What a Tea Party Looks like in Europe
McNicoll, Tracy, Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek
Byline: Tracy McNicoll and Christopher Dickey; With Barbie Nadeau in Rome
Marine Le Pen is moving her father's rabble-rousing, far-right party away from the fringe, and redefining French politics in the process.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the 82-year-old firebrand of France's far right--the man who for decades has played on the inchoate fears, xenophobia, knee-jerk racism, and ill-disguised anti-Semitism of many of his supporters--had just finished speaking to the faithful on a farm not far from the English Channel. As members of the youth wing of his National Front party feasted on barbecue and apple pie, they were thrilled to see the grand old man hold forth, still the "provocateur" taunting the establishment, the "toreador" who hides the sword in his cape and lets the press run at him like a bull. Even these youngsters knew, however, that Jean-Marie's time in the ring is nearing an end. The old man himself made it clear he's determined to step down. All eyes this day were on his daughter Marine. "She has the will, the courage, the temperament necessary, and the competence," Le Pen told reporters at the farmhouse. "It seems to me indisputable that she is our camp's best candidate for 2012."
Tall, blonde, plain-spoken, and thick-skinned, Le Pen's youngest child, at 42, is the heir apparent to his party. She's expected to win the contest for its leadership in January, and she's a passionate advocate of its core message: strong French nationalism, relentless Euro-skepticism, and a lot of hard-nosed talk about fighting crime and immigration. She's a fresh face, a new look, and, with rising poll numbers placing her third in a crowded field of possible 2012 candidates, a new threat in French politics. In the eyes of many, she's more effective--and thus more dangerous--than her father.
It's a measure of the Le Pens' enhanced power that they've managed to push President Nicolas Sarkozy to the right and cast their own party as mainstream. Over the summer, Sarkozy essentially gave up his flirtation with the left, which began after his election in 2007. He had cherry-picked popular Socialists for his centrist government, dividing their party. But in elections this past March, Sarkozy's UMP party managed to keep control of only one out of 22 regional governments. So he decided to swing back to the right by playing on fears about public safety and immigration. He proposed taking citizenship away from some criminals of immigrant background and launched a campaign against Roma (or "Gypsies"), booting hundreds out of the country. While the measures proved popular in opinion polls, Sarkozy, ironically, did not. His abysmal approval ratings remain in the low 30s.
The younger Le Pen takes great pleasure in watching Sarkozy squirm. …