Marine Le Pen is perhaps the most controversial and polarizing political figure in contemporary France. As leader of the extreme right-wing National Front, which espouses a strident anti-immigration theme, she has struck a chord in a significant minority of the French electorate – indeed, in the last presidential election of 2012, she scored an unprecedented 18 percent of the popular vote in the first round.
While that showing fell behind the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and eventual winner Francois Hollande (and prevented Le Pen from participating in the second and deciding round of the election), it nonetheless represented the best ever performance for her party.
In fact, she even outdid her father – the notorious Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has run for president unsuccessfully five times – who finished second in the first round of the 2002 election by gaining almost 17 percent of the vote (edging out Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin). In the second round, Jean-Marie was trounced by incumbent Jacques Chirac. Nonetheless, his performance that year produced an earthquake of sorts in the world of French politics.
Ten years later, his daughter Marine’s presence was so strong during the 2012 campaign that Sarkozy tried (and largely failed) to co-opt her anti-immigrant and tough law-and-order themes for himself in order to siphon off as many FN voters as possible.
Observers in France and elsewhere in Europe – still reeling from a brutal economic crisis – will likely be watching how well she does in the next president election in 2017.
But Marine Le Pen represents a new kind of extreme right-winger. After taking over leadership of the FN from her Jean-Marie two years ago, she has sought to soften her party’s image in order to widen its appeal. She has dropped the blatant anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies of her father, who founded the party in 1972, to focus exclusively on what she perceives as the rising threat of radical Islamists. Indeed, when Mohammed Merah, a Muslim of Algerian origin, massacred a number of Jews in the southern French city of Toulouse in early 2012, Marine was one of the first French politicians to express her condolences.
Now, according to polls, if a presidential election were to take place this year, Marine would be in an even stronger position as her father was in 2002. She would proceed to the second round with 23 percent of the vote, just behind former President Sarkozy with 34 percent. The current president, Hollande, would not even make it to the second round with only 19 percent of the electorate.
There are several reasons behind Le Pen’s continuing popularity with a core section of the French public – anxiety over immigration (there are now an estimated 6 million Muslims in the country, the largest such community in Europe) and the persistently fragile economy.
However, ironically, most of her supporters would rather be anonymous. Consider that last year, almost 6.5 million Frenchmen cast their ballot for Le Pen – but the FN has only 65,000 registered members. (This means that only one in 100 of her supporters are willing to identify openly with the party).
Hollande himself is another reason for Le Pen’s persistent popularity. Voters who elected the president last year are disappointed by his failures to ease the economic crisis -- France recently entered into another recession, while the unemployment rate is 11 percent, the highest level since 1998.
But, the main reason for Le Pen's relevance in French politics is the constant focus she puts on immigration, a very sensitive topic in France.
“Marine Le Pen is putting her focus on an issue that has much wider potential resonance in French public opinion today: the growth of Islam in France,” said James G. Shields, a professor of French politics and modern history at Aston University in the U.K.
“This has led her to champion secularism as a key component at the very core of French republican values. From having opposed the republic, the FN now claims to be its staunchest defender against the growing threat of Islam.”
Le Pen’s goal is to protect the idea she has of France, even though it means stigmatizing a sizable section of the population, namely Arabs and Muslims.
“What I defend is the idea that France is a secular country with Christian roots and it has to remain that way,” she said during an interview with the weekly magazine Zaman.
Le Pen asserted that the problem with Islam is its visibility, i.e., women wearing veils and burqas, people eating halal and observing prayers in public. Even though there are extremists in every religion, she said that “Catholicism or Judaism ... respect France’s secularism, because they do not have any visible signs.”
“There always has been Muslims in France,” she said. “But most of them arrived during the last 30 years. The only thing I regret is that this immigration is based on a religious radicalization,” suggesting that many of the recent arrivals are extremist fundamentalists, thereby posing a grave threat to France’s character and security.
In 2010, the French Parliament passed amid great controversy the “law prohibiting face-covering in public spaces.” It was seen as the “French Veil ban” and Muslims saw it as a means to target people who were observing the traditions of their faith.
That same year, Le Pen set off another furor by comparing Muslims praying in public in the streets of Paris to Nazi Germany’s occupation of the country during the Second World War.
“For those who want to talk a lot about World War II, if it’s about occupation, then we could also talk about [Muslims praying in the streets],” she said at a rally in Lyon. “Because that is occupation of territory. It is an occupation of sections of the territory, of districts in which religious laws apply. It's an occupation. There are of course no tanks, there are no soldiers, but it is nevertheless an occupation and it weighs heavily on local residents."
In France, her comments sparked outrage in some quarters.
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, originally from French Guiana, filed a complaint against Le Pen for “racial hatred incitement.” But as a member of the European Parliament (since July 2009), she enjoyed immunity from prosecution.
But now, three years later, the European Parliament may lift her immunity, which would lead to renewed legal action against her.
This would not be the first time that a National Front representative has losr such immunity – indeed, her father Jean-Marie was prosecuted and convicted after saying that the Holocaust was a “minor detail” of the Second World War.
Assuming Le Pen survives the latest outrage, remains at the head of the FN and decides to run for president again, there is little chance she can actually win.
“Depending on the lineup of candidates and the election dynamic, she could qualify as one of the top two candidates for the decisive second round – but against any mainstream opponent of left or right she would lose that runoff,” said Shields.
In the shorter run, the European Parliament elections are coming up in 2014. The National Front is expected to win between 18 and 21 percent of the French seats, which would represent 12 candidates, according to the latest polls, largely due to French apathy over these elections. Nonetheless, it will mean that Marine Le Pen will remain a formidable force in French politics for years to come.
Mathilde Hamel is a world intern reporter at IBTimes. She has written for the French local newspaper Paris-Normandie and for the blog of The New York Times ...