France's Marine Le Pen aims to shape a 21st century far right

Marine Le Pen reached out to right and left in her first speech as leader of France's far-right National Front party. She also spoke to core party values, saying France was 'at risk of dismemberment.'

Jacques Brinon/AP
Marine Le Pen (l.) reacts after her election as leader of the French far right party National Front during their national congress in Tours, western France, Sunday. Le Pen, the 42-year-old daughter of far-right firebrand Jean Marie Le Pen (r.) won slightly more than two-thirds of the vote in an election for its new president.

Telegenic Marine Le Pen yesterday formally took the reins of France's far right party founded by her famous father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, amid expectations she will try to reshape it as a more 21st century populist party ahead of 2012 elections.

For nearly 40 years, Mr. Le Pen’s National Front has been a force in French politics and often has had more influence than its political representation would indicate – bluntly calling out a French conservative streak in times of uncertainty. In 2002, Le Pen senior managed a run-off for the presidency with Jacques Chirac, but he said Sunday that in 2011, his daughter is more “in tune with the times.”

Indeed, Ms. Le Pen, in her first speech as party leader, immediately made overtures to both right and left. She called for economic and social “patriotism,” saying that France is not “a caliphate,” or Islamic state, and describing the trends of globalization that particularly concern the French left as “a cultural tsunami and a moral Chernobyl.”

She also spoke to core National Front views that France’s destiny as a great nation is being diluted and damaged by foreigners and by the European project of integration: "Our country is at risk of dismemberment. ... The values of our civilization, our traditions, our way of life, and our customs are being contested in many quarters – in schools, in the public sphere, and in entire neighborhoods.”

The younger Le Pen’s vote-getting potential in the large center-right of French politics is said to unnerve President Nicolas Sarkozy – and may account for the president’s shift this summer to a more overtly law-and-order message that targeted immigrants, Islam, and Roma gypsies. That effort appeared to backfire, and Mr. Sarkozy has since sought to portray himself more in international terms as the leader of the G-20 this year.

Le Pen junior defeated a challenge inside the party conducted this fall by traditionalists led by Bruno Gollnisch, who were considered more hardlline espousers of far-right doctrine. Mr. Gollnisch, like Le Pen père, have cast doubt on the extent of the Holocaust. Gollnisch lost the bid and declined to accept the No. 2 party position.

The senior Le Pen, in departing, was unrepentant about inserting ethnic and even racist overtones into French politics, saying he was only challenging “received opinions.” During the weekend, he even managed a slur when a French journalist of Jewish origins claimed he was forcibly removed from a meeting owing to his ethnicity. Said Le Pen, "The person ... believed it was necessary to say that it was because he was Jewish that he was thrown out. That couldn't be seen either on his credentials or on his nose – if I dare say it."

Yet Marine Le Pen has sought to distance herself from her father’s anti-Semitic tones, and has taken an inclusive line with gays and feminists – while at the same time continuing the anti-immigrant and anti-Islam diatribes that have given the National Front some of its special piquancy. France in recent years has voted for a ban on Islamic veils or full face covering in public places.

Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate defeated in 2007 by Sarkozy in national elections, said Sunday that Marine Le Pen would be “a more credible and more dangerous candidate” than her father.

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