When the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen imploded in the last televised debate of the 2017 presidential election, many thought her political career was over.
Le Pen says she suffered from a crippling ophthalmic migraine on the day she debated Emmanuel Macron. The excuse didn't change anything. Her financially bankrupt party was hounded by the European Parliament for misappropriation of EU funds. Its legacy of racism and anti-Semitism was so pungent that Le Pen changed the party's name from Front National to "Rassemblement National", also known as RN, or National Rally.
The RN headquarters in a residential street in Nanterre is an hour by metro and bus from central Paris. A shabby statue of Joan of Arc, historic symbol of the Front founded by Le Pen's father Jean-Marie, stands forlorn between the front door and the parking lot. St Joan looks like a rescue from a flea market, her gold paint weathering off.
There is a chasm between the role the Le Pens have played in France and Europe, and their exiguous means. In a 90-minute group interview last week with the Anglo-American Press Association in Paris, Marine Le Pen repeatedly and proudly called the RN "the leading opposition party". But the RN's headquarters,where the interview takes places, resembles a prefab office building in a former Eastern Bloc country.
Internal feuds have prevented the Rassemblement National building up a cadre of educated, experienced officials. Jordan Bardella, the 23-year-old head of the RN list in next May's European elections, "was born and raised in a bad neighbourhood", Le Pen tells us. "He knows the daily problems of immigration, unemployment and sectarianism."
On radical Islam
Le Pen has tried to make the country forget her father’s jokes about gas ovens, his comments about the Holocaust being a “detail” of history, and his praise for the second World War collaborationist leader Marshal Philippe Pétain. In her quest for respectability, she even expelled Jean-Marie from the party he founded.
The daughter apparently believed that by discarding anti-Semitism but retaining anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, she could win over large segments of the French electorate. She was not entirely wrong.
Now the party’s history has returned to haunt Le Pen. On February 11th, France’s interior ministry announced a 74 per cent increase in anti-Semitic acts last year.
If Marine Le Pen is cheerful and punchy these days, it is because she has found fellow travellers
This month alone, a tree planted in memory of Ilan Halimi, a Jewish youth who was kidnapped and tortured to death by a self-called "gang of barbarians", was cut down.
Someone daubed swastikas on Paris street art portraying the French stateswoman and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil. The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who is Jewish, was accosted in the street as a "dirty Zionist" by a man wearing the yellow vest of the gilets jaunes protesters.
In the hours before a Paris protest march against anti-Semitism on February 19th, it emerged that a Jewish cemetery in Alsace had been desecrated.
An 80-year-old Jewish woman called Mirielle Knoll was murdered, allegedly by a Muslim neighbour, in Paris in March 2018. The Jewish organisation Crif had opposed Le Pen's presence at a march in honour of Knoll. Le Pen went anyway, and was booed.
Le Pen also threatened to sue Agnès Buzyn, the health minister, who accused her of being "two-faced" on the issue and "running to Austria or Brussels with all the neo-Nazis every time she gets a chance".
Stanislas Guerini, the head of Macron's LREM party, said the RN "was built on anti-Semitism, on fascism".
“I expelled from the FN everyone who was even vaguely connected with racism or anti-Semitism,” Le Pen protests plaintively in our interview. “All the murders of our Jewish compatriots have been done by Islamic fundamentalists.”
Le Pen admits the RN has welcomed former members of the Identitaires, a far-right group who oppose immigration and Islam, and who first came to attention for occupying the construction site of the grand mosque in Poitiers in 2012. Like many RN members, the Identitaires believe Renaud Camus's theory of the "great replacement" of the white European population by Arabs and Africans.
"The Identitaires have never been banned or convicted for violence," Le Pen says. "They're being prosecuted for a banner against migrants. I'm sorry, but I don't see what is reprehensible about that."
Le Pen seems so preoccupied by Europe, Macron and the gilets jaunes that she no longer launches into spontaneous tirades against radical Islam.
“The threat is extremely grave in France, because radical Islam prospered here,” she says when I ask if Islamic State has been conquered. “It’s an octopus with tentacles everywhere, in the [immigrant] neighbourhoods, the associations, the sports clubs. They’re still financed from abroad, because no one has decided to eradicate radical Islam in this country.”
On the EU
For a long time, the Le Pens were on the fringes of Europe. Other far-right populists shunned them because of their sulphurous reputation. If Marine Le Pen is cheerful and punchy these days, it is because she has found fellow travellers.
Last October, Le Pen travelled to Rome to see the Italian interior minister, head of the far-right Lega and Italian government strongman Matteo Salvini. A poster at RN headquarters shows Le Pen and Salvini side by side, before the French and Italian tricolours. "All over Europe, our ideas are coming to power," it says.
A poll conducted by the European Parliament this week concluded that Salvini's party is likely to win 32 per cent of the Italian vote and 27 seats in the European assembly in May, giving the Lega the largest portion of the vote in Italy and making it the second-largest party in Strasbourg, after the German centre-right CDU.
Salvini, Le Pen and the Polish Law and Justice party say they will join forces after the election.
The success of populist right-wing parties has changed Le Pen’s strategy. She no longer wants a referendum on “Frexit”. She would rather undermine the EU from the inside.
"We are no longer isolated at all on the European stage," Le Pen says. "Like the Lega in Italy, or the Swedish Democrats [a far-right party that is now the third largest in Sweden], we can legitimately hope to change Europe from within . . . This path was opened to us by the rise of movements that defend the same ideas we do, some of whom are in government. That is the case in Hungary, Austria and Italy.
The EU is adrift, that it has distanced itself from people, that it now works against people
“It is extremely encouraging for us. We can turn our backs on all that made European peoples suffer, on policies that led to the economic and social failure of the EU. I summarise it this way: the European Union is dead. Long live Europe.”
Le Pen bears particular animus towards the European Commission, whose members are nominated by national governments. She wants to replace it with "a simple technical secretariat" that would serve the European Council, as the heads of state and government are collectively known.
“The commission has appropriated powers far beyond those attributed to it in the treaties,” Le Pen claims. “Particularly in matters of immigration. Why should the European Commission force a country to accept migrants, impose the conditions in which they are received, and determine the number of migrants? Where is that written, in what treaty?
“One sees that the EU is adrift, that it has distanced itself from people, that it now works against people, after ignoring them in the past.”
On the gilets jaunes
Le Pen maintains an ambiguous relationship with the gilets jaunes – or yellow vest – protesters, who have destabilised France over the past three months. On the one hand, she says she's not sure who they are. But she insists that the riots and vandalism that have characterised the movement are the work of the far-left.
"For years and years, every time a social movement has emerged the extreme left has infiltrated it and brought violence," Le Pen says. She accuses the government of "giving [far-left vandals] the benefit of total impunity so as to destroy the credibility of the gilets jaunes movement".
Several gilets jaunes have attempted to constitute lists for the European elections, but each time they are attacked by their cohorts and give up. Polls indicate a gilets jaunes list could siphon votes from Le Pen's party. Others expect her to invite yellow vests to join RN lists.
Le Pen evades that question, but claims a form of parenthood over the movement. "It is the France of the forgotten, that I've been talking about for years, that has revolted," she says. "When I said there was great suffering in the country, that many people could not live decently even though they were working, that it was unjust, that whole swathes of the country were abandoned, that the state did not care about them, I was foretelling this gilets jaunes movement."
Le Pen speaks most scathingly of Macron, her nemesis in the 2017 presidential election. She called on him at the Élysée on February 6th, as part of Macron's consultations in the "great national debate" he has organised in the hope of ending the gilets jaunes crisis.
To hear Le Pen tell it, she read the riot act to Macron, telling him he must establish proportional representation, which would give the RN far more seats in the National Assembly, establish referendums by popular initiative, as Salvini and his populist allies have done in Italy, dissolve the legislature and hold new elections.
“I told him that he cannot pretend to be a new and different president, that he cannot claim to represent a new world, if he reacts exactly like the old one.”
At the end of January, Manlio Di Stefano, an undersecretary for foreign affairs and a member of the populist Five Star Movement which shares power in Italy, said Macron “suffers from small penis syndrome”.
Le Pen claims she was unaware of the insult, but then turns the question around to attack Macron.
“It seems to me that Macron fired the first shot, when he referred to the ‘populist leprosy’ of Italian, Polish and Hungarian leaders,” Le Pen says. “These insults obviously created tension which pushed some European leaders to raise their voices, including, and I regret it, unfortunate remarks about Emmanuel Macron.
“During the [presidential] campaign, Macron’s supporters said it was him or chaos,” Le Pen continues. “Well, in 18 months he has brought total chaos to France. He has brought violence and division, and he’s sown chaos and division in Europe too. This man takes chaos everywhere he goes.”
Macron and Le Pen both claim to have blown apart the traditional left-right divide in French politics. They use the same vocabulary, but with different meanings. Both talk about globalisation. He is for, she is against. And nationalism. He is against, she is for. And sovereignty. She wants to "reclaim" national sovereignty for France. He wants sovereignty for Europe. The French need protection, Le Pen says. Since the gilets jaunes crisis, Macron has talked more about the protective powers of Europe.
The polls: Not a spent force
France’s two-round, majority voting system deprives the RN of significant representation in domestic politics. But the then Front National won the last, single-round European elections five years ago, with nearly 25 per cent of the vote, four percentage points ahead of the runners-up, the conservatives who now call themselves Les Républicains.
At the end of 2018, polls indicated that in May the RN would again win the European elections.
But an Ifop poll published on February 20th confirmed Macron has reversed the situation, at least for the time being. His LREM party is now in the lead, at 24 per cent of the vote, to 20 per cent for Le Pen’s RN.
Les Républicains are third at 10 per cent, the ecologists fourth at 9 per cent, and the far-left LFI has shrunk to 7.5 per cent.
So Le Pen is not a spent force after all. By winning one-third of the presidential vote in 2017, and by confronting Macron in the European poll, she can credibly call herself the leader of the French opposition.
She may be a flea market Joan of Arc, but it’s a role she relishes.