I’m sensing a little boost for Marine Le Pen. She was just on for a pretty lengthy interview on BFMTV, the main news station. The host, who is surely no Le Penist, asked her a lot of questions about her life, growing up as the daughter of France’s most prominent extreme-rightist, etc. She is always very good on such topics, coming across as both normal and wise. She’s led a full life and is raising three kids as a divorced mom. She was appealing in talking about her decision to keep them out of the campaign limelight. She’s attractive but no knockout; I think she is very relatable not only as a populist tribune, but as a woman in full navigating the shoals of a modern life. I liked it when the host asked her what she was reading, and she laughed and said nothing but campaign-related dossiers and reports. My guess is that none of her opponents would come across so well in this format, and it can’t hurt her that clips of it will be rebroadcast all day on the main news channel four days before the first round.
Some in the press have had Le Pen in a little bit of a slump: a slight dipping in the polls, an inability to bring the campaign to focus on her subjects. One observer noted that she seemed a bit outside-looking-in during the televised debates; she would say something bold or provocative and no one would respond. That’s not the case this week; she’s back in the center. She did it by doubling down hard on her key issue, immigration.
On Monday evening she spoke at big rally at the Zenith, on the edge of Paris. Paris is not a Marine stronghold, so she filled an arena of 5,000, perhaps a third of the size of Macron’s rally earlier that day. But she made news with real proposals—so, in contrast to Macron, the papers were full of Le Pen headlines for the next two days.
The Zenith is on the northeast edge of Paris, near the suburbs where riots are always possible, and leaving the subway I was not unhappy to see a full contingent of riot cops. I got into the arena early, but shortly thereafter the “antifa” assaulted rallygoers with Molotov cocktails. When we left, the cops told us to use one subway station (there was another possibility) because it was “fully securitized.”
The Le Pen crowd in Paris has that embattled group which has been on the outs for a while. But it gives them a kind of esprit de corps. A few parents brought children though this was an evening rally at the end of a holiday weekend. Among the older faces, there was a working-class, or what in New York would be an outer-borough, feel; the younger Le Penists looked somewhat hipper.
As music to warm up the crowd before the speakers, Macron’s rally deployed somewhat sanitized rap; Le Pen went with Ravel’s Bolero.
Finally Marine Le Pen strides onstage, wearing black pants and a scarlet jacket. She talks for an hour and a half, from prepared text but with some real rhetorical power. She speaks mostly about immigration and globalization: “civilization is at stake” and she will protect France and the French. The crowd regularly breaks into the Le Penist chant “on est chez nous“(“We are at home”)—a chant of defiance to globalization, something that would make sense only to a people whose sense of being at home in their country felt actually under threat.
Globalization of course is a vast subject, and she can dip into one corner of it after another without ever sliding into genuinely racist discourse. France will either put itself in order and reclaim its identity or become a little planetary village. “In France we drink wine whenever we want. In France we do not force women to wear the veil because they are impure. In France we get to decide who deserves to become French.” We will not be “dispossessed our our history, our memory.” This last incites long rolling chants of “On est chez nous!“ from the crowd.
As president Le Pen vows to end the Schengen agreement, which allows open-borders travel between the countries of Europe. Schengen has “made our country a railway hall for all the migrants of the world.” Massive immigration is “not an opportunity for France, but a tragedy for France.” 240 killed by terrorists in the past two years. She will end birthright citizenship; she will impose a moratorium on all legal immigration. (This a hardening of the line she put out in proposals several months ago.) The burkini (the Muslim swimming suit) is “not a religious garment but an Islamist provocation.” “Give us France back” she exhorts. She reminds the crowd that Fillon supported Turkey’s entry into the European Union, which would grant unlimited residency rights in France for Turkish citizens. And after Turkey, she notes, tomorrow we could have Algeria and Morocco. She doesn’t mention this, but this was the ambition of the moderate Muslim French president elected in in Houellebecq’s novel Soumission.
At one point Le Pen had said that Mohammed Merah, one of the many French born Islamic terrorists, wouldn’t have had French citizenship if her preferences had been in place. This provoked a shame-on-her-editorial from Le Monde, which contrasted Le Pen unfavorably with George W. Bush of all people—for trying to make political capital out of terrorism.
I have to admit I thought Le Pen’s speech was fine. Her ideal France isn’t attacking any foreign countries, brandishing aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles, threatening regime change. It wants simply to be able to be itself. But in the forced march to a world without borders, that is considered an extremist and shameful ambition. It shouldn’t be.