Letter from France — From the May 2016 issue
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Letter from France — From the May 2016 issue
The official seat of the European Parliament is a steel and glass city within a city that spreads out across the Ill River in Strasbourg, France. Completed in 1999, at a cost of about half a billion dollars, the two-million-square-foot structure was conceived as a symbol of the European Union’s postwar utopian vision. In its gleaming vastness, with multiple cylindrical halls that resemble giant gears, the complex calls to mind an ultramodern factory. It is difficult to say what exactly is being produced by the thousands of delegates, aides, and staff who bustle along the building’s elevated oak walkways, but the profusion of Greek and Latin nomenclature (the plenary chamber is called the hémicycle; the visitors’ gallery is the tribune) might lead one to believe that the primary output of the place is democracy.
This impression is not shared by Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party (F.N.), which her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, helped establish four decades ago. In 2014, Marine Le Pen campaigned for a seat in the European parliamentary elections on an unapologetically anti-Europe platform. The F.N. asked to be sent to an institution whose legitimacy it did not accept, and French voters rewarded the party with first place in the election.
On a mild morning last November, I met Le Pen in Strasbourg, at her office on the sixth floor of the parliament. She wore a dark jacket, dark jeans, and a gray paisley scarf coiled loosely around her neck. Her blond hair was pulled back in a hasty ponytail, and she occasionally inhaled from an e-cigarette with a gawky green filter. When I told her that I’d last seen her in 2012, at one of the earliest press conferences for her first presidential campaign, she smiled and said, “A lot has changed since then.”
Le Pen was tired, and it quickly became clear that I had found her at a profoundly ambivalent moment, both for her and for the F.N. Eleven days earlier, on November 13, three teams of young men who were associated with the Islamic State had murdered 130 people in Paris and blown themselves up with suicide vests. The deaths of so many Parisians sent the devastated nation into a panic. But during the state of emergency that followed the attacks, which continues today, the French government proposed or enacted a number of policies that the F.N. had advocated for years, such as reinstating controls at intra-European borders and staging preemptive raids on suspected radicals. For perhaps the first time, Le Pen had a taste of the legitimacy that she had long sought. Speaking of her political opponents, she told me, “It will be difficult for them to continue to treat the National Front as a fringe movement, or as unrepresentative or insignificant.”
Throughout our conversation, Le Pen fiddled with a pair of white reading glasses that read marine on one temple and le pen on the other. Her eyes are not unfriendly, but there is a sternness in her demeanor, a complicated magnetism that is at once inviting and cautionary. She speaks with authority without being off-putting, and a discussion with her has the rigor of a debate in which the score is tacitly being tallied. As is often the case, the primary target of her rhetoric was the French political class. She argued that the ruling Socialist Party and the opposition Republicans had fatally misjudged the nature of the terrorist threat. “We are no longer looking for grand preachers like bin Laden,” she said. “Today it’s criminals, delinquents, who are radicalizing.” She emphasized that many of the perpetrators of the November massacre — like those who’d attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo the previous January — had been on a watch list of suspected extremists, and were therefore known to the government in advance of their crimes. “They had ten, fifteen convictions among them in their legal files, and some of them never set foot in prison,” Le Pen said. To prevent another attack from taking place, she wanted to deport a number of suspected jihadists, including some who had not committed any crimes.
Le Pen was infuriated by a recent report that the French government had refused, in 2013, an offer by the Syrian security forces to provide a list of French nationals who had gone to fight in the Syrian civil war. She accused Francois Hollande, France’s president, of “ideological blindness,” and said that protecting the country made it imperative to work with the Syrian state. When I asked how she justified cooperating with Bashar al-Assad, who had killed tens of thousands of his own citizens, she told me that she had never defended Assad personally. Any alliance between France and Syria, she suggested, would be merely pragmatic.
For Le Pen, Hollande’s waffling on the Syria question was symptomatic of a broader failing of the French elite. “The question is, how many attacks will happen before they realize that their model is extremely dangerous to the French people?” I asked what would have been different if she had been in power when the attacks happened. “What’s for sure is that we would have nothing to reproach ourselves for,” she said. “At least we would be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and say that we did everything in our power to prevent it.”
A few days after the Paris massacre, Le Pen had been invited to consult with Hollande at the Élysée Palace — an early sign, to many, that the attacks might benefit the F.N. politically. But the first real test of Le Pen’s clout was the French regional elections, which would begin less than two weeks after our meeting in Strasbourg. Le Pen was running for president of the regional council in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, in northern France. She had temporarily suspended her campaign after November 13, and she was well aware that she would need to make up for lost time.
Most of the Paris attacks took place in the tenth and eleventh arrondissements, a former industrial area northeast of the Marais. The neighborhood is not bourgeois Paris. Rue du Faubourg du Temple, a market street near the restaurants that were struck by the assailants, is filled with butcher shops, Chinese on one end and halal on the other, and cheap clothing stores. Almost every corner has a sparsely furnished café where clusters of North African men — never women — loiter. I lived in the neighborhood for a year in 2009, and I liked it precisely because it was one of the least Parisian parts of Paris. The facades of the apartment blocks are less ornate than those in the rest of the city, whiter in color, and when the sun sets at the right angle you get the impression of being in Marseille, or even Tunis.
A crop of young professionals has moved to the neighborhood over the past decade, and in recent years it has become the part of the city where you’re most likely to see Muslim and non-Muslim Parisians sitting next to each other at a concert or a restaurant. After the attacks, an American friend who lives nearby told me that some of the neighborhood’s residents had murmured on social media that their way of life had specifically been targeted. Indeed, the Islamic State had spoken explicitly about its intentions to eliminate the “gray zone” inhabited by Muslims who have chosen to live among infidels.
When I visited my old neighborhood a week after the attacks, I followed a current of grief that ran beneath the streets, an unseen reservoir that bubbled up into a mound of cut flowers and votive candles at each restaurant where a shooting had taken place. These impromptu shrines were encircled by perpetual crowds, in which it was always possible to find someone shuddering with sobs.
In January of last year, after the Charlie Hebdo killings, Marine Le Pen had been excluded from a day of national unity that was organized as a tribute. Three days after we met in Strasbourg, however, she was among a select group of dignitaries invited to attend a service for the survivors and the families of the victims of the November attacks. At the ceremony, which was held at the Hôtel des Invalides, the seventeenth-century military complex that houses the tomb of Napoleon I, Hollande stood and faced the orchestra of the Republican Guard while it performed the “Marseillaise.” Commentators on TV insisted that this was a display of patriotism, not nationalism, and if they found the distinction hard to articulate, they were nevertheless certain of its importance. In a strange ritual, Hollande sat alone in front of the gallery of politicians, as though to dramatize that the responsibility for what had happened, and for whatever would come next, fell solely on him. He looked as though he were trying not to weep as the name and age of each of the victims, almost all of whom were in their twenties or thirties, were read aloud.
In late November, Le Pen traveled to Hayange, a former mining town situated at the point where Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg come together with France. She visited Hayange to campaign for members of her party who were running in the regional elections. The F.N.’s traditional base is in the south of France, where anti-immigrant sentiment and imperial nostalgia are especially pungent, thanks to a large population of repatriated colonial settlers. In recent years, however, Le Pen and her party have been using Hayange as a staging ground from which to expand into the northeastern part of the country.
In the 1950s, the government brought foreign workers to Hayange to meet the labor needs of the mining industry, and these days many residents have Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, or North African last names. Mineral extraction in the area ceased by the end of the 1980s, and most of the factories have since shut down as well. The labor unions that historically held sway in Hayange made it a stronghold for Hollande’s left-leaning Socialists, but the party’s decades-long failure to revive the economy in the area has recently opened up the region to dalliances with other political suitors.
In 2014, Fabien Engelmann, a thirty-four-year-old who ran on the National Front ticket, became the town’s mayor. He lowered local taxes and introduced free transportation for the elderly, but he also denied practice space to a teacher of North African dance and launched an annual Pig Festival, supposedly to honor “friendship and tradition.” (Pork consumption, of course, is prohibited in Islam, and it did not go unnoticed that launching a fête du cochon was one of the least friendly gestures that could be made toward the region’s Muslim residents.)
When I arrived in Hayange, the buildings, the terrain, and the leafless trees were all the same shade of beige. A small crowd of protesters had gathered at the town hall, near the auditorium where the F.N. rally was being held. Some wore red Parti communiste jackets, while others had red triangles pinned to their chests, in emulation of those worn by political prisoners under the Vichy regime. In the wake of the Paris attacks, Engelmann had hung a banner at the town hall that read homage to the victims of islamist terrorism. He had also arranged for the statue of the Virgin Mary that looks out over the town from a nearby hill to be illuminated in blue, white, and red. The protesters complained that the contrasting connotations of the two gestures were divisive by design.
F.N. staffers, who expected an audience of about 700, had laid a French flag on each chair inside the auditorium, along with a little packet of gummy candies. As the evening’s program began, children stood on chairs and waved flags vigorously in the crowded room. Music that might have been borrowed from an action movie clashed over the sound system, and a chant of “Ma-rine! Ma-rine!” filled the auditorium.
Le Pen stepped up to the lectern, looking utterly at ease. “This drama is not a natural disaster,” she said. “Its authors are men.” She hailed the F.N.’s clairvoyance in warning about the dangers of a borderless Europe. “For decades we’ve been watching the collective moral abdication of our elites — worse than abdication, treason.” The word was repeated throughout the evening.
Le Pen has presented herself as the guardian of the legacy of Joan of Arc — she named one of her daughters Jehanne — and her public-speaking style manages to be at once virile and maternal. She takes obvious pleasure in mocking her adversaries, and carries a natural conviction in her voice that her voters interpret as honesty. It is a cocktail of traits for which Hillary Clinton would likely pay more than the combined salaries of her campaign staff.
“Do they intend to stop welcoming immigrants?” Le Pen asked her audience in Hayange. “Surely not. And yet we know with certainty that several of the terrorists entered Europe with the migrants.” She told her supporters that the country had fundamentally changed in the two weeks since the attacks, and she railed against the “hateful speech, maintained sometimes at the highest levels of power, against those who carry the blue, white, and red.” After urging her supporters to “be proud of yourselves, of your values,” she stood onstage with the other F.N. officials while the tricolor spotlights drilled down from above. In the two years I lived in France, I never once heard the “Marseillaise” sung live; now the audience members rose to their feet and sang the anthem in a spontaneous husky chant.
After the rally, I spoke with a twenty-four-year-old nurse who told me that he was voting F.N. for the first time. He was frustrated with the mainstream parties, which he felt had abandoned the region. Le Pen, however, has made economic protectionism a pillar of her domestic policy, a stance that won her much support in and around Hayange. After the negligence of the Socialists and the Republicans, the nurse suggested, the F.N. was “the only thing left for us to try.”
When I told two men in their mid-fifties, who described themselves as longtime members of the party, that I lived in New York, one suggested that Le Pen was “sort of our Giuliani.” In fact, Le Pen had recently been collecting comparisons to another New York Republican, Donald Trump. Like Trump, Le Pen has a talent for playing to the fantasies of her followers, and both have attracted support from popular milieus in which the political and media elites are seen as being locked in contemptuous collusion. But while Le Pen’s positions have overlapped with Trump’s on issues such as immigration and Russia, she is a lifelong politician, and is less transparently ludicrous in her self-presentation. She has worked hard to shape the political apparatus that surrounds her, and has been careful to denounce any explicitly racist behavior by members of the F.N. In January of last year, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, she censured a close adviser who had posted a video online that proclaimed France was at war with Muslims. She also rejected Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, even though her own immigration policies are scarcely more liberal.
The morning after the rally, I walked among tables of eggs and seafood at the town market in Hayange. I stopped by a booth where a man of Algerian descent was selling men’s briefs in neon colors that read private property and who’s the boss? I asked him how business had been. Pointing to a blue-white-and-red streamer that was draped around one of the tent poles, he said, “I’m required to put that up now.” He laughed. “The thing is, this ‘France for the French,’ it doesn’t exist,” he said. “I’m third generation; my family came here from Algeria in the 1950s.” He noted that Hayange was an immigrant town, and suggested that the F.N.’s plan to end immigration was as absurd as its promise to revive the defunct factories. “There’s nothing to fix,” he said. “If you dip a glass into an empty well, it still won’t come up with water. There’s no money here. The industry is gone.”
Marine Le Pen’s presence in Hayange was part of her larger campaign for what she calls dédiabolisation, or de-demonization, an effort to normalize the party and make it as socially respectable as any other. One of the critical steps in that project has been the ouster of the demon himself: Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, who is perhaps best known for his suggestion that the gas chambers of the Third Reich were merely a “detail” of the Second World War.
Under Marine Le Pen, who became head of the F.N. in 2011, dédiabolisation has been presented as a novel strategy, but French analysts are quick to point out that the party has talked about dédiabolisation, in one form or another, for more than thirty years. Indeed, the F.N. was created as an effort to clean up some of the murkiest strains of France’s extreme right wing. In 1969, a youth collective called New Order was founded in Nanterre to replace several nationalist and Pétainiste groups that had been dissolved by the government for violent behavior. New Order was robustly anticommunist, but it had an air of what one account has described as “romantic nihilism.” (Think leather jackets and street brawls.) The group rebelled against the bourgeoisie and the Gaullism of the old right, and it simultaneously captured and rejected the spirit of May ’68.
After a series of disappointments at the ballot box, New Order realized that it would need to pool with other groups that occupied adjacent ideological territory if it wanted power. The coalition that emerged — which included Catholic traditionalists, former Vichy collaborators, and monarchists — sought a relatively moderate figure as its standard-bearer, someone who could at least play at social presentability. In 1972, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had founded three movements to defend the integrity of French Algeria, became the strongman of what was then called the National Front for French Unity. As Nicolas Lebourg, a French historian, has written, Jean-Marie came to supervise the discordant factions in the role of “final referee, without ever being fully master.”
At the start, there was nothing especially shocking about the National Front’s political program. The party was economically liberal, trans-Atlanticist, and socially conservative. The people, not the policies, were disturbing: one of Jean-Marie’s most important deputies wrote a history of the Waffen-SS, and he arranged the publication of a French edition of a pamphlet called Did Six Million Really Die? In later years, the group began to defend the existence of what it called “natural inequalities” and to reassert the importance of jus sanguinis, that is, citizenship rights that depend on a person’s ancestry, not his place of birth.
Jean-Marie Le Pen became notorious for threatening lawsuits against journalists who called the party extreme right, yet there remains some truth in his remark, from 2007, that “a pleasant National Front is of no interest to anyone.” During his four-decade reign over the F.N., he struggled to balance his desire for power with a rhetorical acerbity that reflected the party’s origins. He was convicted and fined at least a dozen times under France’s hate-speech laws, and had a knack for saying outrageous things whenever he found himself on the cusp of success, as though he wanted — consciously or not — to preserve the party’s underdog position.
Marine Le Pen grew up carrying the considerable burden of her father’s name. Her autobiography, Against the Current, which was published in 2006, demonstrates a devotion to her father along with a profound sense of injustice for the way her family was treated because of him. The book begins with what appears to be Le Pen’s most formative childhood experience: in 1976, when she was eight years old, twenty kilograms of dynamite tore into the family’s apartment in Paris in the middle of the night, turning the building, she writes, into a “dollhouse.”
The Le Pens were close, even clannish, and they made their home a salon for shadowy political figures. But scandal also touched their personal lives. When Marine was sixteen, her mother ran off with Jean-Marie’s biographer. The press took pleasure in watching the vicious divorce that followed: Jean-Marie told a magazine that if his ex-wife needed alimony money she could always find work as a cleaning lady. She appeared in French Playboy shortly thereafter, dressed — barely — as a housemaid. Marine didn’t speak to her for the next fifteen years.
After earning two advanced degrees in law at the University of Paris, Marine was given a job at the firm of a family friend, reportedly because no one else was willing to take her on. Though the son of her employer told L’Express magazine recently that “she was a serious attorney and the clients were satisfied,” her father’s social stigma remained a professional constraint. When she started a solo practice, she found herself blocked from many specialties — media law, business law, even divorce law — because clients felt their cases would be damaged by the association.
Le Pen gave up her practice and joined the F.N. party structure in the late Nineties, right around the time she had the first of three children with her first husband. (Le Pen has divorced twice since then; her current partner is an F.N. vice president.) Compared with her struggles as a lawyer, her rise within the party was swift. She professed to be a moderating force in the F.N. early on. In 2005, she protested her father’s comment that the Nazi occupation of France was “not so inhuman,” and she has forbidden — at least officially — the anti-Semitic rhetoric that used to be the party’s calling card. “For her it’s a thing of the past. She’s a different generation,” Nonna Mayer, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris, told me. “You must remember that she was born in 1968.”
Even so, Le Pen has seen her share of political mishaps. She is an avowed supporter of Vladimir Putin, and in 2014, her party borrowed $11 million from a Russian bank with close ties to the Kremlin. (French banks refuse to lend money to the F.N.) At the time, Le Pen rejected the suggestion that the financial arrangement would lend itself to corruption. But four months later the hacked phones of two Russian officials yielded text messages praising the F.N. for its support of Russia’s efforts to annex the Crimean Peninsula. There have been other financial imbroglios as well, including an investigation into whether she and her father underreported their financial assets to the French tax authority.
Marine Le Pen insists that her beliefs and methods are all her own, but she makes use of her father’s oratorical sensibility when it suits her. “It’s the outrance verbale, exactly the same as her father,” Mayer said. “She always alternates a bit of dédiabolisation and a little bit of diabolisation, which will catch the eye of the press, make a big scandal.” Le Pen was recently acquitted in a hate-speech case that had been brought against her after she described Muslims praying in the streets as an “occupation.” And when a prominent French pundit suggested that the young men who joined the Islamic State were suffering from a social disaffection that was not entirely unrelated to that of workers voting for the F.N., Le Pen tweeted pictures of the jihadist group’s mutilated victims, which prompted an immediate investigation by the Nanterre prosecutor’s office.
Before Le Pen took over the party, the F.N. saw its greatest success in 2002, when her father finished second in the presidential election. In the first round of voting, Jean-Marie received almost 17 percent of the vote, just enough to beat the Socialist candidate and to advance to the second-round runoff. Marine ran in her first présidentielle in 2012, and while she did not make it to the runoff, she surpassed her father’s record in the first round, finishing with nearly 18 percent. Since then, the F.N.’s share of the electorate has continued to increase. The party received 25 percent of the vote in the 2014 European parliamentary elections and in the first round of the 2015 French departmentals. And while critics have noted that both those elections had low turnout, Le Pen has consistently led surveys about voters’ intentions for the 2017 presidential race.
Last August, Marine pushed her father out of the F.N. entirely, prompting a legal battle for control of the party. In Strasbourg, she told me that she no longer had a relationship with him and that they had not spoken in months. And yet, for all that the melodrama between Marine and her father has scandalized the French press, the most critical ingredient in her rebranding campaign — and her electoral success — may not be the absence of her father but the presence of Florian Philippot, one of her vice presidents.
A thirty-four-year-old graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration, the ultra-elite finishing school for France’s political class, Philippot hardly falls into the traditional National Front demographic. He shapes its policy positions and brings the technocratic savvy of the elite peers from whom he has parted ideological company. He reportedly has an immense amount of influence over Marine Le Pen: according to some accounts, it was Philippot who insisted on Marine’s split with her father. This power has unsettled many F.N. insiders. After Aymeric Chauprade, a former senior adviser, quit the party in early November, he told the magazine Le Point, “Each time, [Philippot] puts his departure on the line, and says, ‘If I leave, there’s no more dédiabolisation.’ Marine is terrified.” Philippot, Chauprade said, “has created a dependence.”
In December, I met Philippot at Storkland, a ciconine hotel and amusement park in a tiny town on the German border. He has none of Le Pen’s warmth, but the speed and lucidity with which his thoughts arrive, apparently without much in the way of consideration, makes a fast impression. Philippot, too, was running in the upcoming elections; his region, the so-called Big East, included both Strasbourg and Hayange. He sipped on an Alsatian Christmas beer a few minutes before he was supposed to address his crowd and told me that he had been drawn to the F.N. after “seeing my country no longer sovereign, no longer free.” He lamented “the domination of American foreign policy,” and said that France was “constrained by the European Union in all of its actions.” When I asked what the surging popularity of the F.N. suggested to him, he described the party’s success in surprisingly Gaullist terms, as “a choice of liberation” from France’s two-party system, which had held the country captive “locally, regionally, nationally, for decades.”
Many critics of Le Pen told me that the dédiabolisation campaign was a subterfuge, a ploy that hid the reality of an unreconstructed F.N. Philippot laughed when I mentioned the accusation. “Yes, well, they have an interest in saying that,” he said. “In 2014, before the municipal elections, they said to the French, ‘If the F.N. gets some of these towns, they will be completely closed, with barbed wire.’ I’m not even caricaturing here! ‘There will be no more investors, companies will flee, it will be the death of culture, everything.’ Obviously that’s not what happened.” He pointed out that in later elections the F.N. received higher vote counts in many of those same towns. “Which proves that things must be going more or less well,” Philippot said. “Otherwise, people wouldn’t continue to vote for us.”
Le Pen’s successes over the past five years have coincided with a real political crisis in mainstream French politics, on both the left and the right. Francois Hollande is perhaps the least charismatic politician of his generation, and what he lacks in personality he also lacks in conviction — he is a strategist, not a man of ideas, and he has presided over a disastrous rift in the Socialist Party. Meanwhile, the right has been engulfed in corruption and scandal. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, has led the Republicans since 2014, but he is no longer credible as the clear-sighted commander many people saw in him ten years ago.
An important factor in these failures, according to Vincent Martigny, an assistant professor of political science at the École Polytechnique, is that much of the French political and cultural imagination remains obsessed with the three decades that followed World War II. The trente glorieuses, as they are known, were a period of economic growth, full employment, controlled immigration, and, crucially, leadership under the mythic figure of Charles de Gaulle. “Never has the country been so peaceful, wealthy, even powerful,” Martigny told me. “But it was a complete parenthesis in the history of France.” The first oil crisis, in the mid-1970s, brought the stability to an end — the number of unemployed went from 200,000 in 1974 to 1 million in 1976 — and ever since, Martigny said, the mainstream political class has been “so stuck in this story of the crisis, and going back to the trente glorieuses, that they cannot invent something new.” Marine Le Pen, by contrast, has been able to capitalize on this dynamic by telling her followers that closing the borders and expelling the immigrants will allow France to be France again.
At the F.N. rallies I attended, I spoke to endless reserves of white men in their early twenties who were reluctant to say much about their reasons for supporting the party beyond a one-word response: “Immigration.” Though immigration was not a defining issue when the F.N. was founded, it has since become the party’s catchall explanation for everything that ails France. Le Pen has worked to rid the party of overt expressions of xenophobia, but she also knows that she must continue to appeal to the F.N.’s traditional base, 82 percent of whom, according to one survey, self-identified as “somewhat” or “a little” racist.
To walk this line, Le Pen maintains that she is ready to welcome anyone who considers himself French, while she also insists that an influx of foreigners is the greatest threat to the country’s social prosperity. She has engineered her arguments about immigration to focus on economic concerns, and on the French ideal of secularism, but it is no accident that many of her followers hear a different message. “Very skillfully she says, ‘We are not racist. The intolerance — it’s the others, it’s Islamic fundamentalism. We are defending the values of democracy,’ ” Nonna Mayer told me. “It’s a much more acceptable speech than her father’s.” Cécile Alduy, a professor of French literature at Stanford, told me that this double game was crucial for expanding Le Pen’s electorate. Dédiabolisation, she said, “makes it a little easier for new voters, because the stigma of voting for a far-right, racist party is lessened by the absence of an explicitly ‘racialist’ message.”
When I spoke with Le Pen in Strasbourg, the F.N. had recently launched a publicity campaign in the troubled Muslim suburbs of Paris. A short time later, the party founded an outreach group in the banlieues. I asked her why she thought the people who lived there would ever consider voting for her. “Why not?” she said. She went on to argue that for many Muslims religion was not the “essential criterion” of their identity: “Many consider themselves French. They have daily problems — taxes, schools for their children, security in the areas where they live — and they, too, are victims of Islamic fundamentalism. So there is no reason why the simple fact of being Muslim should prevent them from being patriots. There are entire Muslim countries fighting against fundamentalism, you know.”
The first round of voting in the regional elections took place on December 6, a Sunday. The F.N. was expecting to win big in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, and it had chosen Hénin-Beaumont, a town of Dickensian brick row houses, for its victory rally. The area had once produced more than half of France’s coal, but it is now among the poorest parts of the country. Previous mayors had tried to revive Hénin-Beaumont by building large shopping centers to create jobs, but the malls snuffed out small businesses and sapped the town’s vitality. In 2014, the F.N. won the mayoralty by talking about values.
On the afternoon of the election, the streets were silent and empty. The National Front was preparing its victory celebration in a school auditorium that was named for Francois Mitterrand, the preeminent Socialist politician of the postwar era. The operation was immaculate — champagne flutes had been laid out between bottles of Bordeaux and red and blue paper napkins, and all the major TV networks were broadcasting the evening live. As journalists and campaign staff buzzed around the event, I spoke with Ahmed Hamrouni, an F.N. supporter and the head of a local North African association. Hamrouni, the son of an Algerian miner, told me that he knew more and more fellow Muslims who were voting F.N., though many weren’t ready to admit it. “Everything has changed since November thirteenth,” he said. “There is a malaise.” Hénin-Beaumont had not seen any violence, but Hamrouni said that he could feel a shift in the way that Muslim communities were regarded. It seemed to him that the French social contract, the desire to live together regardless of religion or ethnicity, had been broken. “Who knows?” he said. “Perhaps the F.N. will be able to have positive results.”
I told Hamrouni that I had heard Philippot say in a speech that he would veto public funds for a new mosque in Strasbourg if he were elected. “It doesn’t bother me,” Hamrouni said. “Islam is not about architecture, it’s about wisdom.” He had just returned from making the hajj to Mecca. Speaking of other Muslims he met on the trip, he said, “There were people who live under dictatorships who have much more difficulty practicing than we do. If submitting to the conditions imposed by universal suffrage is what it takes for us to live together in this country, well, then, maybe that’s okay.” Hamrouni was fifty-one years old and out of work, even though he had a postgraduate education — in this respect, at least, he fit the profile of many F.N. voters. “There have been a lot of suicides around here,” he said. “We are victims of this economic chaos.”
An explosion of cheers interrupted our conversation. The Jumbotrons lit up with early results: Le Pen had received 41 percent of the vote, almost twenty points ahead of her Republican opponent. Across France, the National Front had taken first place, with nearly 30 percent of the vote, more than it had ever received before. In the south, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine’s twenty-five-year-old niece, also won 41 percent of the vote. As the results came in, Jean-Marie Le Pen tweeted an image that showed one of Marion’s opponents dancing with a group of Orthodox Jews; he deleted it within twenty-four hours.
When Marine Le Pen came out to speak, she needed only a few minutes to stoke the euphoria of the crowd. “The people have spoken, and with that, France lifts its head!” After a brief speech, she circulated briskly through the room, her blond hair bobbing amid the black cameras and microphones. Twice the crowd broke into an impromptu rendition of the “Marseillaise.” The next morning, Le Pen told her press corps that the results meant that the F.N. was winning the trust of the French people. “That confidence is going to continue to increase,” she said. “I’m telling you now so that you can prepare yourselves psychologically.” She chuckled.
After the F.N.’s first-round victory, the Socialists withdrew their candidates from several regions and encouraged their supporters to vote for Sarkozy’s party in the runoff. It was perhaps the best available tactic to keep Le Pen from power, but it also bolstered her frequent complaint that the F.N. was fighting against a nepotistic elite that was concerned only with preserving itself. The scenario was also laughably close to the premise of Submission, the novel by Michel Houellebecq that sold more copies than any other book in France last year. The novel is a dysphoric satire in which the Socialist Party “submits” to an alliance controlled by a French chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood in order to block a triumph by Marine Le Pen.
In the first round of the regional elections, the National Front saw one of its best results — nearly 50 percent of the vote — in Calais, the city that plays uneasy host to a refugee camp known as the Jungle, which is situated next to the English Channel crossing. Le Pen had railed against the camp constantly during her campaign, as well as against the E.U. policy that begot it. In Strasbourg, she asked me, “One million immigrants this year, three million next year, and how many million the year after that? Ten million?” She said that the residents of Calais were “living a veritable horror, it’s a nightmare.” The Jungle was “a giant slum, not subject to any laws apart from those of smugglers, which is to say criminals.” She said that it was “shameful to allow a situation like that in a civilized country in 2015. No state worthy of the name would accept a situation like that on its territory.”
Le Pen wasn’t entirely exaggerating on the last point, though the statement suggested more, perhaps, than she intended. In the decade or so that the Jungle has existed, it has become a holding area for refugees who are trying to make it to the United Kingdom by way of the Chunnel. (At night, groups of men make their way around the three rows of barbed wire that the city set up along the highway; working together to slow traffic, they open the backs of trucks and climb inside.) The composition of the camp is always in flux, but it draws heavily from Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, and Afghanistan. For a long time it provided a temporary residence for about 3,000 people; recently, with the exodus from Syria, the camp had swelled to as many as 6,000. The city of Calais has refused to release statistics about whether crime rates have increased with the influx, though the mayor recently said that Calais was no less safe than any other city.
When I visited the camp, on a rainy morning in early December, I saw that the government had begun, after years of neglect, to install repurposed shipping containers as shelters for about 1,500 people. Charities had taken on most of the work; Doctors Without Borders, which helped arrange my visit, had built cabins for patient visits, laid gravel on the muddy walkways, and installed a few hot-water showers. A Turkish association was handing out noon meals. Almost all the women and children in the camp, a minority of the population, had been provided lodging by La Vie Active, another charity organization. Despite these efforts, however, the Jungle was still, for the most part, a vast mosaic of shacks and lean-tos built from scavenged pieces of plastic canvas, cardboard, and metal, and furnished with stray mattresses that lay among heaps of detritus. (A few months after my visit, the government began to raze part of the Jungle to encourage people to move into the shipping containers.)
During her campaign, Le Pen had said that she wanted to “eradicate bacterial immigration,” by which she claimed to mean the “alarming, contagious, non-European illnesses tied to the influx of migrants” that were afflicting hospitals in Calais and elsewhere across France. The staff of Doctors Without Borders told me, however, that almost all the sickness they saw was related to the appalling living conditions: flu, colds, ear infections, and lung infections, all of which were exacerbated because it was difficult to recover without warmth, nutritious food, and proper sanitation.
“Every day there are cases that shock me,” Célia Provost, a physician with the organization, told me. She had seen an Iranian woman who was dealing with complications from cancer; the woman and her daughter hadn’t been able to find a place to sleep and had been out in the cold for two days. When they came to see Provost, they cried endlessly. Another woman, whose family had been killed by the Islamic State, told Provost that she was suffering generalized pain; a Syrian pharmacist had scabies; and a fifty-year-old man whose big toe had been cut off by the Taliban had difficulty walking. “They aren’t leaving for no reason,” Provost said of the refugees. She told me that most of the aid staff do not live in Calais; there had been threats, and even attacks, by local residents against people who volunteered in the Jungle.
By now, the camp had become a shantytown; a commercial strip had sprung up with the help of a cartel of entrepreneurs who provided financial backing and then took control of the profits. There were stores where you could buy Red Bull and chewing gum, several mosques, an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and a string of restaurants and tea salons. During the day, the camp was active — men built and repaired shelters, and went into town to buy food. At night, the mood grew more somber, and they would gather in the restaurants to waste the evening away.
I went to one of the restaurants after dark. Around forty men lounged on gray banquettes, their shoes lined up neatly below them. They were smoking hookahs, their drained faces turned toward Bollywood films playing on a flatscreen TV. These were the men who were the targets of Le Pen’s vitriol. Behind a counter a Bangladeshi cook was making Afghan food: flatbread, roasted chicken, and vats of thick meat stews. There were bins of oranges and lemons next to a blender, and bunches of bananas hung from the rafters.
After a day of constant rain, it was impossible to get warm, but Shir Ahmad, a bubbly twenty-two-year-old Afghan who was working as a waiter, served me hot Lipton tea for a euro. Ahmad, who had been in the Jungle for two months, had left Afghanistan ten years earlier. He begged me to take him to Canada, though he said he would settle for England. He told me that plenty of young men his age had been killed trying to escape — they’d been run over on the highway or electrocuted while riding on top of trains through the tunnel. Ahmad had attempted to cross over to the U.K. before, but a heavy police presence caused him to temporarily stop trying. He planned to start up again soon. Winter promised to be severe, though the static misery of being stuck in the Jungle, with no apparent way forward, was his greatest source of despair.
In the second round of the elections, which followed a week after the first round, the National Front failed to win a single region. The party captured a record number of votes nationally — 6.8 million — and seated many of its members on the regional councils, but it wouldn’t control any of them. The results presented a dilemma: the F.N. could evidently win a three-way race, when voters were divided between the Socialists and the Republicans, but it could not muster the majority needed to win a runoff. The next election, the présidentielle, would take place in 2017, and it was looking insurmountable. The morning after the second-round results came in, F.N. leaders began to strategize about how they could further enlarge their electorate. There seemed to be an implicit consensus that the only way to really amputate the past was to change the party’s name.
Still, the influence of the vote was obvious. In the bellicose frenzy that followed the November 13 attacks, Hollande’s government had floated the idea of amending the French constitution to allow courts to strip the citizenship of French-born citizens with dual nationality who were convicted of terrorist crimes. (The majority of French citizens with dual nationality are Muslims with roots in the former colonies.) Most people assumed that the proposal would be forgotten once things calmed down, not least since a similar measure had been enacted by the Vichy regime and used by Marshal Pétain to revoke the nationality of Charles de Gaulle in 1940. But in late December, Hollande’s administration stunned the French left by announcing that it would move ahead with a version of the reform.
The civil code already contained a vague statute that would technically allow for a similar procedure, but the symbolism of the measure, which would give legal sanction to the distinction between “native” Français de souche and French citizens of immigrant origin, was immense. “It would no longer be the crime that determines the punishment, an essential principle of law, but the origins of the person,” the political scientist Olivier Roy wrote in L’Obs. “It is profoundly anti-Republican because it introduces a blood right against a birthright.” Marine Le Pen immediately took credit for the idea, tweeting, on the morning the act was announced, that Hollande’s move was “the first effect of the 6.8 million votes for the National Front.”
Earlier this year, Roy told me that the F.N. is “less a danger to institutions than to the social fabric.” An outright victory by Le Pen, he suggested, “would exacerbate conflicts and tensions” within French society. Indeed, further influence of the far-right surge could be seen in the more than 3,000 raids that the government staged between November and the middle of January. Mosques, halal restaurants, and Muslim homes had their doors mowed down, often in the early-morning hours, by French police wielding automatic weapons. The state of emergency declared by Hollande had suspended the requirement for a warrant, and so it was perhaps unsurprising that most of the raids had no tangible result beyond instilling a sense of terror and persecution in French citizens of Muslim heritage.
In Strasbourg, I had asked Marine Le Pen whether she had read Houellebecq’s Submission. “Yes, of course I read it. It’s a work of fiction that we would hope is not predictive,” she said. “But what is very accurate in this book is not so much the hypothesis it puts in place but the description of the submissiveness of the political elites. Of their everyday cowardices, this succession of little cowardices, which makes it so that they are ready to abandon what France is — our values, our model.” The book takes place in 2022, and it looks back on the 2017 election as a “shameful spectacle, but mathematically inevitable, of the reelection of a leftist president in a country more and more openly to the right.” In the aftermath of the race, Houellebecq writes, “A strange and oppressive mood settled over the country, a kind of suffocating despair, drastic but shot through with glints of insurrection.” Le Pen looked at me with a solemn expression. “It’s very cruel,” she told me, “but it’s very well observed.”
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Commentary — February 17, 2016, 2:30 pm