Le Pen Is Mightier

Why, just four years after its supposed demise, does France’s National Front have its highest poll ratings ever?

“I used to worry about the National Front,” a middle-aged writer told me when we met in France in February. “Suddenly I’m beginning to wonder if I’m not further to the right than they are.” The National Front, or FN, has been Europe’s archetypal fascistic party of recent years. Founded by Algerian War veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen, anathematized in the media, manipulated by Socialist president François Mitterrand as a means of dividing his opponents, it was embraced by ex-colonists, ex-Communists, and the unemployed as a vehicle for protesting the changes that mass immigration brought in its wake. Le Pen was offensive, clownish, unpredictable. He defended Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. He described the Holocaust as a “detail” of World War II. He walked onstage with a photo of the head of a Socialist minister on a platter. And in 2002, he shocked the country by taking 17 percent in the first round of the presidential election, finishing second and eliminating the Socialist candidate. That episode led to a national soul-searching that has not yet abated.

France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, seemed to stymie the FN’s appeal in the 2007 presidential election. In head-on style, he addressed the issues they professed to worry about, particularly immigration and the violent crime that most French people associate with it. The FN took a paltry 10 percent of the vote. Le Pen, now 82, retired this past winter, and his party appeared to be a closed chapter in French political life. Suddenly, however, the FN is the hottest political party in the country.


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