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Is Jean-Marie Le Pen the patriarch of European populism?

2 July 2018

4:51 PM

2 July 2018

4:51 PM

Jean-Marie Le Pen turned 90 last month and to celebrate he threw a party on Saturday for 350 guests. His three daughters were present, including Marine, whose attendance signalled the end of two years of hostility. The pair fell out when she expelled him from the National Front for repeating his belief that the Holocaust was “a detail of history”.

The rapprochement between father and daughter is also a political move on her part. Marine Le Pen knows she messed up in last year’s presidential campaign by focusing on Frexit when the National Front’s strategy should have centred on mass immigration and Islamic extremism. Ahead of next May’s European elections, she is going back to the party’s basics, and her father’s endorsement will help her in that respect.

Immigration from North Africa was the reason her father founded the National Front in 1972, and for decades Le Pen was persona non grata in polite society. This was an ostracisation on which he thrived, enabling his self-portrayal as the outsider who was being punished for his patriotism.

When he shocked the country by reaching the second round of the 2002 presidential election, Jacques Chirac refused to participate in a televised head-to-head with his rival. “Faced with intolerance and hatred, no debate is possible,” said Chirac, an attitude that goes a long way in explaining the resurgence of the European right in recent years. 

Le Pen has provoked plenty of controversy over the years, once advocating the quarantine of Aids sufferers and, on another occasion, criticising France’s football team for having too many non-white players. But it’s his view of the Holocaust that has been most offensive, his blithe reference to the extermination of six million Jews as a mere “detail” and his disgraceful puns about ovens. On the same weekend Le Pen celebrated his 90th birthday, Holocaust survivor Simone Veil was laid to rest in the Pantheon in a ceremony attended by Emmanuel Macron; Le Pen once said of Veil that “when I speak of genocide, I always say that they missed old woman Veil”.

In recent years, Le Pen has toned down his anti-Semitism, and such slurs are now more likely to come from the mouths of the French and the British far-leftAs for his views on immigration, they are now guiding government policy in Italy, Austria and across eastern Europe. Asked in a recent interview if he regretted being an observer and not a participant in this ideological wind of change sweeping through Europe, Le Pen replied in the affirmative but added that his greatest satisfaction was knowing it was he who had alerted the people to the dangers they faced.

Le Pen in his prime would probably have got on like a house on fire with Donald Trump, a pair of bullying braggadocios with a gift for tapping into the anxieties of the white working-class. Last month he retweeted the American president’s line about Europe’s big mistake of “allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture”.

For a nonagenarian, Le Pen is adept at exploiting the power of social media. He tweets regularly to his 124,000 followers and each week publishes an online video interview. But it’s the traditional media that is responsible for his renaissance. It began in February with the release of his memoirs, Son of the Nation, which became an instant bestseller and led to an additional print run of 50,000. For a few weeks he was all over the TV and newspapers, a name guaranteed to boost ratings or sales. He was even immortalised in song by the nationalist folk group, Les Brigandes, the lyrics of which savaged his daughter but praised the father for having “never sold his soul”.

In their attempt to explain what they called Le Pen’s ‘rehabilitation’, the left-wing newspaper Le Monde suggested it was because the brawling ex-paratrooper was now an old man, out of office, and just a harmless relic. Perhaps, but it may also be because on one or two issues the French – even liberal ones – now acknowledge he was prophetic.

In response to the 9/11 attacks Le Pen issued a statement in which he offered his condolences to America and warned that France could soon be targeted because of its “mad” immigration policy and its indulgence of Islam. He singled out the construction of mosques with money from Saudi Arabia and the acceptance of imams from Algeria as especially pernicious. Chirac ignored his warning, so too did Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande; and while Macron is reportedly prepared to act, the damage has already been done: a generation has grown up believing more in Islamic values than Republican ones.

Despite the reconciliation with his daughter, Le Pen will struggle to forgive her for renaming his party the National Rally. But then he knows, as she probably does, that her political career is in inexorable decline after her amateurish presidential campaign. Success in politics also involves a lot of luck and Le Pen didn’t have any in loudly announcing her intention to ‘detoxify’ the National Front just as European politics began to turn toxic.

The future is embodied by Le Pen’s granddaughter, Marion Maréchal who, like him, is a social conservative and economic liberal. In a birthday interview with Paris Match, Le Pen admitted that he was disappointed Maréchal had withdrawn from political life but said he had no doubt that she would soon be back.

Le Pen’s own comeback is something of a surprise, although not to his many supporters who have always regarded him as a plain-speaking visionary. What’s changed is that his ideology has gone mainstream and the pariah has become the patriarch of European populism.

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