Marine Le Pen:

Is France's National Front leader far-right?

By Hugh Schofield

Childhood awakening

Marine Le Pen's political awakening came at the age of eight, when she survived a bombing at her family's Paris home.

Five kilograms of dynamite had been placed on the landing outside the apartment at 9 Villa Poirier. The explosion ripped open the entire front of the building. A baby in the next-door flat fell five floors and was saved by the branches of a tree.

In her autobiography, the woman who took over the leadership of France's National Front (FN) from her father describes the chaos, the smoke and debris.

She and her two sisters “were on our knees shivering, holding hands, praying with the fervour of despair… when we heard the voice of our father shouting, 'Girls, girls, are you alive?'”

Bomb damage at Villa Poirier, Paris, 1976(Getty Images)
Bomb damage at Villa Poirier, Paris, 1976

The mystery of who tried to kill Jean-Marie Le Pen and his family on the night of 1 November 1976 is still unsolved.

At the time the FN was just four years old, a fringe party of the far right including some on the anti-Semitic extreme.

For Marine Le Pen the attack changed everything. The family home was destroyed. She lost school-friends, whose parents were too scared now to let them near her “dangerous” father.

Jean-Marie Le Pen with daughters Yann and Marine, early 1970s (Getty Images)
Jean-Marie Le Pen with daughters Yann and Marine, early 1970s

More profoundly she came to understand that she and her family were different - they would never be treated as normal people. Instead of sympathy, there was hostility.

A cordon sanitaire was created around us - don't go near the Le Pens.”

Marine Le Pen

Today Marine Le Pen is often described as having a hard exterior.

“After everything she went through in her youth, she built herself a shell,” says her friend and senior FN colleague Steeve Briois.

Pejorative adjectives like cassant (brittle) and clivant (divisive) are commonly applied.

But at heart there is that emotional toughness, a determined self-reliance whose origins surely lie in the difficult psychological conditions of her childhood.

Without that toughness, she could not have pushed the FN to its current unprecedented heights.

She now has a genuine chance of winning the French presidency.

And without that toughness she could certainly not have achieved the act that made that success possible - the symbolic “killing” of her father.

How Marine took control

On a Friday evening in France's rural east, Marine Le Pen has taken her election campaign to a community hall in the small town of Clairvaux-les-Lacs.

Before a mainly working-class, mainly middle-aged audience of 300, she develops the themes at the heart of her party's 144-point manifesto - from prioritising jobs for French nationals to “automatic” expulsion of undocumented immigrants.

Marine Le Pen talks with practised confidence. In a previous life she was a lawyer who defended in the Paris courts the sort of immigrants she now wants expelled.

This is her sixth year as leader of a party traditionally seen as far-right. It is also her second tilt at the presidency - she won third place with nearly 18% in 2012.

That bettered anything her father achieved, even in 2002, when he came second to Jacques Chirac on an anti-immigrant, law-and-order platform.

Even more is expected of her now.

Watching Marine in action, you can understand the appeal. There is a hint of the “everywoman” about her.

People like the lived-in, authentic persona, the sense she gives of combining hard work with the aura of someone who knows how to have a good time.

FN supporters gather to hear Marine Le PenClairvaux-les-Lacs, France, February 2017(Getty Images)
FN supporters gather to hear Marine Le Pen at Clairvaux-les-Lacs, France, February 2017

A political player in France for years, her message - anti-immigration, anti-EU - is consistent and unchanged.

Out here in the sticks, people adore the fact that she is so hated by the establishment in Paris.

Marine owes Jean-Marie. In daughter as in father there is the same pugnacity - ready for a scrap with a hostile world.

There is the same plain-speaking humour - the French call it la gouaille. To cheers, she declares:

There are two things I want to give back to you, the people. Your voice... and your money!”

Marine Le Pen

Then there is the physical resemblance, with the strong features and the blonde hair. Marine was the third and last Le Pen daughter, and her parents may well have been hoping for a boy.

Today Marine's mother Pierrette says her daughter is just like Jean-Marie with long hair. Jean-Marie himself puts it more crudely: “She is me with breasts!”

But today Marine and her father are entirely estranged. The rift is not a charade to help along her political career. It is a total breakdown. The pair have not spoken for more than two years.

“In this family, politics is stronger than blood,” says journalist Olivier Beaumont, author of a book on the Le Pens.

“Jean-Marie could not bear to see someone else, even his own daughter, taking control of the party he had created and controlled for 40 years.”

It was like a Greek tragedy unfolding, and it ended like a Greek tragedy - in a symbolic parricide.”

Olivier Beaumont, journalist

She did an honourable thing, argues Marine's close friend Jean-Lin Lacapelle. “For the sake of politics and for the sake of France, she did the hardest thing a child can do - she cut the cord with her father.”

The final break came in April 2015, when in an interview on French radio Jean-Marie Le Pen did what Marine had long feared he would do. He repeated le détail.

Mention le détail to anyone in the National Front today and their face hardens . They know exactly what it means. In September 1987 a dark moment became a turning-point in the party's history. In their biography of the man, Pierre Pean and Philippe Cohen call it “the day Le Pen became Le Pen”.

He was asked in an interview about a notorious Holocaust denier. Did he share the man's ideas?

In his reply, the FN chief was at his ambiguous worst: “I do not say that the gas chambers did not exist. I never personally saw them. I have never particularly studied the issue, but I believe they are a point of detail in the history of World War Two.”

Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2014 before their estrangement(Getty Images)
Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2014 before their estrangement

Jean-Marie Le Pen never escaped from the aftershock of that remark - downplaying the Holocaust. It was a gift to his enemies, who now had evidence that the FN was anti-Semitic.

Worse, Jean-Marie reacted to the hostility by digging in further. Over the years there were further verbal provocations, and he amassed more than 15 separate convictions in the courts.

Then came the 2015 interview when he said le détail all over again.

Marine Le Pen looked on with horror. She disassociated herself from the remarks.

Over the years she had become increasingly convinced that her father was incapable of winning power. Worse, maybe he never wanted power.

In 2002 Marine had observed with satisfaction her father's first round success in the presidential race. But what left more of an impression was his utter wipe-out in round two.

With just 17.8% to Jacques Chirac's 82.2%, Jean-Marie had barely made any advance at all from his first round score.

Voters had united against him.

Jean-Marie Le Pen's miserable result in the 2007 election (fourth place on 10.4%) set the seal on his decline.

Maybe his real raison d'etre was to be a perpetual gadfly on the back of the French body politic, irritating but irrelevant.

Time and again after she was elected as FN leader in 2011, Marine Le Pen would make clear her desire to “normalise” the party and make it electable. But time and again Jean-Marie grabbed the headlines with incendiary statements.

After his repeat of le détail in 2015, he was suspended by the party and soon expelled, though technically he remains its honorary president.

A family-political drama had reached its climax.

The very qualities he had inculcated in Marine by example - the cussedness, the pugnacity, the refusal to back down - were turned against him.

Normalising the party

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Now Marine Le Pen is everywhere, and so are her lieutenants.

As the presidential election draws near, Florian Philippot, Nicolas Bay, David Rachline, her partner Louis Aliot, and a handful of others saturate the morning TV talk shows. They are practised, presentable, professional.

Philippot, her close adviser, has his own YouTube channel where he appears in an office kitchen dubbed the Marine cafe, railing against the latest factory closure or European free-trade deal.

For years the party's far-right views were regarded by the French media as toxic, but the boycott is history.

“A few years ago when I first interviewed Marine Le Pen, I got a kind of frisson with the hairs sticking up at the back of my neck. I felt I was flirting with the untouchable,” says journalist Elisabeth Levy.

So is it truly a party like any other?

Ask most observers, and they will say that the process of dédiabolisation (de-demonisation) is genuine and more or less complete.

Young FN supporters, 2017(Getty Images)
Young FN supporters, 2017

The older generation with nostalgia for the collaborationist wartime Vichy regime, or for France's colonial rule of Algeria, has moved on.

Racist comments are outlawed and people who make them are chased from the FN.

In 2010, before being elected leader, Marine Le Pen was roundly criticised after comparing Muslims praying in the street to the German occupation.

Now she has softened her tone, saying she does not regard Islam as “incompatible” with French democracy. The FN has also tried to build bridges with the Jewish community.

Meanwhile across the West, other nationalist parties - in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere - have emerged which make the FN much less of a French exception.

Events too have worked in the FN's favour.

The jihadist attacks on Paris and Nice are part of it. But just as much is the popular disillusionment with the Paris and Brussels elites, and the growing fear of what they call in France le déclassement - the loss of economic and social status. People feel poor.

“We treat the FN like we would any other politicians,” says Beatrice Houchard who covers the party for L'Opinion newspaper . “No favours - but nor do we go out of our way to find something negative to say.”

And with acceptance has come electoral success. After victories in municipal, European and regional elections, Marine can arguably claim to lead the country's most popular political party.

Such an idea would have been laughable just a few years ago.

We are now the number one party among the youth. We are the number one party for the working class. We are the number one party for farmers.”

Jean-Lin Lacapelle

“We are making big gains in the civil service,” continues Lacapelle - Marine Le Pen's close friend.

“In the police and army, and we are not doing badly among small business-owners. We represent a cross-section of France.”

But unlike nationalist parties in some other countries, the FN does not do well among the over-65s.

And if normalisation of the party is complete why does a shadow still persist over the FN's name?

Do the words National Front and Le Pen have a perpetual power to alienate?

Its critics strenuously argue the party's ethos is unchanged.

For Laurent Joffrin, editor of left-wing daily Liberation, the FN still favours the insider and scapegoats the outsider.

Today the implicit accusation they direct at Muslims is exactly the same as the one they used to direct at Jews.”

Laurent Joffrin, editor of Liberation

“That these people are in some essential way different, and therefore dangerous to national unity,” he says.

The persistent accusation is that in its modern, “normalised” form the party is not being entirely frank - that in private, members are far more bigoted than they ever let on openly, and that their public discourse is in some way coded.

Racism, xenophobia, Marine and co, clear off!Graffiti next to FN posters in southern France, 2016(Getty Images)
"Racism, xenophobia, Marine and co, clear off!" Graffiti next to FN posters in southern France, 2016

Veteran commentator Alain Duhamel, who has covered every presidential election since 1965, says the FN still has an indirect way of attacking Muslims.

When Marine Le Pen champions the exclusion of religion from the public sphere it is “a smokescreen for anti-immigration” he says. It is Muslim veils, not Christian crosses, that she has in mind.

Rejection of Muslims has wide support, especially among the working class, according to Cecile Cornudet of Les Echos newspaper. So she uses secularism, or laïcité, and defence of women as a way of being anti-Islam.

Demonstration against the FN in Tours, 2011(EPA)
Demonstration against the FN in Tours, 2011

The FN's opponents point out that Marine still has on her staff former members of a far-right militant group called GUD.

Many in the Muslim community do not trust her. Iman Mestaoui, a 25-year-old clothes designer of Moroccan parents, sees Marine Le Pen as merely a more presentable version of her father.

“She's definitely a racist, but she hides it better. She hides the Islamophobia. She is totally scary,” she says.

But this “just-scratch-beneath-the-surface” argument has its limits.

If people insist over and again that they do not have a particular opinion, is it fair to judge them by saying that you think they do? In France they call that a procès d'intention - putting people on trial for views you tell them that they have.

People who resent the allegation that they are racist are voting FN to thumb their noses at the establishment.

As for Marine herself, even her enemies - or most of them - stop short of saying she is personally racist.

Who is Marine Le Pen?

Montretout is a three-storey, mid-19th Century pile in a gated community on a hill above the Seine that overlooks Paris from the west. It sits in its garden at the end of a private road next to several other houses of similar vintage.

This is where the Le Pens lived from 1976, after Jean-Marie inherited the property from a cement magnate who was a political supporter.

The Le Pen family mansion - MontretoutSt Cloud, near Paris
The Le Pen family mansion - Montretout at St Cloud, near Paris

It was a highly controversial gift - the late magnate's brother contested it - but in the end the house became an integral part of the Le Pen saga.

“It is very symbolic. Aloof, on a hill, with this magnificent view over the capital - it is just like Jean-Marie himself, who was always looking on the system from outside,” says Olivier Beaumont, whose book on the Le Pens is called In the Hell of Montretout .

It's quite scary-looking - a bit like the house in Psycho. Which fits too, because the Le Pens have always given the establishment the shivers.”

Olivier Beaumont, journalist

Even today the house is part of the story. Marine carried on living at the Le Pen estate into her 40s, in a bungalow in the grounds. In the summer of 2014 she finally moved out. It was at the height of the row with her father.

“The things I saw there you would not believe! She and her father were 100m apart but communicating via intermediaries. It was vaudeville,” says a former senior adviser to Marine, who asks not to be identified.

Again, the final straw could not have been more symbolic. It came when one of Jean-Marie's dogs killed his daughter's adored cat, Artemis.

For Marine, who sometimes says she wishes she could give it all up and open a cattery, it was all too much.

Today Montretout is home on the second floor to Jean-Marie's second daughter Yann, mother of the rising young FN star Marion Marechal Le Pen.

The eldest Le Pen daughter Marie-Caroline is, like Marine, estranged from her father and lives elsewhere. In her case the split goes back to 2002 - they haven't talked since.

Jean-Marie Le Pen with daughters Marie-Caroline, Yann and Marine in the mid-1990s(Getty Images)
Jean-Marie Le Pen with daughters Marie-Caroline, Yann and Marine in the mid-1990s

Jean-Marie no longer lives in the house but he comes every day to his office on the first floor. Meanwhile, in the bungalow, there now resides his former wife Pierrette, mother of the three girls.

The same Pierrette who left him in 1984 swearing he was the devil incarnate, and then posed nude in Playboy as an act of revenge.

Indeed it was Pierrette's sudden disappearance when Marine was 16 that formed the second trauma in the FN leader's life.

Her mother left without explanation, and Marine had no contact with her for the next 15 years.

Pierrette and Jean-Marie Le Pen shortly before their split in 1984(Getty Images)
Pierrette and Jean-Marie Le Pen shortly before their split in 1984

In her autobiography A contre flots (Against the Waves) Marine states: “For a month and a half I vomited every day. I was incapable of feeding myself… What I suffered was the most awful, cruel, crushing of pains of the heart: my mother did not love me.”

Marine Le Pen's inner toughness stems from this ultimate desertion, as much as the bombing. She learned to cope. Her father told her to “keep things in perspective. 'Remember,' he said: 'You could be naked in the snow in a war.'”

It was hard living with the Le Pen name. In her book, Marine speaks of the teasing at school, and of the betrayal by teachers and even Catholic priests who made sure she knew how much they loathed her father.

As she tried to make her way as a lawyer she was boycotted by many of her contemporaries who objected to her father's politics. She ended up doing business solely for the party.

Marine Le Pen working as a lawyer, 1995(Getty Images)
Marine Le Pen working as a lawyer, 1995

All of this created a sense of injustice. She could not see in her father the monster constantly vilified by politicians and press. So gradually she started taking up the political cudgels herself.

“If you are called Le Pen, eventually politics will come and catch you,” says her niece Marion Marechal Le Pen. “With a name like that, there is nothing else you can do!”

But there is another aspect of Marine Le Pen's upbringing in Montretout which bears on the politician she is today. Because far from being the pillars of bourgeois respectability that many suppose them to have been, the Le Pen parents lived back then in a state of chaos.

There were parties and endless dinners for Jean-Marie's cronies. He and Pierrette were constantly travelling. More and more the girls were left to their own devices.

Marine went to a local state school, and there she mixed with boys and girls born like her in that highly significant year - 1968.

How far-right is she?

1968 was the year that changed France. It was the student protests in Paris versus the intransigent President Charles de Gaulle.

Politically, the regime held. But otherwise the country was transformed. For supporters it meant a more tolerant, diverse society. For opponents it was the start of the left wing's half century of cultural hegemony.

Today Marine Le Pen is a nationalist. She is unabashedly opposed to immigration. But there is no hint in her of the far-right ideology that clung to members of her father's generation.

According to Laurent Joffrin of Liberation, Marine's views are eclectic and opportunistic.

“Nationalists are always like that - whatever is for the nation is right,” he says. Thus in her autobiography written in 2005 she argued against the 35-hour week, but now she supports it.

FN ideas about fixing the retirement age at 60 are interchangeable with those of the far left.

The influence of her generation is key. “I noticed working with her that when a question came up her first reflex was a reflex of the left,” says the former adviser to Marine, who does not want to be named.

“She does not have right-wing reflexes. For me, right-wing people are people who value liberty over equality. And left-wing people are the opposite. Well, Marine always chose equality over liberty.”

National Front policies

- EU renegotiation with Brussels followed by a referendum

- 15,000 new police and 40,000 new prison places

- 35-hour working week and retirement age fixed at 60

- Legal immigration cut to 10,000 per year

- Automatic expulsion of undocumented immigrants

- Priority for French nationals in social housing

Most noticeably it is on social matters that Marine Le Pen is a million miles from the caricature of the far-right traditionalist.

She refused to join the movement against gay marriage, which brought millions on to the streets in 2013, and she has several gay advisers, notably Florian Philippot. Then again, Jean-Marie's long-standing personal assistant is also a gay man.

And if she is religious in a loose kind of way, she is scathing in her book about literalist interpreters of Catholicism. She is twice divorced and angrily defends women's right to abortion, although she regards it as a sad necessity.

Contrast that with the opinions of that other denizen of Montretout - Marine's niece Marion.

Marine Le Pen and Marion Marechal Le Pen in 2016(Getty Images)
Marine Le Pen and Marion Marechal Le Pen in 2016

Marion Marechal Le Pen, one of the FN's two MPs, was born in 1990. One of her closest friends is Madeleine de Jessey, spokeswoman for the pro-Catholic family-values and anti-abortion movement Sens Commun.

Though they love each other deeply - Marine was a second mother, says Marion - their politics are very different.

According to Marion: “I am from the generation of the anti-May 1968. My generation is reacting against all the ideological deconstruction that happened after the student rebellion. We want principles, values, mentors - everything in fact that negates May '68.

“For Marine the cultural victory of May '68 dominated her childhood and adolescence. But today things are switching over.”

Marion has another big difference from her aunt. She still has a good relationship with Jean-Marie. In fact they dote on each other.

The father's story

Jean-Marie Le Pen will be 89 this year. He moves more slowly than he used to, and he is a little hard of hearing. But his voice booms as powerfully as ever, punctuated by seafaring metaphors and guffaws of laughter.

“Young people on the right,” he says, “are so much more radical than their parents.”

His first-floor study at Montretout is full of memorabilia from a lifetime of incident - Russian icons, a model ship, a portrait of a young Le Pen in officer's uniform and eye-patch, a massive set of binoculars trained on Paris to the east.

Jean-Marie Le Pen in his study at Montretout
Jean-Marie Le Pen in his study at Montretout

The sea is a constant motif in Le Pen's life - one little-known fact is that he introduced the duffle coat to France. He bought it in a navy surplus store in Plymouth for £2 after a trans-Channel yacht race in the early 1950s. No-one in Paris had seen one before.

He's willing to talk at length about his daughter Marine. Despite their falling out, was he nonetheless happy at her success?

“But think how much better she would be doing if she had not excluded me from the party! Right now she is on 27%. With me involved she would be on 35%,” he says.

She is reaping today the benefits of all the work I carried out over 40 years of great hardship.”

Jean-Marie Le Pen

“Maybe by getting rid of me she wanted to make some kind of gesture to the establishment.

“But I still represent something in this land. And if she brought me back into the fold, I would bring with me all the radical formations of the right and far right who are now outside her compass.”

For Jean-Marie, a single person represents all that has gone wrong with the party - Marine's close adviser Florian Philippot.

Marine Le Pen with Florian Philippot(Getty Images)
Marine Le Pen with Florian Philippot

Philippot is - after Marine - the FN's most prominent public figure. He is an énarque. In other words he went to the ENA, the administration school that churns out members of the French establishment and, most importantly, he is a man of the nationalist left.

Largely under his influence, the FN has shifted its economic policies to overt protection of the working class. Jean-Marie says: “For him to have such preponderant influence, for him to monopolise the message… that is wrong.”

But Jean-Marie seems happier talking about the past.

He is a rebel by nature. In his own eye he is someone who exposes establishment hypocrisy.

The roots of his tempestuous career are at the end of World War Two, when Jean-Marie felt that the national story, dominated by the movement of liberation hero Charles de Gaulle, and by the Communists, was a sham.

Later he fought in France's last imperial wars - Indochina, Suez, Algeria - and became its youngest member of parliament behind the shopkeeper-turned-populist leader Pierre Poujade. Jean-Marie, even now an MEP, voted against the Treaty of Rome setting up the EU in 1957.

The EU - for Le Pen - was one of the great betrayals. Algeria was the other.

After a brutal civil war in Algeria, De Gaulle was instrumental in accepting that France would have to give up its colony. After independence, the vast majority of the European settlers - the pieds noirs - ended up in France.

Le Pen tells a story to show that he has no bigotry - how he insisted on proper burial rites for dead Egyptian soldiers during the Suez campaign in 1956.

But what about the question of le détail?

“Ok. The détail. The détail was in 1987. Then it came back in 2015. That's not exactly every day!

“To my knowledge no-one has provided proof to contradict what I said.”

I said the gas chambers are a detail of the history of the war. That seems to me indisputable.”

Jean-Marie Le Pen

But wasn't he hinting that the gas chambers were insignificant?

He avoids the question. “My dear sir, if we are to judge people on the basis of what we say that they think - that is one of the definitions of tyranny.”

And how does he feel about rifts with two daughters?

Mon cher monsieur ,” he leans forward. “It is life! Life is not a smooth tranquil stream. It has cataracts, it has obstacles.”

“I am accustomed to adversity. For 60 years I have rowed against the current. Never once have we had the wind at our backs! Always we have had to sail into the gale - always the spray in our faces! No indeed, one thing we never got used to was the easy life!”

At this point he is laughing his head off.

Winning over voters

Marine Le Pen has not had an easy time of it either. Her title for the autobiography - Against the Waves - nods to the favourite Le Pen image of the battling sailor. Jean-Marie's father was a Breton fisherman who drowned after his boat hit a German mine.

The difference is that while Jean-Marie seemed to care little about failure - relishing the thrill of the struggle - Marine has made success her watchword.

The electoral system has always been an obstacle for the FN. Only once - between 1986 and 1988 when there was a brief period of proportional representation - have they had more than one or two deputies in the National Assembly. But with Marine at the helm things are changing.

National Front share of vote in French elections

National Front share of vote in French elections

In addition to the two MPs, the party has 20 MEPs in Strasbourg and many hundreds of local councillors. FN or FN-affiliated mayors control 11 towns.

FN bastions are concentrated in two areas - the far north and the far south. And two different political traditions are now feeding into party's electorate.

The North

In Henin-Beaumont, a few miles south of Lille, Marine's friend Steeve Briois has been mayor since 2014.

This is an ultra-depressed former mining town, whose last industries - Samsonite cases and metal production - have long since relocated abroad.

The town centre is dominated by a vast modern church, currently under renovation. The only eateries are Middle Eastern grills. The beggars are locals.

Like all of this region, Henin-Beaumont has always voted left.

Until recently the Socialists took 60% of the vote and the Communists another 20%. In his office Briois sits beneath a bust of the early 20th Century Socialist hero Jean Jaures. The statement is clear - that in FN eyes the left has betrayed its origins and its people.

The argument is often made that the FN today is taking over where the old French Communist Party (PC) left off. Back in the 1950s the PC too could claim to be the country's largest party. But it never rose above 25% in the polls, and in the end withered into irrelevance.

Derelict industrial buildingHenin-Beaumont, northern France
Derelict industrial building in Henin-Beaumont, northern France

Jean-Marie Le Pen once said that “communists are good patriots who just don't know it”, and it is obvious in Henin-Beaumont that the same working-class people who once voted far left now feel the FN is their natural home.

The FN's language of values, education, protection for industry and hatred of global finance all goes down very well indeed.

“I am no fan of communism - but in the 1950s the PC was intensely patriotic,” says Briois.

“Look at their posters from back then. It was all: Produce in France. Keep it French. That I can identify with.”

Steeve Briois in Henin-Beaumont(Getty Images)
Steeve Briois in Henin-Beaumont

The soft-spoken Briois is popular in the town.

“For years we had elites in the town hall. People decked out with diplomas and all sorts of expertise. And the place was a disaster,” he says.

“Then along I come with virtually no qualifications. And we are doing the job OK. It goes to show that the people may not be as stupid as you think.”

In the main square, Dominique Vignon, a 53-year-old social worker, is among several people who back him up.

“My first vote was for Mitterrand in 1981, and I have voted on the left in every election since. But the left has betrayed us. The Socialists are right-wing.

“I concede that the FN label shocks some people. But since Briois came to power the only things that have changed are that the taxes have come down and the place is better run. There is no discrimination. The North Africans are still on their market stalls.”

The South

Almost directly due south and 600 miles away, the historic town of Beziers is another FN stronghold. Or to be more accurate, FN-affiliated.

The town's mayor Robert Menard came to power with the support of the party but he is not a member.

Menard is a controversial character.

Originally on the far-left of French politics, he chose to run his home town of Beziers for the nationalist right because he says “the world has changed… I could not look at the reality and pretend it was otherwise”.

Robert Menard, mayor of Beziers(EPA)
Robert Menard, mayor of Beziers

Menard has a terrible press in France. Some of his posters are deliberately provocative, and he once drew up an ethnic list of the town's schools, revealing that two-thirds of children were Muslim.

His attempt to set up a volunteer civilian militia to patrol the town's streets was struck down by the courts.

But he is popular in Beziers, a town built on wine wealth from the late 19th Century.

On a walkabout on the famous promenade he is buttonholed by well-wisher after well-wisher, among them an Algerian boutique owner.

Robert Menard talks to voters in Beziers , southern France(EPA)
Robert Menard talks to voters in Beziers, southern France

Chrystele Crouton and Florence Boucard, a couple from Paris and Brittany who run the Hôtel Particulier near the town centre, are lavish in their praise. And they are far from being natural FN voters.

“It is remarkable what he has done. In a few months the place has been transformed. On the promenade, it was disgusting. There were drug-dealers and drunks. But now people are coming back. It's alive again.”

Property taxes were lowered. Old buildings were restored.

Bus stop in Beziers, southern France(EPA)
Bus stop in Beziers, southern France

Beziers has been transformed by immigration, with many town-centre houses now divided into flats and inhabited by people of Maghrebi (North African) origin.

On the outskirts is an estate called La Deveze, which has a reputation for drugs, arms-trafficking and radical Islam.

Menard, who is a pied-noir - someone of European descent born in French Algeria - lived in La Deveze as a boy.

“Back then La Deveze meant social progress. There were Arabs there, pieds-noirs , and metropolitan French. And we all got along. The first thing the Algerian mothers did when they arrived in France was take off their headscarves. The fathers would smack the kids if they heard them talking Arabic on the street,” he says.

Now he says you couldn't force him to live there. Stairwell by stairwell, he says, North Africans, Turks and French Roma (gypsies) live in separation.

For Menard, the French social model has broken down. He thinks immigration has to stop completely so that the country can do what it can to integrate those that are here. The state school system - in which large numbers of children speak more Arabic than French - needs urgent attention.

Anti-migrant poster in Beziers, southern France(Getty Images)
Anti-migrant poster in Beziers, southern France

And he denies that he only gets “white” votes.

“Do you think I would be mayor if Maghrebis did not vote for me? Do you know why they vote for me? One, I am anti-gay marriage, and so are they. And two, I am authoritarian, and they would like to be too.”

Both Menard in Beziers and Briois in Henin-Beaumont reject the argument that there are two National Fronts.

One ex-communist in the north, left-wing in inspiration.

The other ex-pied noir in the south, right-wing and more focused on national identity.

The emphasis may be different, but at heart they see no difference at all.

The big chance

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Friends of Marine Le Pen say that one of her familiar gestures is what you might call the fruit-machine pull. A downward tug of the right arm, fist clenched, in imitation of a person playing a one-armed bandit. In English it might be accompanied by the word “kerching!”.

She has been making the gesture a lot recently. Because the kerchings keep on coming.

“At exactly the moment Marine completed her de-demonisation process, events started happening on the world stage that push voters in her direction,” says columnist Cecile Cornudet.

Brexit and Donald Trump's victory are two pieces of news that FN strategists could have dreamed of only in their wildest imaginings.

“The UK is our best advertisement,” says Marine's friend Jean-Lin Lacapelle. “As for Trump... if it is OK for an American president to push for protection and immigration controls, then it is OK in France as well.”

Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage with Donald Trump in August 2016, Mississippi, USA (AP)
Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage with Donald Trump in August 2016, Mississippi, USA 

But one question keeps coming back. How far-right is the National Front?

In an FN-run France, walls go up. Foreigners and foreign goods are kept out. Brussels is pushed to the margin. The franc returns, and France comes first.

According to veteran commentator Alain Duhamel, it is “a former party of the far right that has become a populist party with instincts that are xenophobic and authoritarian”.

For the party's Steeve Briois, “far-right is not a term we accept. It makes an automatic link with Hitler, which is why our enemies use it.

We prefer patriotic, protectionist, national. Not national-ist. That sounds aggressive. And populist we like too.”

Steeve Briois, FN mayor of Henin-Beaumont

In its economic plan the FN has swung far to the left, with anti-austerity and protectionist policies that are a clear signal to the working class.

That leftward shift prompted the resignation of the former adviser to Marine Le Pen, who says the FN is “nationalist, populist and socialist. Not national-socialist - that has certain historical connotations. But social-nationalist.”

What everyone would agree on is that the FN has built its programme around the idea of the nation - “national” identity and values.

Marine Le Pen casting her vote in France's 2015 regional elections(EPA)
Marine Le Pen casting her vote in France's 2015 regional elections

Marine Le Pen says she is “not against immigrants, but against immigration” - because any nation needs first to look after the people who are its citizens.

But for the FN's enemies, the nation-first answer is wrong, dangerous and a betrayal of France's mission to the world.

“It is about universal values,” says Liberation's Joffrin. “Do they exist or not? I understand that when times are bad people want to return to their roots. That is why this national ideology is returning.”

But our duty is to go above that - to think of the values that matter for all human beings. The trouble is that these days, that is a very hard sell.”

Laurent Joffrin, editor of Liberation

In the West - it seems - the nation is returning, a political idea on which the National Front has had a monopoly in France for more than a generation.

For journalist Elisabeth Levy, a leading light in the “new right” philosophical movement, “it is not that France has become Le Penist, reality has become Le Penist”.

“In every country we are confronted with the same question - how do you integrate millions of immigrants? And the answer is you can't - not if they keep on coming.”

In other countries populist, nationalist parties have grown up, without triggering the same gasps of horror.

Part of the reason for the alarm is that the FN has always had a terrible press. In France it has suited successive governments, especially on the left, to caricature the party in the worst possible light.

But there is a difference in France - and that is history.

The roots of the FN lie in the country's troubled past - a past in which ideology and violence have often advanced hand in hand.

Outbursts of civil unrest remain a part of the French psyche. The 1871 Paris Commune was followed by the anti-Semitic Dreyfus affair in 1894. The wartime Vichy regime was followed by the fighting in Algeria.

In France people take sides. They believe in ideas. And if the conditions are right they will fight for them. That is why it all feels more real here.

A Marine Le Pen presidency could well spark violence on a scale far greater than the protests she currently attracts.

The FN has no experience when it comes to taking on the task of government. And Marine has no allies, which makes election success all the harder.

The cordon sanitaire remains in place.

But her father knows a thing or two. Watch for les événements, he says. Things happen. Rivals crash out. Corruption scandals erupt. Bombs explode.

Or as he might have put it: “Events, mon cher ami, events.”

Source: 'BBC'

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