The Nation: Is Le Pen Mightier Than Sarkozy? The new leader of the National Front has risen in the polls by borrowing arguments from the left. But critics worry: has she turned against her father's bigotry, or merely made it more presentable? The Nation's Agnes Catherine Poirier finds out.

The Nation: Is Le Pen Mightier Than Sarkozy?

French president of the far right party Front National Marine Le Pen and honorary president of Front National Jean-Marie Le Pen wave at the party's 'Marine 2012' summer congress in Nice on Sept. 11, 2011.

Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

French president of the far right party Front National Marine Le Pen and honorary president of Front National Jean-Marie Le Pen wave at the party's 'Marine 2012' summer congress in Nice on Sept. 11, 2011.

Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

Agnes Catherine Poirier is a French journalist and writer based in London.

The handshake is firm, the eye contact direct, the voice deep and strong; there is no doubt she is her father's daughter. Marine Le Pen also shares with papa Jean-Marie—the longtime leader of France's extreme-right National Front, who retired last December at 82—the physicality of a menhir, those monumental stone megaliths one finds in Brittany and Cornwall. The blue-eyed blonde is as tall as she is large; she is une force de la nature.

I'm meeting Marine Le Pen at the party's headquarters in Nanterre, a nondescript suburb of Paris. A far cry from the Socialist Party's den on the Left Bank and President Nicolas Sarkozy's party offices near the Champs-Élysées, the National Front's building looks like a low-rise 1970s police station in which the worn-out carpet still smells of stale tobacco. It is only when visitors have turned the corner toward the entrance that they come face to face with a statue of Joan of Arc, which is hidden from the street. A symbol of France's sovereignty and fight against British invaders, Joan of Arc has long been hijacked by the extreme right, which traditionally celebrates her on May Day.

To most people in France, the new National Front leader is simply Marine. As political commentator Caroline Fourest writes in her latest book, a biography of Marine Le Pen, "Women politicians are called by their first name, whereas men are known by their family name. There is Le Pen, i.e. Jean-Marie, and there is Marine, i.e. his daughter." The question on everybody's lips since she was elected to helm the National Front in January is whether she is like her father. Many in the party weren't keen to see her at the top. They thought she was ideologically too different from her father. Indeed, she has been careful to distance herself from the elder Le Pen's fiery racist rhetoric. In April she even evicted regional counselor Alexandre Gabriac from the party after a picture of the young man giving the Hitler salute was leaked to the press. "Such behavior is intolerable; I won't tolerate it," she commented.

Born in 1968, the youngest of Jean-Marie Le Pen's three daughters, Marine cuts a figure strikingly different from that of the classic frontist. A divorced mother of three, she is in favor of abortion and gay rights. Fundamentalist Catholicism is clearly not her thing. She has also alluded to having no interest in hashing over World War II or the Algerian War. This alone has proved revolutionary. "Could she actually mean it?" is the question all political commentators are asking themselves.

Many are doubtful. "She has cunningly asked the most radical elements in her party to adopt a low profile or leave the party in order to get a new legitimacy," comments political scientist Gaël Brustier, who believes Marine Le Pen's apparent difference is no more than a decoy. However, he can't help recognizing her talent, adding, "She is proving to be much faster than other politicians in addressing topics of interest to the French. She is good at catching the fears and aspirations of the moment."

Since she took over as party leader, Le Pen has also cunningly surfed on the euro crisis and blurred traditional political and ideological boundaries. She has borrowed many left-wing republican arguments and blended them with conservative positions. At the risk of making a whole nation feel dizzy, she is trying to convince the French that the only battle worth fighting is that of deglobalization: focusing on the nation, reaffirming secularism, leaving the euro and letting it sink. In other words, she has done what could be called a Tony Blair: hunting on everybody's grounds, stealing from all in the most unpredictable way.

Le Pen astutely refutes the extreme-right label. To prove her point, she has, in interview after interview, defended left-wing republican values such as secularism, public services and a state that promotes citizens' well-being and protects the weak. On the economy, she favors a Keynesian approach and the active role of the state. "Services cannot sustain a whole country's economy," she tells me in our interview. "I'm in favor of reindustrialization and dirigisme by the state. In France, the state created the French nation. I believe in the benevolence of the state, especially in time of crisis. It guarantees equality among its citizens and can take strategic decisions in order to preserve a country's economic assets. It's what the USA does; you can call it economic patriotism. I'm thinking of the Small Business Act, for instance. The problem is that the EU prevents us from doing the same. I'm in favor of a sovereign state in order to protect our values, our customs and our way of life. Globalization doesn't lead to prosperity and growth. We had foreseen this: globalization, just like communism, is totalitarian. We were told it was the way forward. Isn't it high time we recognized today that we were wrong?"

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