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French National Front (FN) far-right party vice-president and European MP Marine Le Pen speaks during a press conference on September 1, 2010 in Nanterre, outside Paris, focused on primary election prior to France's presidential election. (JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP Photo/Getty Images/JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP Photo/Getty Images)
French National Front (FN) far-right party vice-president and European MP Marine Le Pen speaks during a press conference on September 1, 2010 in Nanterre, outside Paris, focused on primary election prior to France's presidential election. (JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP Photo/Getty Images/JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

France's National Front steadily gaining strength, polls show Add to ...

Tall, blonde and plain-spoken, 42-year-old Marine Le Pen has two ambitions: to succeed her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, when he steps down as head of the extreme right National Front party in January, and to become the first French president who represents the far right.

But even if her succession is still months away, and her ascension to the presidency unlikely, Ms. Le Pen and the National Front are already wielding disproportionate influence on French politics. Observers say that although the party is still far behind in the polls, the National Front's touch is being felt in everything from President Nicolas Sarkozy's attack on Roma and other immigrants this summer to a decision earlier this month by a small-town mayor to refuse a group of refugee children the right to go to school.

The far right has always had some influence in France, but a possible surge in popularity for the National Front is causing extra concern, since it comes at the same time as other extreme right parties improve their standing in Europe. This week, voters in Sweden - the European bastion of social democracy - elected members of an anti-immigrant party to their parliament for the first time. Far-right anti-immigrant parties have also made huge gains in the Netherlands, Norway, Italy and Hungary in recent months.

In France, the latest polls show that the National Front has been steadily gaining popularity and its leader would place third in a crowded roster of candidates to become the next president. Brice Tenturier, who heads the IPSOS polling company, says part of the resurgence is due to a general sense of insecurity in France after the global economic crisis and the euro crisis this spring. But he says Ms. Le Pen is also largely responsible.

Her father made it to the second round in the 2002 presidential elections, but then quickly lost support for his blatantly xenophobic message. Ms. Le Pen, a twice-divorced Catholic, still advocates the party's core values of French nationalism, Euro-skepticism and hard-core law and order. But she has softened the party's image and drawn people back by insisting she's not against foreigners, just illegal immigration, and focusing more on social issues.

"Marine Le Pen has managed to build up a lot of credibility as a more moderate politician than her father and established herself as a regular commentator," says Thomas Klau, of the European Centre for Foreign Relations. "It's very clear that that is causing a lot of concern for Nicolas Sarkozy."

With his approval ratings at a career low, his government embroiled in a series of conflict-of-interest scandals, and both the National Front and Socialist parties gaining strength, Mr. Sarkozy decided this summer to appeal to far-right sympathizers by rebuilding his image as a law and order politician.

The country heard Mr. Sarkozy's Sports Minister calling the largely immigrant French national soccer team "mafiosos" who had never escaped the mentality of the suburbs, the Interior Minister calling for elected criminal-court judges who would impose harsher sentences, and Mr. Sarkozy ordering the expulsion of Roma who were in the country illegally and proposing a new law that would strip foreigners of their citizenship for committing serious crimes.

Some human-rights activists believe Mr. Sarkozy's new far-right stand has even trickled down to a more grassroots level. As an example, they cite the tiny Parisian suburb of Saint Gratien where the mayor refused to let a group of refugee children attend nursery school and banned their older siblings from school canteens and after-class programs. The mayor, a member of Mr. Sarkozy's UMP party, said she could not see why local residents should "pay for these children" and cited a more "general problem surrounding asylum seekers."

Manuel Alvarez, local president of the Federation of Public Schools Parents Association, said the mayor's actions were illegal and amount to "manifest discrimination" inspired by Mr. Sarkozy's move to the right.

"All summer our President promoted anti-immigrant policies," he said. "What's sure is that when you hear Mr. Sarkozy talk that way, it's going to encourage others in the same sense."

Mr. Tenturier, the pollster, says Mr. Sarkozy's new position is a gamble, since he risks losing even more support from his traditional base on the centre right. But with the ascent of far-right movements across Europe and in the United States, he has decided it's worth the risk.

"The success of the far right in Sweden, of the Tea Party movement in the United States, all show there is apparently a deep popular discontent and a readiness to vote for parties who draw their success on the protest vote," Mr. Klau said. "Sarkozy and his advisers surely have that in mind."

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