Moscow, an adherent to the principle of “divide and rule,” has long been attempting to split Europe by garnering the support of far-right and extreme left-wing political groups. Recently, for instance, dubious ties between the Kremlin and the French National Front have become increasingly obvious. While the popularity of the National Front within France is growing despite family friction between the head of the party, Marine Le Pen, and her father, the founder of the party Jean-Marie Le Pen, it’s early yet for the Kremlin to cry victory. As journalist Elena Servettaz explains, Marine Le Pen will never make it to the helm of the French Republic.

 

Marine Le Pen’s (right) goal is to improve the image of the National Front, tarnished by racist and xenophobic comments of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen (left), founder of the party. Photo: EPA

 

Russian president Vladimir Putin and his team are in dire need of some Western support for the Kremlin’s policies, especially at a time when Washington and Brussels are maintaining sanctions against Moscow over the annexation of Crimea and Russian aggression in Ukraine. On the far right of the European political spectrum, it appears easy for the Kremlin to seek out fringe politicians who approve of Moscow’s policies and who can be portrayed in the Russian media as “famous Western politicians.” In the United Kingdom for example, it’s easy to find an official representative of the far-right Independence Party (UKIP) who will state openly that he or she truly admires Putin for all that he has done for Russia. Yet, it is in France that the Russian powers-that-be have been particularly successful; they seem to have tamed the leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, for a long time to come.

During the 2012 presidential campaign in France, I got a lucky break as a journalist. When the editorial office was deciding whom to send where on the evening the election results would be announced, I ended up going to Marine Le Pen’s “lair” (as we used to call it jokingly). In the first round, she finished third. In the runoff, I was sent to the headquarters of François Hollande, who was hardly known at the time, but subsequently became president of France. In comparison to the presidential victory celebration at Hollande’s headquarters, the third-place results were celebrated much more merrily at Le Pen’s headquarters.

As I was heading off to see Le Pen, a colleague from the English Service at Radio France Internationale asked to me record a few interviews on his behalf at the National Front. I promised to do so because I was sure I would have no problem finding people to speak English among Marine Le Pen’s supporters. Those attending the National Front’s party were not peasant farmers from the backwaters, terrified of immigrants, but rather thriving Parisians: ladies in evening dress, men in suits, and many young people. They did not strike me as being easily frightened by tales about a France of yesteryear on the verge of disappearing, or about immigrants who will eat the last crunchy baguette after having made a halal ham sandwich with it.

Marine Le Pen’s guests spoke to me in French. They said that despite the third-place finish, the leader of the National Front would one day become president of France. None of them would be interviewed in English. “We are French. We will not speak in English. We are here on our home turf,” explained the guests. That evening, one of Le Pen’s supporters said to me, “Russians do not scare us. On the contrary, we share the same history and have a common culture.” That is what Marine Le Pen herself has been saying in recent years, defending the policies of the Kremlin on Crimea, Syria, sanctions, and homophobic laws.

On 21 April 2015, Marine Le Pen posed in New York for photographers at an evening event organized by Time magazine, which had included her in its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. There she said, “Oh, no. I do not speak English. I am French.” She did mention, though, that she was glad that the National Front has achieved world fame and that her voice has been heard. And it is possible that if the reception had been held at the Kremlin, Marine Le Pen might well have forgotten that she is French and cracked a few jokes in Russian.

But let’s return to the National Front’s headquarters in 2012. Marine’s father, eighty-eight-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen, was by his daughter’s side on that important evening: he celebrated her victory with her, toasted her, and joked a good deal about Marine having achieved better results in her bid for the presidency than he had in his time. The founder of the National Front told a journalist then that he was bursting with pride for his daughter. Today, three years later, Jean-Marie Le Pen no longer wants anything to do with her. So, what happened?

Marine Le Pen long ago began removing the tarnish of racism and xenophobia from the image of the National Front created by Le Pen senior in his time, for whom the Holocaust was a mere “detail in history.” It is as if the new Marine-style National Front has changed its target audience. Jean-Marie Le Pen achieved fame as an instigator; his jokes were always borderline: “Am I an anti-Semite? Ask my friend Mr. Cohen.” Marine Le Pen is a politician aspiring to real power and feels that such “jokes” are totally out of line. She has a completely different set of priorities: to have France leave the Euro zone, exit NATO, and develop friendships with the dictatorial and authoritarian regimes of Assad and Putin.

“France will never elect a president who is racist, Islamophobic, or anti-Semitic. Even those who voted against Sarkozy in 2012 will, of course, vote for him in the runoff if Marine Le Pen makes it that far.”

While the National Front’s friendship with Moscow is paying off handsomely in the form of a multimillion-dollar credit from Russian banks, its support for Arab dictators, disguised as a fight against the threat of radical Islamists, boils down to a confrontation with an outside enemy, the United States.

In his time, Jean-Marie Le Pen fought the Communists. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR, there were no far-right enemies remaining in the East. That meant they had to be sought out in the West, and American hegemony fit the bill perfectly. Moreover, in the East (in Russia), the National Front found friends with whom it shared strong “spiritual bonds.” Marine and her father had no quarrels on that point. Their first public rift formed twenty-eight years after the scandal related to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s comment on the Holocaust, when he repeated that the “gas chambers are a detail” in the history of the Second World War and that “this should not shock anyone.” The very next day, Marie Le Pen made it known that she agreed with neither the form nor the content of her father’s pronouncements. Jean-Marie Le Pen immediately riposted, stating, “only those closest to us betray us.” Thus began the family’s saga.

Is this French theater at its best, or a political cleavage in the Le Pen family that could lead to Jean-Marie being stripped of his status as “honorary president” (something which, on the one hand, could work to Marine’s advantage, as she has long been attempting to rid the party of the crazy old man’s shadow)? On the other hand, when France is busy discussing Le Pen family squabbles, the party loses clout and is reduced to scandals covered by tabloids. For days on end, political scientists have been discussing on the air how the split with her father will improve Marine’s personal image, redress the reputation of the National Front, and make it possible to attract new supporters who in the past had rejected Jean-Marie Le Pen’s statements.

Nonetheless, according to French political scientist Cécile Vaissié, Marine Le Pen has practically no chance of becoming president of France in 2017 even if she makes it to the runoff elections, as her father did in 2002. “Republican and Democratic forces will unite against her,” says Vaissié. “However, Marine’s rhetoric is having an impact on the behavior of some of her political opponents, as was so clearly the case with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012. He was criticized harshly for this, especially between the two rounds of the elections.” (Subsequent to the first round of voting, Sarkozy attempted to flirt with traditionally National Front voters by talking, for instance, about the link between “immigration spinning out of control” and the deficit in social systems. At the time, French politician François Bayrou said that by making such a statement, Sarkozy “had confirmed the theories of the National Front.”)

Vaissié explains the party this way: “The National Front, like any populist party, plays on fears which some French people are experiencing as they face a changing world. For example, there is the fear that Europe will rob France of its sovereignty; a tendency to reject the Euro, which they fear is weakening the national economy; a perception that immigrants are taking jobs away from the French and eroding their sense of security; and fear of social changes, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, etc.” Vaissié posits that the National Front is succeeding in exerting influence on the European Parliament thanks largely to the success of other European parties on the far right that now hold seats in Brussels. “Russian credit obtained very recently by the National Front also gives the party more opportunities and is tempting other French politicians to follow suit and ‘develop a friendship between France and Russia.’ All you have to do is have a look at who has recently been going to Moscow.”

The French population has picked up on this as well. While conversing with a French cabdriver of Moroccan origin in Paris, I heard more or less the same thing: “Despite the fact that posters of Marine Le Pen are plastered all over Paris, I do not feel intimidated. No one will vote for her in the runoff, not even those who support her today. France will never elect a president who is racist, Islamophobic, or anti-Semitic. Even those who voted against Sarkozy in 2012 will, of course, vote for him in the runoff if Marine Le Pen makes it that far.”

It appears that despite her blusterous break with the patriarch of the National Front, and despite being listed among the 100 most influential people in Time magazine (and despite her bad English), Marine Le Pen will not get the opportunity to lead the nation. So, was it really worth falling out with her father, who just a few years ago supported her wholeheartedly, for such a long shot? Even if you reject conspiracy theories, you have to wonder whether this Le Pen family scandal has been staged and is French theater being masterfully played out. In essence, Marine Le Pen is no different from her father, except that she is more careful. Indeed, it would not take much imagination to picture Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen sitting down at the same table for a family meal and raising their glasses to new victories in France, even after all the squabbles and rows.

Every Friday, we release a comprehensive digest of the most compelling articles related to Russia.

If you are interested in getting a rare insight into what Russia is really about; what the Russian government and the Russian people are really thinking; what the Russian expert community is really discussing; subscribe to our weekly newsletter below or by letting us know at info@imrussia.org.

Truly yours,

IMR team

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.