France's Far-Right Candidate For President Is A Contender
A confident Marine Le Pen strides into a room in her new campaign headquarters, greeting reporters in her signature, husky voice.
The candidate takes a seat in front of a calming blue campaign poster that bears no mention of the National Front party or the Le Pen surname. It says simply, "IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE: Marine – President."
"This isn't just a slogan," she says. "It's a profession of my beliefs. I would never betray the people. It's unbearable to see the people betrayed time and again by politicians who don't keep their promises and by the technocrats at the European Union."
Le Pen took over leadership of the National Front six years ago. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded the party in 1972 and was known for his xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
His daughter is trying to make the National Front more palatable to mainstream voters by abandoning that rhetoric. Le Pen's strategy has paid off at the polls. The party has become one of the most successful in France, attracting younger voters and more women. And people who've never voted for the far right in their life.
That describes 74-year-old Jacqueline Castanaer in the Mediterranean port city of Nice, who says the surge in immigration the past few years has become too much.
"They pass illegally over the border from Italy," Castanaer says. "I think Le Pen could come in and clean things up a bit. And it would be good to close the borders. The left and right just go back and forth in this country but nothing ever changes."
Le Pen says as president the first thing she'll do is seek a return of French sovereignty over its borders, currency and laws. If need be, with a referendum to leave the EU, which she calls an undemocratic organization that advances by threats and blackmail. She says Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump show that the people are not going to lie back and take it anymore.
"The people are rejecting so-called free trade and globalization that the elites presented as a positive thing," she says. "But it's actually causing massive migration and the collapse of industries."
Speaking to cheering crowds at a gathering of the European far-right last weekend in Koblenz, Germany, Le Pen said she would close French borders. She said the current wave of illegal migrants is in addition to the 200,000 legal immigrants France has been accepting every year for the last decade. The crowds yelled in agreement when she said it was time to end mass immigration.
"Immigration has a huge cost on social programs and it lowers salaries and drives up unemployment," said Le Pen. "It's also a source of insecurity. We know there are terrorists hiding among the waves of migrants, so how much longer are we going to continue on like this?"
Though Le Pen calls Islamic fundamentalism one of the biggest dangers facing France, she says she is not anti-Muslim. Le Pen says there are two kinds of Islam and one is completely compatible with French values.
"Practicing Muslims, like Christians and Jews, have never posed a threat to French values," she says. "But there's another political fundamentalist, totalitarian Islam that wants sharia [Islamic] law over French law. And this is the one I will fight without mercy."
Le Pen has made no secret of her admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. She says he always has the interests of Russia and the Russian people in mind, which is the way it should be. Le Pen supported Russia's annexation of Crimea after what she called a legitimate referendum.
Le Pen says the insurrection in eastern Ukraine is entirely Europe's fault, because the EU tried to blackmail Ukraine with a commercial deal in order to force it to break ties with Russia.
"The EU – probably on instructions from the U.S. – created the conditions for this coup d'etat and completely artificial conflict," says Le Pen.
Le Pen says she's very pleased that there will no doubt be an easing of tensions between the U.S. and Russia with President Trump in office. "If only for selfish reasons - because we're in the middle," she says laughing.
Le Pen calls for a multi-polar world. She says France should be under no other nation's control, as she says it is now with regard to the U.S. and NATO. Le Pen says she will take France out of NATO's central command if elected.
As for President Trump? Le Pen says his policies are good for France.
"He scrapped the transatlantic trade deal and he's against the U.S. playing the role of the world's policeman. Lord knows we've all been paying the price for that these last years."
But not everything is going Le Pen's way. She's had to adapt her campaign to some unforeseen events. François Hollande, the unpopular Socialist president, is not seeking a second term.
And a social conservative, François Fillon, is the surprise choice as presidential candidate of the mainstream right. Fillon's support of traditional, Catholic values could attract many of the voters Le Pen had been counting on.
Jean-Yves Camus, with the French Institute for Strategic and International Affairs, says Le Pen is now adopting Trump's tactics.
"She's going to the left on the economy and social issues," he says. "That is, explaining to the workers that globalization is bad, that the EU is bad."
Camus says the platform of the far left and the far right are practically identical except on immigration.
Le Pen says the labels left and right don't mean anything anymore. Today's split is between those who support global organizations and open borders, and those who want strong nation states.
"I see the great return of sovereign nations with their borders, protections and patriotism," she says.
For Marine Le Pen, Brexit and the election of Trump herald the beginning of a new era. French voters will decide if that's true when they go to the polls in April.
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