PARIS — With rising unemployment, controversial austerity measures, another recession, and striking personal unpopularity, it's not shocking that French President Nicolas Sarkozy faces a steep climb to reelection in May. But the center-right leader's greatest obstacle is not his front-running opponent, the Socialist François Hollande, but the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, France's political equivalent, in many ways, of America's Newt Gingrich.
Le Pen may not look much like America's doughy, retirement-age former House speaker. After all, France's insurgent on the right is a feisty, scratchy-voiced, cigarette-smoking 43-year-old blond woman. But the two have plenty in common, including their knack for playing the outsider, media-bashing, and channeling fury at the "elite's" privileged status quo. Most significantly, they both have a notable opportunity to wreck the chances of the right's "natural candidate" for the presidency.
Less than three months before the French begin first-round voting, an Ifop poll released Feb. 3 shows Hollande with 27 percent, Sarkozy with 18 percent, and Le Pen actually ahead of the president with 24 percent. Such a score on Le Pen's part would amount to a historic victory for her National Front in a first-round election, but it might actually be even higher given that polls have often underestimated her party's share of the electorate -- many voters have traditionally been uncomfortable coming out in support of a far-right candidate. Le Pen might even be capable of actually winning the first-round vote (i.e., surpassing both Sarkozy and Hollande). A recent poll suggests that her first-round electoral ceiling could be as high as 30 percent. At this point, neither of the two traditional ruling-party candidates can take for granted that they will make the runoff.
With the two-round ballot approaching fast, Sarkozy is banking on the formal announcement of his candidacy -- likely in the second half of February -- to shake up polls that have been adamantly in his disfavor. Even though the president is a relentless campaigner, it is far from clear that he can generate an epic shift in less than 80 days. What seems far more certain is this: The campaign will get ugly. Given that approximately two-thirds of the electorate disapproves of the president after seeing him on the job for nearly five years, his only path to victory may be to drag down his main opponents.
But if ever there was a candidate who was shaped for rough-and-tumble tangling, it is Le Pen. She is the youngest of three daughters of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the flamboyant godfather of the French far-right, who shocked the world by forcing a runoff with Jacques Chirac in 2002. Jean-Marie, a pugnacious former military man who sometimes wore a patch over his glass eye, founded the National Front political party when Marine was 4 years old.
Marine grew up in a political and home environment that can literally be described as explosive: In 1976, 20 kilograms of explosives blasted the Parisian apartment building where the Le Pens lived. (To this day, it remains unclear who placed the bomb and even whether it was related to politics, a disputed inheritance from a supporter, or some other personal matter.)
The family survived that ordeal -- amazingly no one died in the attack -- but the marriage of Marine's parents came apart a decade later, when she was still a teenager. In a divorce that might make Gingrich seem like a choirboy to his exes, Marine's mother, Pierrette, fled the family home in a posh Parisian suburb and left her three daughters in the hands of her husband. (Marine didn't speak to her mother for the next 15 years.) In an interview with a now-defunct newspaper, Globe, Pierrette later gave a sense of why. According to her account, her husband said: "You will come back to Saint-Cloud on your knees, I will put you in the cellar, and I will piss on your head."
That was just the start. According to a summary of events published in France's most respected Rolling Stone-like magazine, Les Inrocks, when Pierrette fled the familial abode, she forgot the urn bearing her mother's remains; Jean-Marie refused to return the ashes. In retaliation, Pierrette decided to keep Jean-Marie's backup glass eye, which she carried around in her handbag (apparently in case his other one fell out).
During their separation, when Pierrette asserted that she was out of money, Jean-Marie suggested that she "profit from the little beautician's diploma" that she had earned in the 1960s. Otherwise, Jean-Marie famously retorted, "She can do maid's work to supplement her income."
Pierrette's response came on the cover of the July 1987 issue of the French edition of Playboy. Marine's mother appeared as a fantasy maid in a tight, breast-exposing one-piece swimsuit, along with the headline: "Miss Le Pen, Naked, Cleans House."
Jean-Marie took a fancy to referring to himself, before supporters, as a single working father. His characteristically blunt advice to his daughters (as Marine has recounted it): "You are Le Pen girls for life. It's not gonna be easy, so get on with it."
Politically, Marine took her father's advice, joining the National Front at age 18. In many ways, the party has long been her real family. Her first husband was a businessman close to the Front, while her second was an actual party official. Her current partner is Louis Aliot, the vice president of the party. Her aging father remains the honorary head of the party.
But she hasn't just taken the reins from her father; she's made over the National Front. Early on it was a pure protest party that was particularly tough on crime, immigrants, foreigners, and France's traditional political elite (both right and left). Its traditional appeal ran from the working class to returnees from France's lost overseas territories to former soldiers. Geographically, the party has long tended to score well in cities near the Mediterranean where immigration from Africa and the Middle East is blamed for many problems, as well as in parts of rural France, near the French-German border, and among white voters in poorer suburbs.
In the year since Marine became leader, she has proved successful in destigmatizing the party -- at least in the eyes of a wider swath of working-class members of the hard right and even parts of the far left, who can now envision supporting the party's candidate. She's also making inroads within France's big, more cosmopolitan cities.
Ostentatious signs of the old-school National Front have, for the most part, disappeared. The younger Le Pen has rooted out, quarantined, or condemned out-of-line figures in the party for what was once considered fairly standard behavior. She recently referred one National Front candidate to the party's disciplinary committee after racist and xenophobic caricatures appeared on his blog. (One caricature showed a "Romanian Santa Claus" stealing a flat-screen television, while another portrayed a colonial-era African man to make fun of the main black character in France's most popular film of 2011, Untouchables. Another showed Sarkozy dressed as a Nazi officer.)
How much of a rhetorical change has she engineered? Jean-Marie once famously referred to the gas chambers of World War II as a "tiny detail" of history. Marine, by contrast, has called Nazism the "ultimate barbarity" and an "abomination." She has mused that she wished she were alive during Hitler's rise to help combat his ideology. (She has also lamented the throwing around of the epithet "Nazi" as something that cheapens the suffering of their victims.) Marine has also taken part in events that her father never would have, such as a recent gathering of Franco-Congolese supporters.
Her efforts at "de-demonization," as it is referred to in the French media, don't mean that she won't go after immigrants, Muslims, or foreigners. She just does it in a different, more palatable way. If she complains about Muslims, it isn't the people -- it's their actions -- and her attack is often in defense of France's strong secular identity. She doesn't explicitly attack the Muslim faith; she criticizes invasive behavior that she suggests grows from it. She has targeted ostentatious prayer in the streets (a fairly common occurrence in parts of France where religious Muslims can't often fit into limited mosque space), fast-food chains that serve halal meats to all customers, and immigrants for taking jobs when French citizens need employment. Her ultimate goal is little different from her father's: to end illegal immigration and severely limit legal immigration. It is framed as law and order, though, not a culture war.
The younger Le Pen's tactical savvy is also clear from her cherry-picking of stances from popular far-right politicians in Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. In some cases, this is allowing her to reshape the electoral landscape. When she suggests that the beliefs of radical Islamists are representative of most members of the Muslim faith, or when she caricatures the actions and spirituality of France's largely secularized Muslims, it is often to highlight intolerance toward women, gays, and Jews to win over their votes -- or, at the very least, to highlight her own tolerance. (Le Pen's hypocrisy is perhaps clearest when she neglects to challenge radical Catholics -- many of whom support her -- even though they often also prove to be retrograde, by most French standards, on the rights of women and gays.)
Beyond the polls, the most significant sign of Le Pen's rebranding success is that some of her views have been co-opted by Sarkozy himself. The president, who has often been accused of pandering to the National Front electorate, has presided over a sharp spike in the number of immigrants who are shipped back to their homelands, the creation of the controversial (and short-lived) Ministry of National Identity, and a presidential promise to oversee construction of a proud -- some say nationalistic -- museum of French history.
The irony is that Le Pen's polling success highlights Sarkozy's inability to retain the rightist elements who voted for him in 2007. These voters aren't convinced by the president's hard-right forays and are troubled by his willingness to place centrists and leftists in high-profile positions. To get elected, Sarkozy promised a nearly revolutionary modernization of France, and his signature measures -- raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, not replacing one out of every two retiring civil servants, and giving a massive tax cut to the wealthiest 20,000 French people at the start of his presidency -- are far from revolutionary.
Many traditional right voters see such actions as either small-bore tinkering or missing the real concerns of the French. (And tax breaks for a tiny subsection of France's "1 percent" play even worse here than in the United States, especially given that they added tens of billions of euros to the national debt in the run-up to the economic crisis).
Le Pen, who often laments France's "downward social escalator," has begun to appeal to the country's sizable far-left electorate with her talk of protecting workers with an array of hefty taxes on foreign goods. The goal, she suggests, is to restore French industry to its former glory, not to sacrifice what is left of it in a race to the bottom with China.
Electorally, Le Pen's success is creating an almost insurmountable electoral obstacle for Sarkozy. Instead of being able to move to the political center to squeak out a victory, the president is in the unenviable position of needing to simultaneously move to the hard right and to the center, and he has less than three months to do it.
In most countries, an incumbent on the right would be able to count on the far-right falling in line behind the most conservative candidate with a chance to win. Not in France. The National Front has been the "untouchable" party for so long that Sarkozy could hardly align with it without driving the decisive center into the arms of the Socialist front-runner.
Besides, Le Pen has so far shown no signs whatsoever that she is willing to work with Sarkozy, even if she -- unlike her father, the provocateur-critic -- seems to have a long-term vision to obtain a share of power. That will eventually require working with Sarkozy's political party, but probably not with Sarkozy himself, who recently told journalists, off the record, that if he loses this election he would retire from politics.
A Socialist victory might logically seem to be even more distasteful to a far-right candidate than another term for Sarkozy. But Le Pen's game is to show that France's political elite, whether on the traditional right or the left, is all the same -- an ineffective, impotent, out-of-touch political cluster that is incapable of dealing with the issues that voters care about: employment, the economy, purchasing power, crime, and corruption. What better way to show that she is the only real alternative than to let the Socialists take over in the midst of a dire economic crisis, and fail?
The truth is that Le Pen has never been in this election to win it, just to make a good showing. At 43, she has time on her side. She's paving a long road toward power. It just so happens that she's trying to pave it right over the current president.