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Europe

Le Pen: Repackaging the National Front

The National Front has become a real option for French voters under Marine Le Pen. The far-right party's upswing is following a European trend, and Le Pen now has her eyes on the European Parliament election.

Marine Le Pen appears to be on a roll. A local by-election win in mid-October left her socialist and conservative competitors in the dust, and she's attained record-breaking popularity: 42 percent of recently polled voters have a positive opinion of her, compared to 35 percent for Socialist President Francois Hollande. And polling in France for the next European Parliament vote put Le Pen's National Front party in first place.

But how could it be that a far-right party is threatening to outflank traditional major parties in a key European Union country? Although Le Pen has defended the National Front against the "far-right" label - apparently with success. Many French had shunned the party under her father, Algerian War veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen, who once described the Holocaust as a mere "detail" of history. His daughter, however, has led the National Front away from this reputation.

Established parties contribute

Roma children stand in their camp on October 1, 2013 in Roubaix, northern France. (Photo: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

French Interior Minister Valls has described Roma as 'incapable of integration' - while Hollande kept silent

Many Europeans are observing the developments in France with concern. Evelyne Gebhardt is a European Parliament representative for Germany who spent most of her life in France. The social democrat thinks Marine Le Pen has "very clearly changed the language of the party, even though the ideas have remained the same."

Sylvie Goulard, a French European parliamentarian from Marseille, told DW that "Le Pen plays on people's fears, and as such is possibly even more dangerous than her father." In the hinterlands of the French metropolis, the National Front has traditionally been especially strong.

In a more recent development, politicians of other parties are no longer demonizing the National Front, but rather falling in line with it. Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls recently accused Roma of lacking the will to integrate, and of living an "extremely different lifestyle." President Hollande allowed this to slide knowing that 77 percent of French citizens agree with Valls' statement.

Hollande's conservative predecessor had also made anti-immigrant statements - making the two traditionally dominant parties difficult to distinguish in this regard.

Right-wing populists against the crisis

But hostility to foreigners isn't the only thing fueling the National Front: the European financial crisis has also played into the hands of the right wing. Gebhardt believes that many citizens, "not only in France, but across the European Union have the impression that politicians don't have a handle on the problem."

Goulard added: "Things are going badly for many French. And that's been underestimated in some neighboring countries, including Germany."

Especially high youth unemployment has driven many people to seek easy solutions. Goulard herself isn't against austerity measures, which she believes that Hollande failed to tackle properly.

Regardless, Goulard thinks the thrifty and economically strong Germans still need to know: "Currency stability is important, but the political stability of countries surrounding Germany is also important."

Gebhardt thinks French people need more prospects, so that they don't get the impression that the German attitude is just to "save the banks, and bollocks to the people."

European Parliament vote

Marine Le Pen beside her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in Strasbourg, July 2, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Vincent Kessler)

Le Pen senior and junior are both European parliamentarians

Fear is circulating amongst established parties that voters will want to lay blame upon them, and vote right-populist. Whether in Greece, Italy, Hungary or the Netherlands, whether in economically strong or weak countries, such parties are on the up-and-up. With one exception: Germany.

Gebhardt said that's because "there's still a functional taboo against the far-right mindset in Germany," while it seems to have become more socially acceptable in France. She added, "I can only warn against this - if this were to happen in Germany as well, then we'd suddenly have the same problem."

The next test will be when the entire EU votes for the European Parliament in May 2014. What could help right-populist parties is the attitude of many Europeans that the EU vote is less important than national votes, allowing protest votes to dominate.

Goulard complained that many European citizens don't realize how much is being decided at the European level. But she retains the hope that by the time of the vote, "businesses, labor unions and civil society will loudly proclaim that the European Parliament vote is something serious."

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