France's Extreme-Right Makeover

Article excerpt

Byline: Tracy McNicoll

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, is not exactly Daddy's girl.

Monday morning in Lille, France. At the regional council meeting, Marine Le Pen, a shock of blonde in casual black, is taunting the chairman.

Le Pen, the new leader of the far-right National Front, has been making mischief all morning, sniping jovially with colleagues when it isn't her turn, just loud enough to be heard across the floor.

The chairman wants to move on to council business; she wants to tease him about the latest gossip, a judge arrested for influence peddling. The chairman is a Socialist, like the deposed mayor of Henin-Beaumont, the small town she represents, who was ousted by a corruption scandal, and she just can't resist giving the screws another turn.

"Shut up!" the chairman erupts.

"No! You will not speak to me that way!" Le Pen fires back, nearly out of her seat. The little red light on her microphone is off, but her deep, booming rasp rips through the chamber regardless.

"I will speak to you the way you speak! You're not the only one who can howl! Shut up!"

Before lunch, Le Pen will go on to slam issues such as carpool lanes, genetically modified endives, and "anti-white, anti-French racism." She says white shopkeepers are being "persecuted" in Roubaix, a former textile capital among the poorest towns in France. When she laments the "last non-halal butcher shop," opponents groan loudly, as if they've heard this before. Then the whole assembly retires to the buffet.

Welcome to the new-look National Front, advanced by Marine Le Pen, who last month took over the leadership of the party her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded almost 40 years ago. And for all the trouble he gave opponents through all those years, his daughter has so far proved a tougher mark.

Even before taking the helm of the party, she showed she could set the national agenda, and President Nicolas Sarkozy often looks to be responding to her salvos--whether against "Islamization" or the euro--in real time.

Mainstream parties, including Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and the opposition Socialists, had been reluctant to speak her name openly, however, lest they give her the oxygen of publicity. And they have reason to be worried. France's next presidential election is just a year away, and as many as 45 percent of Sarkozy's own voters say they like her ideas.

A poll last Friday showed she could score 20 percent in the first round next year, making her the "third man" her dad once was. Forty percent think she can repeat his biggest upset and make it into a runoff. The presidency seems out of reach, but she doesn't poll like a pariah: 68 percent think she is "courageous," 50 percent feel she understands their problems, and 37 percent believe she's "nice."

In a big prime-time TV appearance in December, she talked circles around the lightweights the mainstream parties sent to debate her. Unlikely as that may once have seemed, a Le Pen has become France's new media darling.

Marine's profile is surely more prime-time-friendly than her father's. At 42, she is 40 years younger than he is. She is twice divorced and pro-choice, both of which count as modern for the National Front. She is a single mother to Jehanne, 12, named after Joan of Arc, and twins Louis and Mathilde, 11.

"To lead a party and be a presidential candidate, you need qualities that are almost contradictory--it's very difficult to find them in the same person," the 82-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen tells NEWSWEEK. "Marine has that mix. She's able to lead the party while turning outwards and making the ideas accessible and appealing."

Le Pen himself seemed more sinister. For years, the ex-paratrooper hid an eye injury under a pirate-style patch. He made headlines with equivocal remarks about Nazis and the Holocaust. …