As France prepares for its presidential elections next year, one “dark horse” candidate that is likely to emerge is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the country’s most prominent right-wing political group, Front National (The National Front), which advocates against further immigration into the country. Marine is the daughter (and successor) of the group’s notorious and legendary founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
International Business Times spoke with Douglas Yates, a professor of political science at the American Graduate School in Paris as well as The American University of Paris, about the Front National (FN) and its charismatic new female chief.
IBTIMES: Marine Le Pen is the new leader of France’s National Front Party. Does she have any fundamental policy differences from her father, Jean-Marie?
YATES: Yes, she is a young woman, and therefore has a slightly different position on issues like abortion. Her father wanted to annul the Loi Veil, which gives women the right to abortion. She does not. She prefers to treat differences as 'cultural' rather than 'racial,' speaking about 'Islam' more than 'Arabs,' and she does not deny the Holocaust like her father did.
You might object that these are not policy issues, but it is important to remember that the FN has never held the responsibilities of government.
Perhaps the biggest change is that she is trying to develop FN expertise on economic issues. The FN needs to develop sophisticated arguments about how it will fight unemployment, where her father just blamed the foreigners for taking French jobs.
IBTIMES: What kind of support might Marine get from the public in the presidential election next year? I believe her father polled something like 10 percent when he ran nine years ago.
YATES: Marine Le Pen is rising in the polls. Last November, only 13 percent of French voters said they would vote for her in the first round. Today that has risen to 19 percent.
Many people are wondering if 2012 will be a reverse of 2002. Back then Jean-Marie Le Pen got around 17 percent of the vote in the first round, knocking out the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin, and advancing to the second round against Jacques Chirac.
This time the polls show the Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn [the head of the International Monetary Fund] in the lead, and Marine Le Pen has been eating away at the right-wing supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy.
The possible scenario is that Strauss-Kahn will face Le Pen in 2012. However, France's two-round elections mean that in the second round, everyone will vote against Le Pen, as they did in 2002. So her primary role will be as a spoiler.
IBTIMES: Could Jean-Marie Le Pen’s longtime associate Bruno Gollnisch challenge Marine for the party leadership?
YATES: No, he lost his bid for the leadership of the FN in the last party congress. Gollnisch must either splinter, or get behind the Le Pens, and as experience has shown, a splintered ultra-nationalist vote is too small to win elections.
IBTIMES: Did Sarkozy have to kowtow to the extreme right in order to get elected president in 2007? It seems like he’s taking a hard-line on immigration and national identity.
YATES: Yes, one of Sarkozy's major achievements in 2007 was breaking the rise of the National Front. It was demonstrated that he took away votes from Jean-Marie Le Pen by playing on themes of insecurity and immigration, but also by promising jobs and a stronger economy.
Many people who vote extreme right are unemployed working-class people who used to vote extreme left. Their concerns are both cultural and economic. Sarkozy has always tried to play on their fears. As Marine Le Pen has risen in the polls, Sarkozy has re-emphasized strong positions on crime and national identity. He even spoke about Islam in terms of a being a problem during a prime time television appearance last week [Feb. 10]. Clearly, he is playing for the FN voters, but the question is if he can do this and still manage to maintain his own Gaullist and allied centrist supporters.
IBTIMES: Is Sarkozy’s popularity sagging?
YATES: Plummeting. For the moment his support is almost entirely concentrated in his own [Union pour un Mouvement Populaire]UMP party. This ensures that he will probably stand as the party's candidate in 2012. But he needs to prove that he can regain the confidence of the French people. This explains his controversial statements about Islam.
Polls show that 42 percent of the French consider the presence of a Muslim community as a menace. He knows what he's doing. But unfortunately for him, there is nothing he can do about the world economic crisis, and this has undermined his main campaign promises of 2007, that is, to reform the economy.
IBTIMES: Does the National Front oppose France’s membership in the EU? Has it made any comments about the euro and the massive bailouts of Greece and Ireland?
YATES: Paradoxically, while the FN is anti-European, the FN is also an active participant in the EU. Because of the EU's voting rules, proportional representation, the European Parliament is one of the few places where the FN has any seats.
Fear of the EU, which Le Pen famously called an ameoba, has served as a leitmotif for ultranationalists, whose voters tend to be less educated and have a hard time understanding the distant, elite European institutions.
But Le Pen's speeches tend to focus less on economic bailouts to Ireland and Greece than on scary hoards of unwashed immigrants flooding through porous European borders.
IBTIMES: What percent of France’s current population is Muslim?
YATES: According to official estimates there are somewhere between five and six million Muslims living in France, which means that around one-in-ten French are Muslim. They are France's number-two religious group, right after Catholics. Larger than the Protestants; larger than the Jews.
IBTIMES: Has Marine Le Pen or anyone in her party made any explicit comments about the ongoing unrest in North Africa and Middle East?
YATES: Yes, after congratulating the democratic aspirations of the People (a traditional populist position) she raised the specter of unwashed hoards of boat people crossing the Mediterranean and the fear of Islamic Fundamentalists coming to power.
Le Pen’s people are viewing the disturbances in North Africa through the lens of increased migration. Thousands of Tunisians are arriving in Italy, and because they speak French, may soon be in Marseille or Paris (where the largest Tunisian community outside of Tunisia resides). Now this is really not the problem for the FN. The problem is Algeria. Were a people’s power movement to arise in Algeria, and overthrow the government, and unleash waves of migration, then the FN would be concerned.
Let's just say that Marine Le Pen couldn't be happier. Here in France they say that, The worse things get for France, the better they get for the National Front.