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Le Pen alone?

Lisa Bryant, Paris
January 14, 2015

When world leaders joined more than a million French in Paris in a resounding rejection of terrorism, far right leader Marine Le Pen was leading her own march. Lisa Bryant reports from Paris on Le Pen's strategy.

Marine Le Pen
Image: Reuters/P. Wojazer

As "I am Charlie" went viral on banners, tweets and even T-shirts in support of the irreverent French weekly that became a jihadist target, Le Pen's father and founder of her National Front party, Jean-Marie, rebutted that he "was not Charlie" - calling the magazine's supporters "charlots," or clowns.

Ever since its founding more than four decades ago, France's National Front has gone it alone, sidelined and defiant of mainstream politics. Yet its law-and-order, anti-immigration rhetoric has resonated with millions of French - although few will admit publicly to voting for it.

Today, the Front appears more alone than ever, as a multi-ethnic and multi-faith nation offers a rare display of solidarity after the attacks that left 17 people dead. But as the mourning ends, and questions mount about security lapses and the rise of home-grown radical Islam, the Front's tough discourse may ultimately prevail.

"The National Front was not clever in its strategy" about Sunday's rally, said Madani Cheurfa, general secretary of the Center for the Study of French Political Life, a Paris-based think-tank. Le Pen "underestimated the size of the mobilization, but especially the diversity of political opinion."

But, he added, "where the National Front is clever is in its discourse about law-and-order and Islamophobia that can resound after these kinds of events."

Sound strategy

A first test of the Front's strategy comes this week, as Charlie Hebdo's first edition since the shootings hit the newsstands on Wednesday - the same day that al Qaeda's branch in Yemen, AQAP, claimed responsibility for the attacks. The weekly's defiant cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed on its cover has again drawn the ire of the Islamic community at home and abroad. Religious leaders in France are urging the country's five million Muslims to stay calm.

Could it spark trouble?Image: picture-alliance/Maxppp

A second test for the Front comes in March, when France holds local elections. Beyond security and immigration issues are bread-and-butter ones. "They're coming within a very difficult economic and social context, with an historic level of unemployment," Cherfa says - issues that have left France's ruling Socialists struggling for answers and boosted the Front in polls.

Le Pen has defended her absence at the Paris rally, saying she had been rejected by the political establishment, despite President Francois Hollande's invitation for "all citizens" to participate. She has also gone on the offensive, suggesting the leftist government is failing to provide strong leadership when it's most needed.

"What I think French are waiting for…is action," she told Europe 1 radio in an interview. "Not just gathering together in grief. This is the time for questions. French values have been targeted. It's time to ask how this could have happened? What went wrong?"

Unlike her pugnacious father, who claims to have lost his eye in a brawl, 46-year-old Le Pen balances populist messages with arguments honed by her lawyer's background.

Not so hardline after all?

Since taking over the party's presidency in 2011 - she was unanimously reelected in December - she has sought to soften the Front's image. Her efforts have paid off. After a period of decline, it rebounded under her leadership to capture 25 percent of the vote in European Union elections last May.

In recent days Le Pen has laid responsibility for last week's attacks on Islamist extremists and flawed domestic policies - but has been careful not to blame mainstream Muslims.

"Is the total opening of our national borders the real way to control fundamentalism?" she asked, addressing the European parliament in Strasbourg on Monday. "Is it not the policies of austerity that have weekend out ability to respond? Or the disarming of our police and armies?"

French police Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images
Questions are being asked about security lapsesImage: Getty Images/P. Aventurier

For analyst Cherfa, Le Pen's careful discourse "is part of her strategy of respectability and of de-demonizing the National Front so people can consider it like any other party."

"Because, unlike her father, she wants to be in power," he said. "And refusing to generalize about all Muslims - while at the same time pointing out the difficulties Muslims have in integrating here - is all part of her strategy."

Abdallah Zekri, head of the National Observatory on Islamophobia, is quick to criticize Le Pen. But, he adds, she's not alone.

"It's not just Marine Le Pen," Zekri says. "We know Marine Le Pen. What shocks us are the others - the traditional parties, the classical right ones, which have adopted the same discourse about Islam to get votes and win elections."

That discourse attracts French like Francklin Boulot, who joined Sunday's rally in Paris not to support diversity but to protest the Muslim religion. "I'm afraid of Islam, it wants to destroy our society," he said, as a massive crowd waited to march at the Place de la Republique. "It's a religion that's doing everything to kill us."

But at another gathering outside Paris - this time Tuesday's funeral for a Muslim police officer killed in the Charlie Hebdo shootings - accountant Robert Lobe offered a different take. "No matter what, there will be stupid people who will try to take advantage of a situation," he said. "The best answer is not to pay attention to them."

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