No sooner had a French court last week acquitted Marine Le Pen of inciting hatred against Muslims than the leader of the anti-immigration National Front caused another fracas by tweeting photos of three Islamic State executions in all their barbarity.
The woman clearly has a talent, however twisted, for the polemical. Her excuse for sharing these grotesque images with her 850,000 Twitter followers, without regard for the families of the victims or basic decency, was that she could not allow a smear lodged against her party by a popular radio host to stand. The host had compared the National Front to the Islamic State, saying both wanted France to turn further inward. Ms. Le Pen pounced.
"Daesh is THIS," she tweeted, using the Arabic name for the group and attaching photos of one IS prisoner being burned alive, another being run over by a military tank and a final image of the decapitated body of U.S. journalist James Foley. She deleted the latter at the request of Mr. Foley's family, but expressed "no regret" for answering her critic so graphically.
Ms. Le Pen again finds herself at risk of incurring a hefty fine or landing in jail should authorities pursue charges against her under French laws that ban the dissemination of violent images. But, as with her likening of Muslims praying outdoors in Lyon to the Nazi occupation of France, the outburst that previously landed her in court, Ms. Le Pen's latest transgression of taste, if not the law, will only cement her Joan of Arc status among her growing flock.
Co-operation between France's establishment parties to deny the National Front power in this month's regional elections elicited relief among Europe's ruling classes. Calls for moderate French voters to unite to block a National Front victory paid off. But this sunny view fails to appreciate how the perceived "collusion" among France's political elites fuels Ms. Le Pen's rise.
The National Front was deprived of a second-round victory in every region after the Socialists withdrew their candidates in two regions, and anti-Le Pen electors voted strategically in 11 others. Still, Ms. Le Pen's party ended up with more councillors than the Socialists and gained 800,000 votes between the first and second rounds, with a record 6.8 million ballots cast in its favour. At 28 per cent of the vote, Ms. Le Pen's claim to lead "France's first party" is increasingly credible.
For her, the final result proved that France's ruling class will do anything to hang on to power, while ignoring the grievances of "patriots" who fear the French way of life is being undermined by relentless globalization, immigration and Islamization. She predicted that her party's second-round shut-out will only feed its momentum on the road to the contests that really count – the 2017 presidential and legislative elections. And she may be right.
"It is [like] the physical phenomenon of a dam," she said. "The water is temporarily held back, but the pressure rises. And when the dike gives way, the wave floods everything."
It would be reckless to dismiss Ms. Le Pen's bluster. A year that bore witness to two of the worst terrorist attacks in French memory and the country's chronic economic stagnation have exacerbated the collective malaise on which the National Front feeds. The governing Socialists and centre-right Republicans are beset by existential crises that seem to portend schisms in both. Ms. Le Pen's promises to stand up for national sovereignty and the protection of the welfare state are dangerously seductive to voters who feel their interests have been sold out by the elites.
Almost every recent opinion poll shows Ms. Le Pen finishing first in the opening round of the 2017 presidential vote, outclassing Socialist President François Hollande and former president Nicolas Sarkozy, now leader of the Republicans. A survey last week found that only Mr. Sarkozy's Republican rival, former prime minister Alain Juppé, could beat Ms. Le Pen in the first round.
Either way, Ms. Le Pen's name appears destined to be one of two on the final presidential ballot. She does not have to take the election to win the debate. She is already doing that, forcing Mr. Hollande to embrace counterterrorism measures that are anathema to the Socialist base, and forcing Mr. Sarkozy to fend off charges that his party is becoming a sort of National Front-light.
The more she mocks them, the more they cave.