When Marine Le Pen was a child growing up in Paris, her friends never slept over – their parents wouldn’t allow it. And no matter how hard the blond, blue-eyed girl studied at school, her teachers often mocked her, hardly concealing their disdain. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was so reviled in French mainstream society that someone set off a bomb in the stairwell outside their apartment four years after he founded the fringe far-right National Front (FN) political party in 1972.
Ms. Le Pen describes in her autobiography, “A Contre Flots,” or “Against the Current,” a childhood that was full of insults, suffering, and injustice – all simply because of her family name.
She cannot say the same of her adulthood.
The girl who grew up in the harsh shadow of her provocative, nationalist father has risen to become one of the most popular politicians in France – and one of the most important opposition leaders in the world. Now, as the campaign for the French presidency reaches its denouement – with Le Pen having a distant but not inconceivable chance of winning – she has pushed the FN closer to the Élysée Palace than her father ever did and is expanding her influence over French and European politics.
The party leader, who is both anti-immigrant and anti-European Union, inspires an almost cultlike following. She now garners support among large swaths of the population, including a growing number of mainstream voters who once rejected her. Many of them carry photos of her in their wallets.
At rallies, supporters chant her name in trancelike reverence. “Marine! Marine! Marine!” came the cry at a recent campaign stop in Metz in France’s Grand Est, a former mining region that’s reeling economically.
Le Pen, tall and confident, walked onto the stage cutting a striking figure. She was dressed modestly, as is her style, in a dark blue blouse cut out at the shoulders that was at once feminine and authoritative. The arena was filled with those who want out of the EU, who want immigrants out of France, who want the ruling elite out of office. And if they are separated by disparate, and sometimes irreconcilable desires – some eschew her left-wing protectionist trade policies but love her right-wing crusade to stop foreigners from coming in – they seem united in a longing for the grandeur of a France they can barely grasp anymore.
In voices thick with nostalgia, these voters – and the candidate they would elevate – may well decide the future of Europe. The EU, the postwar bloc that France helped to found, probably couldn’t survive if the country withdraws from the organization, which is what Le Pen wants to have happen.
The following that she has amassed both reflects and reinforces the nationalist revival sweeping across Europe and around much of the world. The populist rebellions in so many countries that shun globalism, open borders, and multiculturalism may be the most dominant political trend of the 21st century –…