared to Sarah Palin, especially after claiming a feminist mantle.

And the return home this week of France's World Cup team, disgraced by its poor performance on and off the field, has only given Ms. Le Pen's earlier statements added weight. Much of the national reaction to the team's behavior was racially loaded, prompting urban affairs minister Fadela Amara to warn against "building a highway for the National Front."

Party witch hunt

Gol­l­nischians snarl that Ms. Le Pen, a tool of Zionists, is conducting party witch hunts to out his supporters. "She is an empty shell … compatible with anything," says former Front vice president Jean-Claude Martinez.

Gollnisch is "faithful to the fundamentals of the Front, whose program he wrote," says analyst Philippe Cohen. "When Marine is 'divisive,' Gollnisch says he is ready to rally the scattered forces of the extreme right."

Mr. Le Pen is silent on the internal struggle. He has long been the face of the European far right, and a powerful influence as the mainstream scrambled to match his ability to capture popular discontent. In 2002, he shocked Paris by facing Jacques Chirac in the national runoff. In 2007, his party did poorly. But Sarkozy's victory was partly based on adopting Le Pen positions and siphoning votes.

Whether the daughter can move the party into power politics is unclear. In The New York Times recently, she described the trials of being a Le Pen, but affirmed core party views: "There has been a withdrawal into non-French identities because we sapped French nationality of its content.… So how can someone be proud? We spend all our lives saying, 'We are ... colonizers, slavery promoters.' "

The Le Pens, in any event, seem here to stay. Mr. Le Pen's granddaughter, Marion Marechal Le Pen, ran in the March local elections. She's 19.


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