ike most serious political reporters, Olivier Faye, of Le Monde, professes little desire to please the people he writes about, and even less expectation that he will. This equanimity has been of particular use in his current assignment covering the Front National, the clannish party of the French far-right, which has been warring with the news media for four decades. Faye and the other reporters assigned to the FN make light of the hostility aimed their way by the party and its supporters, and have adopted some of the cleverest insults as their own. They call one another journalopes, for instance – a mashup of journaliste and salope (whore) – or members of the merdia.
The Front National has fashioned itself as the “patriotic” victim of a bankrupt political establishment and the corps of bourgeois journalists allegedly beholden to it. Marine Le Pen, the FN’s vituperative leader, often refers to her opponents as “the media-political system” or, more succinctly, la caste. This tactic of populist martyrdom is a sort of trap, one that lures the media into the stance of an adversary, called to defend both themselves and a frequently indefensible political class. For years the French press plunged into it with what, in hindsight, appears a heedless and self-righteous sense of mission. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were media boycotts of various sorts against the party; yet it only rose in the polls, citing the media’s hostility as evidence of both the conspiracy against it and the potency of the truth it was preaching.
Faye, 30, with ruddy cheeks and modish round glasses, conducts himself with a friendly but slightly fervent air that is common among French political reporters, who constitute an informal elite within French journalism. He fits a longstanding type, but neither he nor his colleagues endorse the old condemnatory approach to the FN. “There’s no attitude that’s more counterproductive, I don’t think,” he said. “Today people don’t want to be held by the hand, to have someone tell them, ‘Watch out, these are bad guys! I, I the great knower, I’m going to tell you what you should do.’” At Le Monde, the conviction is now that “you have to treat this party like any other,” Faye said, “even though it’s not a party like any other.”
It is fair to say this maxim represents a victory for Le Pen. Upon succeeding her father, Jean-Marie, as the FN’s leader, in 2011, she began a strategy of dédiabolisation, or de-demonisation, a broad effort to soften the party’s image and normalise its portrayal in the press. The following year, she won 17.9% of the popular vote in the first round of the presidential election, the FN’s best-ever result. This year, she is expected to take more than 20% and thus qualify for the final runoff. The words Front National appear nowhere in her campaign propaganda.
Dédiabolisation is almost entirely a matter of appearances – the party platform has undergone hardly any revision – and Le Pen and her lieutenants thus scrutinise their press coverage with particular intensity. She is known to call editors to complain, though with Le Monde she tends to call Faye directly. She once left him a voice message admonishing him that she had not “dressed down” a party official, as he had contended in an article, but had quite simply expressed her disagreement. “I see the games haven’t changed, it’s a shame,” she said, affecting a tone of weary exasperation. “Call me back if you think” – she paused, as if summoning her acid – “you’ve behaved in good faith. Au revoir!”
In early September, Faye and four of his editors invited Le Pen to an off-the-record lunch to discuss the upcoming campaign. Such lunches have long been common for French journalists and politicians, though only more recently for the FN. They met at an upscale Danish restaurant on the Champs-Élysées. Faye and his editors were seated at the far end of an enclosed terrace. Le Pen, an imposing woman with platinum blond hair and an ashen scowl, arrived with her bodyguards, who waited at the door, and her longtime media advisor, a bemused and friendly man named Alain Vizier. Le Pen sat facing Faye; Vizier sat at his side.
Le Monde, an afternoon paper widely held to be the country’s publication of record, is the object of particular resentment for many at the Front National; they scorn it as an emblem of the “system”, but seem to crave its approbation nonetheless. After a brief round of pleasantries, and before the journalists had had the chance to begin on their questions, Vizier placed a stack of printouts on the table. Le Pen looked at Faye. “I’ve printed out the last 20 articles you wrote,” she said, as Faye recalled it. “There’s one that talks about real issues, and 19 that have nothing to do with politics.”
She had underlined, in red ink, various words of which she did not approve. “You have a nice little tone of disdain, of condescension,” Le Pen said, her voice rising to the low, imperious bark that is her standard register for interactions with the media. “A little ironic tone that I don’t like.” Surrounding conversations grew hushed; diners seemed to cease chewing, and stare. Le Pen took particular exception to an article about the Front National’s highly publicised recruitment of elite civil servants, after years of attacking them as the embodiment of a blinkered governing class. The article began: “Most political parties cart about their share of contradictions, and the Front National is no exception. Marine Le Pen, who presents herself as the megaphone of the ‘people’ and a paragon of ‘common sense’, ceaselessly denounces ‘the consanguinity and collusion of the elites’, who ‘no longer defend the common good’.”
Le Pen did not like the use of the word “paragon.” She leaned back on the banquette and drew on an electronic cigarette, and left Faye to defend himself. (“Sometimes I use irony,” Faye acknowledged later. “It’s a way of marking a bit of distance, it’s true.” After the lunch, he learned that the stack of articles and the “19 out of 20” accusation form a set piece that Le Pen has used more than once.)
Le Pen went on for about 30 minutes. “She gave us a whole speech about how we were her enemies, because she knew we were going to call for people to vote against her,” recalled Caroline Monnot, Le Monde’s top political editor. “And I told her, ‘Yes, we’re undoubtedly going to call for people to vote against you, probably, but that’s not a big discovery for you.’”
Le Pen’s purpose, it became clear, was to convince Le Monde to publish an op-ed she had written, and she threatened to restrict the paper’s ability to cover her campaign if it did not agree. “That’s where things are screwed up with them,” Monnot said. “That’s just not how it works. It’s not, ‘Up until now I was a pariah, now I’m going to be able to set my own conditions.’ We don’t let anyone set their own conditions.”
Though it sets out to cover the the Front National like any other party, Le Monde does maintain a rule that is particular to the FN. It remains the paper’s policy – like that of various other publications – to refuse to publish op-eds written by FN officials. “The problem we have, honestly, is that if we open the door to taking her op-eds, then we’re helping her put the finishing touches to her banalisation,” Monnot said, “and we don’t want to be in that position.” To refuse on principle is also an imperfect solution, however, accrediting as it does the party’s claim to ostracism and victimhood at the hands of an unaccountable elite – themes that remain the central feature of the party’s politics.
“There’s a pretty perverse and complicated game you have to play with them,” Monnot said. “They’re constantly trying to drag us into this system versus anti-system confrontation. Which we have to constantly avoid getting trapped in.” She offered a metaphor for Le Pen. “There’s a theatre play, and she absolutely wants us to act in this play with her,” she said. “And how do you go about not acting in it?” Once the media have been pulled on stage, whatever they do is part of the show, whether they like it or not.
All politics is storytelling, and all responsible political journalism attempts to account for this, or at least make it plain. Le Pen and her party have long sought to tell a story about the media themselves. This places the journalist in the difficult position of being at once subject and object: they can no longer perform their duties from behind the comfortable myth of neutrality; they are called to speak about themselves, account for their work. And if they are honest, they will be obliged to acknowledge the possibility of contradictions and flaws. Le Pen has intuited this weakness, and understands how to exploit it. If she cannot have what she wants from the media, then, she knows she can at least have her way with it.
She did not dwell upon the rejected op-ed, but rather turned to the slab of raw salmon that had been placed before her, and began to answer questions, pleasantly now. “She’s a politician,” Faye said. Later in the afternoon, Vizier, Le Pen’s media advisor, sent him a playful text message: “Thank you Olivier for that ‘most lively’ lunch!”
arine Le Pen was four years old in 1972, the year her father, Jean-Marie, a truculent blond bruiser with a penchant for sinister witticisms, was made president of the newly created Front National pour l’Unité Française. The Front National – anti-communist, anti-Gaullist, anti-finance, anti-tax, anti-immigrant, anti-Europe – was peopled by radical Catholics, monarchists, Vichy apologists, colonial nostalgics, neo-fascists and other marginal reactionaries. For the first decade of its existence, it distinguished itself mostly by its insignificance. Jean-Marie won 0.74% of the vote in the presidential election of 1974.
He understood that if the Front National was to grow, it would require exposure in the press, positive or not. In 1982, though the party had won no elections of any note and counted only a few thousand registered members, he wrote to president François Mitterrand to complain that the media was denying him attention. Calculating that any rise in Le Pen’s fortunes would mean a corresponding fall in those of the parties of the traditional right, Mitterrand, a Socialist, directed the country’s three state television channels to give the FN more airtime.
Le Pen made his first major television appearance in 1984, and immediately established himself as a showman of national stature. He had been invited to appear on l’Heure de Vérité (The Hour of Truth), a political programme that, in that era of relative trust in politics and limited television entertainment, drew millions upon millions of viewers. The invitation had been highly controversial; demonstrators and riot police massed outside the studio.
The show began with the host lecturing Le Pen briefly. Though he was “a marginal of the political realm”, the host said, Le Pen was nonetheless “part of the reality of French society”. “This is a fact, and it’s why I’ve invited you this evening,” he said. “This invitation, as you know, is not to everyone’s liking.” Le Pen grinned, before seeming to remember the camera and nodding solemnly. Marine Le Pen, then 15, dressed in capri pants and heels, watched from the front row of the audience.
One of the show’s interviewers, a particularly svelte and haughty man in a grey suit and tie, had come armed with several quotations of dubious taste, attributed to Le Pen or his associates over the years, and asked Le Pen to comment upon them, one by one, in the manner of a prosecutor questioning a witness. One comment, attributed to Le Pen: “When I see the Arabs, with their rumpled look, I wonder if there’s not some biological determinism at work.” In the formal diction he has long employed, and which lends even his most violent or outrageous statements a patina of harmless scholarship, Le Pen claimed that he had never said such a thing.
“This really does seem to me a surprising method,” he exclaimed at one point, “and one that strongly resembles political terrorism.” He smiled broadly and laughed, realising that a clever and damaging line had formed in his mind, and with both hands made a gesture of friendly admiration toward his questioner. “Elegant terrorism, I acknowledge! And plush. But terrorism just the same!”
Le Pen’s poll numbers doubled within a day. Later in the year, the Front National won nearly 11% of French votes for the European parliament, where Le Pen himself became a representative. (He remains one today.) “I think they believed they would be devouring me whole, to the audience’s great delight,” Le Pen, now 88, recalled to me recently, with delectation. “Unfortunately for my opponents, it was the tiger that ate the tamer!” He laughed wheezily.
ithin the “caste” Marine Le Pen so disdains, it is habitual to remark that she is “her father’s daughter”. This is meant to indicate that she is not the gruff but compassionate patriot she proclaims herself to be, but rather the leader of an unreformed proto-fascist party, a despot in democrat’s clothing. The literal, rather than political, implications of her filiation tend to receive little analysis. But the central fact of her life is that she is indeed the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. For the better part of her 48 years, her father was very probably the most hated man in France, and if ever she forgot this the press could be counted upon to remind her.
He was an inattentive parent and, by reputation, an unrestrained narcissist, and his political activity was at the centre of family life. He revelled in his infamy, and did little to shield his daughters from its consequences. “You’re Le Pen girls for life,” he told them. “It’s not going to be easy, so you might as well knuckle down now.”
In 1976, a massive early-morning detonation destroyed the two apartments the Le Pens occupied in a building in Paris. Marine has described the attack as a moment of political awakening. “I’m eight years old and realise, brutally, that my father is someone well-known and that people are angry at him,” she wrote in a 2006 autobiography. And yet, she continued, there was not “the slightest sign of solidarity or compassion” from the authorities, not so much as “the shadow of a telegram” from the president or any other government official. “And it is then and there,” she wrote, “at the age of dolls and dollhouses, that I become aware of this thing that is terrible and incomprehensible for me: my father isn’t treated like the others, we are not treated like the others.” She suddenly intuits that she is a victim, both of her father’s choices and of an elite that, finding those choices repugnant, denies him and his family their rightful membership.
Marine Le Pen’s autobiography, titled À contre flots (Against the Torrents), is a standard political memoir insofar as it aims to explain its author’s political views as the inevitable consequence of an exceptional life; it departs from the norms of the genre in its embrace of extravagant victimhood. It is a litany of grievances: the media are prominent villains, accused of ginning up “delirious lies”, launching “great campaigns” against the Front National, and caricaturing her father as “a racist, an antisemite, a fascist”. And this alleged misrepresentation, this diabolisation, is doubtless the root of the many other injuries of her life: if only her father and his party had been presented for what they truly were, she would not have been made to suffer.
Philippe Olivier, a member of the party since 1979, knew Marine in her younger years and married her elder sister. “When you’re a kid, and you read vile things about your parent, about the people around him, about what they do, where the quotes are doctored, where the words are doctored – it’s hard,” said Olivier, a personable man with a lisp that renders his conspiratorial worldview less menacing, who is now Marine’s close advisor. “And so she constructed a personality with the press as a life companion, but one that wasn’t always so pleasant.”
By the mid-1980s, a generation of highly politicised journalists, children of May 1968, had risen to positions of influence within the French media, and they seemed to believe it their responsibility to halt or at the very least punish Le Pen and his party. “The whole story of the 80s and 90s was the story of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s electoral rise, and of the media who wondered, ‘What do we do? What can we do?’” said Daniel Schneidermann, who worked as a reporter for Le Monde in those years, before becoming a respected media critic. “And yet they realise that nothing is working. If they scream about fascism, it doesn’t work, it has no effect on voters. Not if they attack him personally, either. If they put out big editorials on the theme, ‘This is bad!’ nobody cares.”
“There was this idea,” said Schneidermann, “that since he wasn’t a politician like the others, everything goes.” They took liberties they would not have allowed themselves with other politicians, whose private lives they handled with marked deference. Le Pen and his wife, Pierrette, began a long and angry divorce in 1984. Pierrette had run off with her husband’s biographer, a magazine journalist who had been living, at Le Pen’s invitation, at the family home. (She left without a word even to her daughters; Marine did not speak with her for 15 years.) The press covered the split with some glee, particularly when, in 1987, Pierrette took revenge upon her ex-husband by posing nude for the French edition of Playboy. Marine was humiliated.
Her father’s so-called dérapages, or “slips of the tongue,” were covered with particular zeal. The most famous of these was what has come to be known in France simply as “the detail”. In a broadcast interview, Le Pen was asked for his opinion of the theories of two prominent Holocaust-revisionists. He replied: “I ask myself a certain number of questions. I’m not saying the gas chambers did not exist; I haven’t been able to see any for myself. I haven’t studied the question in particular. But I think that it’s a mere detail in the history of the second world war.” The country was incensed. “There are details that are monstrous,” Le Monde wrote in an editorial.
Le Pen denounced a “pack of political and media hounds” on a “witch-hunt”, and specified that in the context of a war that killed tens and tens of millions, the chosen technique for the slaughter of just a fraction of these was surely not of terrible consequence. It was the sort of specious, diversionary but superficially logical argument that has always confounded Le Pen’s critics in the media, and they largely preferred to ignore it. He protested, as ever and more loudly, that he was a persecuted speaker of truth.
The following year, 1988, he won more than 14% of the presidential vote, his best finish yet. The media worked themselves into an historic lather; his numbers remained there for a decade.
When Le Pen won nearly 17% of the first-round presidential vote in 2002, qualifying for the first time for the final round, the press was stupified. So was Le Pen. He ran his party as a sort of fiefdom, for his own amusement; there is a widely held view among researchers, reporters and current members of the Front National that he adored the attention he commanded as an agitator and flouter of bourgeois pieties, but that he had no great desire for power and its responsibilities. Serge Moati, a filmmaker who maintained friendly relations with Le Pen, was with him on the evening of his first-round victory, at Le Pen’s manor overlooking Paris. The brawler was suddenly withdrawn, Moati said, seized with melancholy. Le Pen fretted that he had no one to name as his chief of staff, nor as prime minister. “He just wanted to have fun, to play around,” Moati said. His daughter, by contrast, seeks to rule.
ike her father, Marine Le Pen has proven herself an exceptional broadcast personality, born with a blood instinct for the minor hypocrisies of her on-air opponents, and a quick-thinking talent for transforming them into grand theatrical indictments. She has inherited her father’s unconscious smirk, which often serves as notice that she has just concocted some particularly clever bit of verbal violence. Like him, she also tends to jut her jaw and bare her lower teeth when speaking, which can lend her the slight air of a bulldog. The French say she has gouaille, which might be translated as “cheekiness”, but is a term applied almost exclusively to women, evocative of late evenings at a Paris bistro counter, cigarettes, red wine and a certain bawdy self-assurance. Le Pen in action is good, if discomfiting, television.
Her father never seems to have encouraged her promotion within the party. The camera noticed her first, and she built her rise largely upon the strength of her media appearances. The first of these to attract attention was on the evening of the second round of the 2002 presidential election. Le Pen lost heavily to Jacques Chirac, with just 18% to Chirac’s 82%, but Marine’s performance inspired a certain fascination. Journalists, she later wrote, began requesting interviews, wishing to behold “the monster’s daughter”.
In the coming years, no other FN official was granted so much exposure, in print or on air, with the exception of her father, and she was far more pleasant for journalists to deal with. It is true that Le Pen seems to enjoy nothing so much as a good row, and she is known to fume in silence during commercial breaks when she feels she is being disrespected, but she is also viewed as quite personable and inspires far less overt disgust than her father ever did. “We’re all much less on edge,” one top television presenter once told the magazine Télérama. “Before, we had to organise a whole ballet so that our other invitees wouldn’t bump into Jean-Marie Le Pen. We had to do their makeup separately, and install two entrances, so the other politicians wouldn’t have to say hello to him.”
While there were those within the party who believed that the FN’s disrepute brought in more voters than it scared off, Marine Le Pen calculated that the party would have to soften its image if it wished to accomplish anything more than shocking the bourgeoisie. This would require courting the media.
After succeeding her father in 2011, she began to speak more openly of her experiences as a woman and mother, banned skinheads from the FN’s public rallies, and let it be known that “what happened in the camps” during the war was, to her mind, “the height of barbarism”. In 2015, she had her father expelled from the party; he had given interviews reiterating his views about the “detail” and asserting that Philippe Pétain, the leader of France’s collaborationist Vichy regime, was not a “traitor”.
Unsurprisingly, this narrative of fantastic family betrayal, emancipation and political rebirth played well in the press. Most of the coverage was sceptical, of course, and editorials were sure to note that, whatever image Le Pen sought to project, she remained her father’s daughter (though it is widely believed that his expulsion was not a stunt). But coverage of any sort has a legitimising effect, and coverage of a contested claim – here, that the Front National has truly changed – at the very least implies the possibility that the claim is true.
In the country’s last round of national elections, in December 2015, the FN tripled the number of seats it held on regional councils and won more votes – nearly 7 million – than it had in any other election, ever. In its editorial the following day, Le Monde called upon the country to “take action before the catastrophe”. (The party’s successes cannot be explained solely as a phenomenon of the media; but the media has nonetheless been crucial to its rise.)
In 2002, Chirac had refused to debate Jean-Marie Le Pen. This year, for the first time, his daughter appeared in a presidential debate. In the view of party officials, the FN’s dédiabolisation has now been accomplished. In her dealings with the press, Le Pen alternates between the postures of the politician and the insurgent, answering policy questions when it suits her and inveighing against her questioners when it does not. “First of all, Marine set out to ensure that she was being respected by the media,” said Philippe Olivier. “Because, there would be the little journalist who came from who knows where, who’d show up and who would ask a really disagreeable question. Well. We’re in politics, we’re not whores, you know? And even whores have to be treated with respect!” He laughed. “She’s not going to go talk to journalists who behave badly.” (The party, long wary of the “filter” imposed by journalists, was the first in France to have its own website.)
In February, shortly after the official launch of her campaign, Le Pen was interviewed during the nightly newscast on TF1, the country’s most-watched channel. An economist from a thinktank called the Institut Montaigne had been invited for the occasion, to ask Le Pen about her plans to withdraw France from the euro, a decision most mainstream economic thinkers believe would be calamitous. The Institut Montaigne, the economist said, estimated the total cost of leaving the euro to be equivalent to 2.3% of the country’s GDP. “I’d like to remind you, Gilles,” he said, addressing the host, “this represents €50bn.”
“What is a shame, Monsieur l’Expert,” Le Pen began, “is that you haven’t told us just what the Institut Montaigne really is.” The Institut Montaigne, she explained, had been chaired until just a month earlier – “Ah, look, what a surprise!” – by a man who was now campaigning for her opponent, François Fillon, whose economic platform had in fact been penned by that very same man.
Sensing catastrophe, the host interjected, but Le Pen steamed on, smiling. She noted that, furthermore, the longtime director of the Institut Montaigne was a close friend of still another opponent, Emmanuel Macron, and a backer of his movement, En Marche!. “I believe En Marche! was in fact domiciled at the home of the Institut Montaigne’s director!” This was true.
Le Pen collected herself and, with icy didacticism, broadened her charge. “I would like to tell the French: you’re going to be experiencing this same thing for the next two months.” Until the end of the campaign season, she said, “all those who have something to lose in this election” – the media, the “great powers of finance,” her political opponents – would be conspiring to block her candidacy. “You’re going to hear things as utterly insane as what we’ve just seen here.”
The expert nodded, and looked at his shoes, and had not a word to say for the remainder of the segment. “He thought that with his three little graphs and his suit and tie, he’d be able to pass,” laughed Olivier. “She left him standing there in his underwear!”
rench political journalism has long rejected the notion that the reporter should maintain great critical distance from the politicians he or she covers. It is the account of the exercise of power that has traditionally been valued in France, not the account of its consequences; and to observe the exercise of power, one must be close. (The media historian Alexis Lévrier has argued convincingly that the explanations for this attitude toward power are largely to be found in the ancien regime.)
When president François Hollande took office in 2012, four of his ministers were involved in relationships with journalists. Hollande himself was living with a journalist named Valérie Trierweiler, with whom he had begun an affair when he was the head of the Socialist party and she was a reporter covering it. This was hardly uncommon – Hollande’s three immediate presidential predecessors were known to have had intimate relationships with journalists as well, and the same is true of countless other government ministers.
None of this is hypocritical or fundamentally wrong, of course, but such proximity does give the appearance of collusion, or at least suggest it as a distinct possibility. For many voters – not only supporters of Le Pen – journalists and politicians seem to be all-but-indistinguishable representatives of a self-satisfied and entirely oblivious Parisian ruling class, and it must be said they have done little to discourage this impression.
Nearly all of the French private media sector is controlled by investors and corporate entities with highly diversified business interests and no historical attachment to the principles of journalistic independence. BFMTV, the country’s most-watched television news station, is owned by Altice, a multinational telecommunications group founded and run by the Franco-Israeli billionaire Patrick Drahi. In October, an Altice media executive left the company to join the campaign of Emmanuel Macron. Before running for the presidency, Macron had served as a senior aide to the president and then as economy minister, and had shepherded Altice’s acquisition of a major French telecommunications operator. The Front National has taken note of all this, and has cited it repeatedly as evidence of BFMTV’s alleged collusion with the Macron campaign.
The television station has taken to publishing statistics to show that Macron is accorded no more airtime than Le Pen. The FN’s accusations are “pulled out of thin air”, Hervé Béroud, BFMTV’s managing editor, told me. “When an individual person leaves a company to join a political campaign, does that commit the entire company?”
Béroud’s reasoning is perfectly sound, and there exists no material evidence to suggest that BFMTV has been anything but fair in its coverage. But given the disfavour with which financiers, politicians and journalists are presently regarded, it is hard to believe the FN’s charges do not resonate with voters. (Antisemitic elements within the party may pay particular mind to the fact that Drahi is Jewish.) The Front National has made similar accusations about Le Monde, whose co-owner, the philanthropist Pierre Bergé, has been a vocal supporter of Macron’s candidacy.
These accusations of partisanship and collusion are only bolstered by the long traditions of both in French journalism. As the country’s daily paper of the right, Le Figaro might be expected to show sympathy for Le Pen’s positions on immigration, say, or French identity. But the newspaper is owned by an industrialist who also happens to be a senator from the traditional right, to which the FN is a threat, and Le Figaro’s editors have been discouraged from covering Le Pen “so as not to harm the republican right”, according to Philippe Goulliaud, who served as the paper’s politics editor for a decade. The paper’s opinion pages remain all but closed to Le Pen. Libération, on the left, refuses to publish either op-eds or interviews with Front National officials. (The paper is also owned by Altice.)
France’s various public television and radio stations, and Agence France-Presse, are controlled by political appointees, and the privately held print media, with few exceptions, depends upon state subsidies for its survival. Which is to say, conflicts of interest, or at the very least the appearance of such conflicts, are rife. The Front National knows this well, and uses it.
n the evening of Le Pen’s combative interview on TF1, her personal assistant was formally charged with embezzlement, the result of an inquest into the Front National’s suspected misuse of funds from the European parliament. Le Pen herself had received a police summons, which she disregarded, citing the immunity granted her as an MEP.
On air, she deflected questions about the charges, and suggested the contours of a plot against her. “This investigation was opened two years ago,” she said. “It’s really pretty surprising that, all of a sudden, two months before the presidential election, there should be this flurry of judicial activity.” She denied any wrongdoing.
Three days later, the banner headline on the front page of Le Monde described the FN’s finances as “a system of organised opacity”. Inside, a series of articles detailed the allegations of campaign finance fraud that have trailed the FN in every election it has contested since 2012. Olivier Faye, the reporter, said his editors felt the Front National had been a bit neglected in the paper’s recent coverage, which had focused most intently on Le Pen’s opponent François Fillon, himself accused of a no-show jobs scheme involving his wife. (The embezzlement accusations against Le Pen hardly make her an outlier among French politicians.)
Le Pen held a rally the following day, in a concert hall on the grey outskirts of the western city of Nantes. Faye was there, and before Le Pen took the stage he wandered the concert hall interviewing her supporters. He sat down a bit abruptly next to a man named Joseph Elie, a retired farmer with blue eyes and black wispy owl eyebrows who worried that French agriculture was being strangled by European regulations. “We’re assailed with rules,” he said, “rules we sometimes can’t even understand.”
“A question that’s totally unrelated,” Faye said. “The scandals that are trailing Marine Le Pen, the financial scandals – does all this bother you?”
“No it doesn’t bother me!” Elie replied. “And I’ll tell you why: because, unfortunately, they all do it. You see Fillon – all of them!” And Le Pen wasn’t accused of personal enrichment, he noted.
“But some of her friends, on the other hand, did enrich themselves personally,” Faye said.
“Her friends?” Elie asked.
“Yes, some of her close associates. You know, in the affair about the campaigns in 2012?”
“Oh,” Elie said, sounding confounded. But then: “Has it been proven?”
“Well, the justice system hasn’t given a verdict yet,” Faye said.
“The justice system hasn’t given a verdict yet!” Elie repeated, vindicated.
A man seated nearby, spilling breadcrumbs from a sandwich on to his stained green sweater, asked which newspaper Faye was with. “If you will, France, to me, is a pyramid,” the man said. “At the top of this pyramid, there are a half-dozen very important men, billionaires, and the rest of us are their employees, their parrots. Oh yes! You’re a billionaire’s employee.”
“I’m not technically his employee,” Faye objected.
“Fine,” the man said, “but you can’t write whatever you want!”
“I know this will surprise you,” Faye said calmly, “but really, I really do write what I want.”
“At Le Monde?” asked another man, incredulous. “For 30 years they’ve been telling us there are no immigrants in France. While at the same time you can see we’re drowning in immigrants!” His wife, seated next to him, said the Front National was treated as “evil incarnate” by the “immigrationist” media. The man said, “You can tell these papers are really just puppets.”
When Le Pen took the stage, she began with an indictment of the country’s traditional political class, “dream-wreckers”, whose “inadequacy” and “disdain” have condemned the French, at each election, to nothing more than “turning the other cheek”. “I want to transform your oh-so-legitimate anger,” she urged, “into an act of love, for that vital and unique community that is, just like your family, your nation.”
She turned to her prime opponent, Macron, whom she derided as the choice of “the ruling caste”. She smiled a tart smile. “Look, by the way, at the zeal with which the moneyed powers are now openly backing Mr Macron! The moneyed powers, and their representatives in the media. Like Mr Bergé, the owner of Le Monde” – now there were boos, and whistles – “who has put his newspaper entirely in the service of Mr Macron and is using it as a weapon of war against the people’s candidacy that I embody!”
Faye sat hunched at his computer in the darkened hall and dutifully typed out the words, raising his eyebrows in slight disbelief. Such direct attacks on the media have few precedents in French politics. His jaw worked away a bit more quickly at his chewing gum. “Or like Mr Drahi” – more boos – “he too in the service of Mr Macron, who controls numerous channels and numerous papers, all of them entirely devoted to his candidacy!” Le Pen went on. “I want to tell the French to be extremely careful not to let this election be stolen from them – to know how to recognise, in the avalanche of propaganda they’re being served from morning till night, the hand of the system.”
When Le Pen had finished speaking and the lights came up, I spoke with a delicate-looking woman in hoop earrings and a black skirt, who carried a small French flag and whose name was Soizic Robin. “They’re the only ones I believe in any more,” she said of the Front National, though she told me she had voted for the party only since Marine has been at its helm. Jean-Marie, Robin said, was a “disgraceful man”. She said the media coverage of the party had grown fairer in recent years, though she complained the party was still unfairly associated with its former leader, and presented only in a negative light. Two buses transporting FN supporters to the rally that day had been stopped on the road and attacked by masked protesters, for instance. “And I’m sure that won’t be in the news,” she said, but she spoke without bitterness.
Faye called Monnot, his editor. “Really one of the most intense speeches I’ve heard in the past two years,” he said. In the report he filed for the next day’s paper, inflected with a hint of the irony he likes to deploy, he wrote that Le Pen, in order to “counter the accumulation of scandals implicating her,” had attempted “to pass herself off as a victim of some effort to silence her”. Much of the article consisted of quotations from Le Pen’s speech. A small sidebar ran alongside it: “Buses of FN supporters attacked.”
In a broadcast interview this month, Le Pen was asked for her view of a particularly infamous chapter of French wartime history, one that has come to stand for the inhumanity and collaborationist zeal of official France during the Nazi occupation. In July 1942, more than 13,000 Jewish men, women and children were detained in Paris, and deported to their deaths. These mass arrests, now referred to collectively as the Vel d’Hiv (for the cycling arena in which many of the captured were held) were planned and executed not by the Germans, but by the French. In an historic address, Jacques Chirac once proclaimed that “France, that day, committed the irreparable.” Le Pen was asked if Chirac had been wrong to state this.
“I think France is not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv, voilà,” Le Pen replied crisply, glaring at her questioner – the same man, as it happened, who 30 years prior had asked her father about the gas chambers. “I think that in a general way, and more generally, if there are people who are responsible, it’s those who were in power at the time.” She jabbed a pen in the air. “It’s not France. It’s not France. France has been mistreated, in the minds of people, for years. In reality our children have been taught that they have every reason to criticise it. To see only, perhaps, its darkest historical aspects. So, I want them to once again be proud to be French.”
Le Pen had spoken little of French history during the campaign season; the Front National has not always been well-served by its public exegeses of past events. And indeed, Le Pen’s opponents and detractors asserted immediately and with righteous anger that she had outed herself as a despicable revisionist. Le Monde charged that she had crossed a “red line”, that of “the national consensus” on the country’s historical guilt. Macron said: “Some had forgotten that Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen.”
One wonders what other dark episodes Le Pen would see scrubbed from the country’s account of itself, what other unwelcome truths she would banish. But there was – and Le Pen was quick, as ever, to note it – a slight excess in the outcry, a note of hypocrisy. Revisionism of this sort has been a frequent feature of the politics of contemporary France, and it remains largely tolerated when it emanates from quarters other than the far-right. De Gaulle had insisted Vichy was the regime of only of a traitorous few, while “France” and “the Republic” had survived the war in exile in London, unsullied by the ignominies of collaboration. Every French president until Chirac had maintained the same, and a small number of contemporary politicians still do. François Fillon, her opponent, has in the past rejected the idea that “France” might bear guilt for Vichy. But he did not refrain from adding his voice to the chorus of opprobrium.
“I find this controversy to be artificial and shameful,” Le Pen complained. “Shameful! Because I expressed the position that was General de Gaulle’s, and François Mitterrand’s, and that of all the presidents one after another until Jacques Chirac.”
If only as a technical matter, this was true. And in the eyes of some, perhaps many, Le Pen had once again been made the victim for being right – “mistreated” like the nation itself, compelled toward false repentance by a caste of moralising hypocrites. Indeed, she would be nowhere without them.
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