Letter from France — From the May 2016 issue

Front Runner

Marine Le Pen’s campaign to make France great again

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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.

Illustration by Matthew Richardson

Illustration by Matthew Richardson

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.

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lives in Brooklyn. Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Counterparty,” was published in December 2015.

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