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A Tablet Exclusive Interview With Marine Le Pen, Head of the National Front

Part 4: Is the queen of Europe’s Far Right, and possible future President of France, an enemy of Islamists, Jews, or both?

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((Photoillustration by Erik Mace for Tablet Magazine. Original photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images))
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This is the fourth of a five-part series, France’s Toxic Hate. Sign Up for special curated mailings of the best longform content from Tablet Magazine.


The National Front, the xenophobic populist party that stands in the vanguard of the fight against Islamists in France, is doing its best these days to drag French Jews into its ranks. As I’m finishing this piece, one of the most prominent figures of the party, Gilbert Collard, is coming out with a new statement defending Israel against the so-called “pro-Palestinian” demonstrations. The Front’s headquarters, where last month I interviewed the party’s leader Marine Le Pen for Tablet, are located in an ugly two-story house with gray concrete walls in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris of sad quiet little streets spreading in the shadow of the nearby glassy skyscrapers of the La Défense business center.

Walking through the gravel courtyard of the house, you arrive first at a guard post with a large French flag on top. Right in front of the glass door, in armor and displaying another flag, stands a golden “life-size” statue of Joan of Arc. She’s shown moving audaciously forward—in the exact reproduction of the stereotype that would illustrate primary-school history books of long ago—back when, in the imaginary France that serves as the Front’s model for the future, teachers had authority and all students were seen as Christians of rural background. Once in the hall, looking through the window at the rear of the house while the security checks you out, you can admire the gigantic rooster in dashing colors erected on the lawn, the rooster being, of course, the symbol of France. Taste in the National Front headquarters is deliberately non-Parisian, showing off its lower-middle-class refusal to show off—militantly lacking taste.

My first memory of the Le Pen family’s holdings, which now include the largest political party in France, is, by contrast, of the luxury of their villa in the southeast and much more upscale suburb of Saint-Cloud, where Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the Front and then its leader, still lives, and where he received me 32 years ago. Heavy brand-name leather couches, heavy lamps, heavy statues of black slaves supporting a marble heavy chandelier—kitschy too, for sure, but the urge to possess and to show off, and the money behind it, was unmistakable.

France's Toxic Hate

My second memory is not what Le Pen told me back in 1983, which I have entirely forgotten, but my own disarray at the end of our interview. The National Front, until then, had been but a marginal formation with microscopic electoral results, less a party, really, than an absurd bunch of fascist creeps. The core of the party, whose supporters might have been generously numbered in the hundreds, consisted of ex-members of the Charlemagne division—the French squad of the Waffen SS during World War II—as well as ex-OAS members from the fascist military organization set against independent Algeria. Around them had coalesced a few young students, fans of Nazi-era nostalgia. Le Pen himself was an exotic figure, a ringmaster of anti-migrant hatred known for the black eye-patch he wore and for having practiced torture during the Algerian war, where he’d served as a legionnaire. As a politician, though, nobody took him seriously.

But in the fall of 1983, in Dreux, a small town 50 miles away from Paris, his party’s candidate made news with an astonishing 17 percent score at the first round of the municipal election—and, by allying himself with the democratic right wing party of the time, the RPR, had wound up winning the town. I was in Dreux on the evening that the results came in, and I witnessed the psychodrama of the defeated socialist candidate lost in tears among a crowd of supporters who carried him in the streets and half asphyxiated him as they yelled out in an improvised demonstration against “Nazism.” As a member of the Sans Frontières team, the twice-monthly magazine that dedicated itself to covering the rising issues of the cités and fought for migrants workers’ rights, I myself had no doubt that the Dreux election, that bolt from the blue monopolizing every political commentator’s attention in the country, was indeed the sign of a fascist resurrection in France. Which is how I came to be the first reporter in France to interview Le Pen.

Thus, my severe mental disarray. For I spent most of my two hours with Le Pen fighting to keep intact what I then took as my moral sense and my solid political judgment. I fought against Le Pen’s brutal energy, which I liked, his cheeky humor, which I enjoyed, his anarchic talent for provocation, and his fun, even—not to mention the quality of his French, which betrayed a literary culture largely beyond most of the political figures I could think of. In other words, who he was didn’t fit my category of what he was.

Now, what’s toxic poison for good citizens is often nectar for writers. Le Pen was my first “villain.” Although I was too young, at 23, to understand it, his power of attraction may have come, in part, from my own literary taste for excessive natures—or maybe from a nature in me that literature was helping to tame. But it was also, I think, the product of something else: There was, all too clearly, much more in him than the easy cartoonish figure with which the bien pensant left, myself included, caricatured him and his movement. There was his reality. There was the French history of which he was one variation, and me another. Being in the same room with him was to confront the carnal thickness of the collective memory in front of which moral judgment, when not backed by serious knowledge and experience, so easily turns to cliché and misapprehension. And that misapprehension, because it made the reality of who he was all the more unexpected, made him also all the more interesting—and all the more seductive.

Who Jean-Marie Le Pen was didn’t fit my category of what he was.

Today, of course, confronted with the NF’s centrality to French politics, the Dreux election looks either like a warning or a joke. Since Jean-Marie Le Pen, now 86, retired and his daughter Marine took over the Party in 2011, the National Front has become the first party of France—and if the French economic crisis worsens in the next couple of years, as all predictions say it will, a Front victory in the 2017 presidential elections begins to look like a possible bet. (According to a new poll from July, if the elections took place today Marine Le Pen would win by 26 percent of the votes against 25 to ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy and 17 only for the current Socialist Party President, François Hollande.) Even a (still probable) defeat would look good for her. Since whoever loses to her in the first round is out of the game for a long time, and since Marine Le Pen would only lose the second round by a small margin, she would immediately become the de facto sole serious opposition leader. Which would put her in pole position for the 2022 presidentials.

Marine, as she’s called in Le Front, obviously does contemplate leading France. As she sat deep in her chair behind her desk and joined her hands either to meditate on an answer to my question (“If you’re elected tomorrow, what will be the main lines of your politics in the Middle East?”) or to enjoy the prospect of her future victory, it seemed clear that there are worse things, at 40, to envision in one’s future than becoming the first woman president of France. She’s blonde, tall, wears a jacket, and, in person, looks less like her father than it seems on TV. The massive silhouette, the heavy face are indeed the same, but those masculine traits are softened by the almost tender light in her eyes when she speaks. Her smile’s a woman’s smile—but a woman looking, it seems, for good male companionship, or maybe male acceptance, rather than seduction. Even when she burst out in anger against what she called “the system,” which happened every other minute, there was nothing in her of the verbal savagery that both repelled and amused me in her father.

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A Tablet Exclusive Interview With Marine Le Pen, Head of the National Front

Part 4: Is the queen of Europe’s Far Right, and possible future President of France, an enemy of Islamists, Jews, or both?