Seven Moments That Forged a French Firebrand
by Helene Fouquet
Marine Le Pen has placed herself among the front-runners to be France’s next president by ditching the anti-Semitic rhetoric that her father used to build up her party.
Yet Jean-Marie’s youngest daughter spent most of her life steeped in far-right ideology as the National Front grew on the fringes of French politics in the 1970s and 1980s.
The 48-year-old candidate may have swapped her father’s racism for promises to protect “patriots” from globalization, but her political identity remains entwined with the party’s troubled origins.
These seven dates show how the candidate was shaped by her father’s career.
Nov. 2, 1976: Bombed
The night before Jimmy Carter’s U.S. presidential election victory, 8-year-old Marine was at home in the Le Pen family’s Paris apartment when several pounds of dynamite ripped through the building. Police said it was an attempt to assassinate her father, though the perpetrators were never caught.
Marine survived unscathed and says the experience marked the beginning of her political awareness. It also intensified her relationship with Jean-Marie.
“When I was still playing with dolls, I became aware of this terrible and incomprehensible thing for me: My father was not treated the same as others, we are not treated the same as others,” she said in her 2006 autobiography, “Against the Flow.”
After the attack, the family moved out of Paris to Montretout, an estate on the edge of the capital where a wealthy supporter had left Jean-Marie a 19th century red-brick mansion in his will. Marine would live there with her father for almost four decades.
Oct. 10, 1984: Abandoned
Family life for the Le Pens was unconventional by the standards of bourgeois France. The parents lived separately from their three daughters and were often away traveling, sailing, partying or campaigning.
That was just the start. When Marine was 16, her mother left with a lover and cut off contact with her daughter for 15 years.
Marine stayed on with her father at Montretout as her parents’ bitter, public divorce played out across the front pages of the press — her mother even posed naked in the French edition of Playboy magazine at one point. Le Pen says the trauma created a special bond with her sisters, who’ve supported her on the campaign trail.
“She became much tougher after her mother left, and became even closer to her father,” said Jean-Francois Touze, a former close ally of Jean-Marie. “That personal tragedy and being bullied in school for being a Le Pen created a feeling that it was ‘us against the world.’ She still has that.”
Jan. 1, 1998: Political Calling
As a child, Le Pen wanted to be a cop and later trained as a lawyer. But she never really escaped her father’s orbit.
Her first employer was a friend of her father’s, and she mainly worked defending people in extreme-right movements. When she struck out on her own, she struggled to make headway. In 1997 she married a National Front activist. The next January, after six years as a lawyer, she quit her job and joined the party.
Three months later she won her first election, for the regional council in Nord Pas de Calais, an impoverished region bordering Belgium. Her three children, including twins, were born in 1998 and 1999.
“She tried to strike out on her own,” Renaud Dely wrote in his essay “The Real Marine Le Pen.” “It was a failure. The youngest daughter never managed to break away from her father.”
May 5, 2002: Into the Spotlight
After Jean-Marie’s surprise success in the first round of the 2002 presidential election brought millions onto the streets in protest, he was defeated by Jacques Chirac in a landslide.
That was also the night the French public discovered Marine, a 33-year-old chain smoker with long blond hair. With demonstrators labeling her father a fascist, Marine went on television to defend him, catching the public imagination with both her look and her arguments.
“That’s when she emerged,” said Nicolas Lebourg, a researcher on far-right politics at the University of Montpellier.
Marine’s rise marked the beginning of the National Front’s journey toward the mainstream of French politics.
“She understood that as long as the party was branded as racist and her father continued to deny the Holocaust there could be no future,” Lebourg said. “On May 5, 2002, Marine Le Pen decided to change the National Front.”
May 13, 2009: A Political Union
Florian Philippot was a 27-year-old graduate of France’s elite National School of Administration when he was introduced to Le Pen by a mutual friend.
Le Pen was reluctant to go to dinner with a policy wonk but afterward both described it as it a political “love at first sight.” Her relationship with Philippot is entirely platonic, though both her husbands did work for the National Front. And her current partner, Louis Aliot, is vice president of the party.
“She’s intellectually insecure and Philippot, who’s a trained technocrat, gave her confidence and structure,” said Sylvain Crepon, a professor of sociology at the University of Tours.
Philippot helped Le Pen airbrush the Front’s racist image and reprogram the party to focus on “sovereignty” instead of “nationalism.” That opened the door to a swath of new voters.
“He helped her put identity, not race, at the center,” Crepon said.
Under Philippot’s guidance, Le Pen accelerated the party’s evolution from its libertarian roots toward economic patriotism. He converted her to his anti-European plans to restore the barriers to immigration and, in what became the centerpiece of her 2017 campaign, to leave the euro.
Aug. 20, 2015: Rupture
Marine took over the leadership of the National Front with her father’s blessing in 2011 and, with Philippot at her side, pushed ahead with her plans to make the party electable. But she had one problem: Jean-Marie.
Despite the warnings from his daughter, the National Front’s founder refused to temper his language, repeatedly talking about gas chambers.
The issue came to a head in an April 2015 television interview when he insisted that the Holocaust was just a “detail” of World War II. After a four-month power struggle, Marine called a meeting of the executive committee and had Jean-Marie expelled from the party he built.
“This was the most difficult moment of my life apart from giving birth,” she said in a September television interview. “He forced me to go all the way.”
Both say they no longer have any contact, though Jean-Marie is still helping to finance Marine’s campaign.
“Politically it’s a success,” said Jean-Yves Camus, researcher and co-author of the book “Far-Right Politics in Europe.” “But on a personal level how could we know? He’s politically dead. But the ideology, the roots are still there.”
April 9, 2017: A Slip?
Two weeks before the first round, Le Pen still held a narrow lead in the polls. Though her support had dipped, her main challenge was to broaden her support ahead of the May 7 runoff.
Then history — both personal and national — reared its head again.
Asked in an interview about her manifesto statement that France should stop apologizing for itself, Le Pen denied her country was responsible for the roundup of over 13,000 Jews sent from Paris to Auschwitz in 1942. Her comments reopened the debate about France’s wartime government — President Jacques Chirac had issued an apology for the action in 1995, riling some on the far right.
Le Pen “showed the true face of the National Front,” Emmanuel Macron, her most serious rival for the presidency, told reporters. She refused to back down.
Whether the comments were really a mistake, or a sop to her base, the episode showed that even after a 15-year makeover, her father’s politics still cloud Marine’s electoral hopes.
“She herself isn’t racist or even anti-Semitic, but she can’t help it,” Lebourg said. “She always comes back to the DNA of the National Front to show she’s the anti-establishment candidate.”