Dissecting the Darling of the French Right

While researching female-led political dynasties, CEU Professor of Sociology Dorit Geva became entranced by the President of the French National Front (FN) Marine Le Pen. A provocative figure, not only in French politics but in the EU and beyond, Le Pen is now the heir of a new political dynasty and has turned the party her father founded in the 1970s into a popular contender and lightning rod for controversy.

“Marine Le Pen is extremely interesting and has brought up more and more questions about the rising right in France,” said Geva. “In surprising ways, feminism has entered the radical right while parties on the left have remained bastions of the male-dominated norm. I think that she is the most important female politician in modern France and she's has had a ripple effect across all of French politics.”

Le Pen has not only stirred things up at home, but she has ruffled feathers outside of France with her strong stance on restricting immigration and her mistrust of the EU. These two issues resonate with her followers, especially in the FN stronghold in Southeastern France. She enjoys robust support in cities like Marseilles, Nice, and towns along the French Riviera where, despite ubiquitous tourism, the economy is struggling severely and there are high rates of unemployment along with a large North African immigrant population.

Although Le Pen lost the 2012 French presidential election, she did receive 18 percent of the votes and her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, became the youngest sitting member of the National Assembly at age 22. One of Geva's main research goals is to explore the appeal of Marine Le Pen by doing one-on-one interviews and attending FN rallies and conventions.

“I think that her appeal is that she has been able to embody an answer to what her party members see as France's biggest contemporary problems: immigration and the EU,” said Geva. “And not just any form of immigration – particularly Muslim immigration – and, regarding the EU, the FN are extremely concerned with what they see as 'ultraliberalism.'”

CEU Professor of Sociology Dorit Geva examines French National Front President Marine Le Pen. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

In Geva's interviews, rank-and-file members of FN often ascribe a symbolic value to Le Pen based on her family lineage, her beauty, and her life experiences as a twice-divorced, working mother. “They describe her as a woman bathed in light and transparency – as if they've known her all her life. They have a strong sense of intimacy with her biography which, to them, is that of a modern Western woman. She is of the soil and represents their values.” Many interviewees recalled stories of meeting Le Pen when she was a child and, presumably, campaigning with her father.

For all the beaming reviews from her supporters, there are also scathing accusations and opposition rallies. “They are used to being treated as pariahs,” Geva noted, especially by left-leaning publications. Unlike in the U.S., where media is ostensibly unbiased, many European newspapers and magazines are open about their political opinions. FN, its members and leadership are often accused of being racist – a claim that the party leadership and many members vehemently deny. During Geva's interviews, some FN members repeated the mantra that their party is open to gays, Jews, and racial minorities.

“I think the claims of diversity are more rhetorical than real but the fact that they want to claim it is interesting,” Geva said. “At political rallies and conferences, members have repeatedly pointed out that there were no skinheads there.”

The recent controversy over a Roma family that was expelled from France under the direction of unapologetic French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, a socialist, is, in Geva's view, an example of the ripple effect that Le Pen and the FN have had on French politics. When it comes to France's Muslim immigrant population – an estimated 4-5 million people – many older members of the FN talk about immigration in the past and assert that Muslim families used to assimilate and “become” French. However, they blame the 1968 student and worker strikes and “ultraliberalism,” with which they associate politically correct policy, for changing that and for establishing pro-immigrant (versus pro-French) policies and a more divided society. Members often hold up the example of Le Pen as representing their values and what France should be, as opposed to the supposed traditionalism of Muslim families or what they claim Muslim families represent, Geva said.

Underscoring the 2012 presidential candidates' relationships with Brussels (the headquarters of the EU) was a main campaign focus of the FN and it served to differentiate Le Pen from “politics as usual,” despite the fact that Le Pen herself is a member of the EU Parliament. It was so effective, that former President Nicolas Sarkozy (who ultimately lost the election to Francois Hollande) started taking up some right-leaning rhetoric to try to win back supporters from Le Pen.

“Whatever she's doing, she's doing it very well. Opinion polls show that she has more positive support than ever before,” Geva said. “She's benefitting from the crisis of the two mainstream political parties: UMP and the Socialist Party. There's a vacuum of leadership and charisma and, although France is not quite Southern Europe, it is very aware of Greece, Italy, and Spain. The prospects of being subjected to austerity measures – and there's a sense that could be just around the corner – is terrifying to them.”

In 2012, Geva received a €75,000 Marie Curie grant from the European Commission that is partially funding her work on Le Pen. In August 2013, Geva published “Conscription, Family, and the Modern State: A Comparative Study of France and the United States.” Both the book and her Le Pen research address how French politics organize around ideas of family, masculinity, and femininity at times of political and economic crisis.