A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of populism. Although radical-right populism has been of no small concern over the years, right-wing extremism has recently grown from a chimney fire into a wildfire spreading across the continent, sending cold shivers down the spines of European leaders. At the forefront of the populist momentum stands a blonde woman with a golden, France-shaped necklace: Marine Le Pen.
Until now, Le Pen was only of concern to the French voters who either love or despise her. Her party, the xenophobic National Front, has caused many debates over the years and spreads hatred and fear among the French population. Still, Le Pen’s political course of euro-skepticism and intolerance strikes a chord with the French electorate. Le Pen came in third in the last French general election with a score that was both shocking and laudable; she led the French Right to break with their ideological taboos in order to get her support and she transformed the National Front into a mainstream political party. But these successes have not appeased her hunger for power – they have only intensified it.
A threat to European democracy
Heady with victory, Le Pen recently decided that the time is ripe to attack the enemy she blames for mass-immigration and the supposed decline of national sovereignty: the European Union. She will team up with the equally xenophobic and euro-skeptic Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch PVV party, to form, what they call, a “historic” alliance to free Europe from “the monster of Brussels.” An alliance that will try to unite the hitherto fragmented Euro-skeptic movement in the common fight against further European integration. In the run-up to previous European elections, such a scheme would have been met with a smile. In the current climate of crisis and fear, the news dropped a bombshell.
Considering that recent polls put Le Pen in front in France’s upcoming European elections, the warning cries of Europe’s heads of state shouldn’t be ignored. Le Pen’s victories at home have proven, that populists like her can capitalize on the fears and worries of the people and there is enough of that in Europe at the moment. Le Pen is no longer a mere threat to the French democracy; she is now a serious threat to European democracy.
Le Pen is less witty and sarcastic than her father who founded the National Front party in 1972, but more moderate, elegant, and equally feisty and resolute. For many French people, her roaring, scratchy voice is the voice of a new nationalism: less radical but equally effective. While her father wanted to abolish immigration altogether, Marine Le Pen only wants to curb it. She is anti-immigration but not racist, anti-capitalism but not communist, anti-EU but not anti-European – at least she likes to see it that way. French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy called her “extremism with a human face” and warned that she is even more dangerous than her father – a man who called the Nazi gas chambers a mere “detail of history” – because she could win over moderate voters.
Crooks and liars
Part of her success is her close contact with the voters. “You see her a lot on the local fruit market” voters told me in her stronghold and electoral district Hénin-Beaumont in northern France. It is only a short train ride away from Lille-Europe station, but to the people of Hénin-Beaumont, nothing could be further away than those six letters: Europe. I visited the small town during Le Pen’s electoral campaign in 2012 and talked to the people about the frightful political situation and Le Pen’s popularity in the region.
For Roland, a man in his mid-forties, the National Front is the only political option to protect his and his fellow citizen’s interests. “The reason is simple” he says, “all the others are just crooks and liars.” With regards to Europe, his opinion is equally strong. “Europe? Well first of all, I don’t like Europe and I have always voted against it,” he says with great resolve before he cracks up laughing, asking: “Why should I support it [Europe] when we’ve got everything we need right here in France?” Turning serious again, Roland adds: “Around here, nobody likes Europe. The reason is simple, ever since they closed all the mines and factories there has been large-scale unemployment. Here you can see what European integration leads to.”
Others echo Roland’s views and argue that Le Pen is the only person that can defend France’s working-class population against the neoliberal plans decided in Brussels.
Marine Le Pen knows that misery and despair are good breeding grounds for her political ideas and perfectly understands how to capitalize on the grim living conditions of the people. She knows that she can’t win over a majority with an anti-Muslim agenda but she still fights her father’s battle – only by different means. Her new scapegoats are international institutions like the EU with its “Soviet-style monetary union.” But, as she expressed in an interview, she too believes that a multicultural society can never work and that everything must be done to stop internationalism, the “gravedigger of the independence and identity of European nations.”
Le Pen named her autobiography A contre-flots, against the flow. But ever since the last French elections, it has become clear that she has established her own flow of an ever-increasing fan base and political adherents.
Time will tell if she can replicate this triumphal march on the European level.