She is a handsome woman. Her strong chin is a boon to cartoonists. She’s not as chic as IMF chief exec Christine Lagarde. But on the face of it – also on account of the cut of her clothes (the black dress, the black trouser suit), also because of the way she moves in them, also on the basis of the raspiness not waspishness of her nicotine-stained voice, this is the French woman that wives of English retirees – all those Mrs Peter Mayleses – would really quite like to be.
This is Marine Le Pen (44), second president of the ‘far right’ Front National (the party’s first president and founding father was Marine’s own father, Jean-Marie), who previously made headlines in the British press when she came third in the 2012 French presidential elections, polling 18 per cent of the popular vote.
Now Le Pen Jnr is featured again, this time because the legal affairs committee of the European parliament has voted to waive her immunity from prosecution. If MEPs follow their committee’s recommendation at a full parliamentary sitting in mid-June, Le Pen will soon face prosecution in France for the following statement about Muslims spilling out from mosques and blocking the city streets with their Friday prayers, made in Lyon in December 2010 when campaigning to become president of her party:
‘For those who want to talk a lot about World War II, if it’s about occupation, then we could also talk about it because that is occupation of territory. It is an occupation of sections of the territory, of districts in which religious laws apply. It’s an occupation. There are of course no tanks, there are no soldiers, but it is nevertheless an occupation and it weighs heavily on local residents.’
Occupation, occupation, occupation, occupation, occupation – at the count of five, there’s no doubt that the Muslim presence in France was occupying Marine’s mind at the time; hence the thinly veiled reference to the occupation of France by Nazi Germany between 1940 and 1944.
Two-and-a-half years after she made this statement, it is set to become the preoccupation of European politics, even though the French political elite has been trying to marginalise Marine for years. For example, in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections, Le Pen struggled to find the requisite number of elected officials (500) to endorse her candidacy. The woman who went on to claim almost 20 percent of the vote, nearly did not get to stand at all. Few civic dignitaries wanted anything to do with her; her agent finally managed to scrape together enough signatures, but only by travelling the length and breadth of France in the days before nominations closed.
To voters alienated from established politics, Le Pen’s estrangement from the political establishment only makes her more attractive. Yet she herself stands on territory previously occupied by the French establishment. For secularism against communal religion (recalling the days of Clochmerle when State was pitted against Church); for national cohesion rather than local identity (Durkheim’s daughter almost as much as Jean-Marie’s). Marine even demands sacrifice, as leaders of the French Republic were previously inclined to do, when she insists that immigrants and their offspring should sacrifice some of their own, particular culture in order to be assimilated into the body politic.
For Marine Le Pen, modernity is an unfinished project. She wants to hear ‘a shout in the street’ which is not ‘the call to prayer’. She keeps faith with a cultural tradition stretching all the way back to Baudelaire’s black suit. She is the bourgeois woman we thought we wanted to see in French films we got bored with half-way through.
So has it come to this, that only the leader of a ‘far right’ party retains any sense of what it means to bebourgeois? Or is that the modern is now so much a travesty of itself – so far distant from how we need to rethink ourselves, that hers is the only company it can keep?