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Will his daughter, Marine Le Pen, succeed in taking the National Front mainstream?
PARIS, France — It is the end of an era and, perhaps, a beginning.
After almost 40 years at the helm of the National Front, far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen bid farewell to party members last weekend, handing the reins to his daughter, Marine.
Marine Le Pen, a more moderate version of her father, has dropped some of his most controversial causes, such as anti-Semitism, in favor of an issue more French are getting behind: secularism, specifically special treatment for France’s growing Muslim population.
Her father, who has been convicted by several courts for racist and anti-Semitic statements, once said on television, “I do not think all races are equal.” He called Nazi gas chambers “a detail” of history and said the German occupation of France — during which hundreds of thousands of French died, including about 77,000 Jews — “was not particularly inhuman.”
Despite his vitriolic sense of provocation, Jean-Marie Le Pen, 82, has been a prominent political figure in France for almost 40 years.
“Jean-Marie Le Pen’s longevity is exceptional in our political history,” said Pascal Perrineau, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and an expert on the National Front.
“Le Pen’s resilience stems from his ability to gather different far-right movements in the 1960s and 1970s, including neo-fascists and colonialists,” said Perrineau. “Then in the 1980s, Le Pen managed to surf on major issues, such as immigration and criminality, issues that were left out by other parties.”
The son of a fisherman who died during World War II, Le Pen began his political career after fighting for France in Indochina and Algeria.
At only 27, in 1956, Le Pen was elected to the French Parliament.
Then, in 1972, he co-founded the National Front and was appointed party president.
For years, Le Pen developed a particular political style — a combination of populism, protectionism and racist rhetoric — served by an extraordinary gift for public speech.
He climbed from a low of 0.75 percent of the vote in his first presidential run in 1974, to eventually make the runoff in 2002 against Jacques Chirac — the climax of his political career.
That 2002 ballot came as a shock to the French, clashing with their ideals of equality and fraternity.
Marches and demonstrations against the National Front were organized all over the country and Le Pen fell to Chirac in the second round, winning just under 18 percent of the vote.
While he easily takes his gloves off against his opponents, Le Pen likes to claim he has always been a victim of the political and media elite.
“A detail in the history of World War II, the inequality between races, all my statements have been misused to make me a scapegoat, just because I refused to obey the intellectual police,” said Le Pen on Saturday.
In the latest presidential election in 2007, Le Pen slight more than 10 of the votes and did not make it to the second round.
Le Pen used his final party address to warn members against the dangers of consumerism, the European Union and Islam.
“Islamists occupy the streets,” he said, “to try and force public authorities to build new mosques, although there are already more than 2,000 mosques in our national territory. After having forced a ban on pork meat in many schools, Islamists demand that the meat served in cafeterias be prepared according to the Muslim ritual.”
“It is a typical far-right strategy to find a scapegoat,” said Perrineau, “whether it is the Jews, freemasons, intellectual elite, or immigrants.”
The strategy led to far-right gains in elections last year in the Netherlands, Hungary and Sweden. Marine Le Pen, more than her father, has the ability to take the National Front mainstream and win gains in next year’s French presidential election.
Unlike her father, Marine Le Pen, who garnered over two-thirds of party members’ votes for leader, was born after World War II and the Algerian war for independence.
In an effort to dust her party off, the new leader has let go of the anti-Semitic and conservative Catholic values dear to her father, advocating instead for a more secular society and an anti-Islam agenda.
In her inauguration speech on Sunday, Marine Le Pen insisted France was never and will never be a Muslim country.
She also called on party members to “resist modern dictatorships such as radical Islam and globalization.”
“The government must forbid special opening hours in swimming pools for Muslim women and a religious ban on certain foods in school cafeterias,” she said. “No one should be forced to eat Muslim halal food against their will.”
According to a recent poll conducted by the Viavoice Institute, 20 percent of the French have a positive opinion of Marine Le Pen.
But according to Perrineau, “Marine Le Pen still has to prove that she is resilient enough for a national political career.”
“For now, she enjoys some popularity,” he said. “Twenty percent of the French have a positive opinion of her, but it does not mean that she will get 20 percent of the vote.”
In her farewell speech, Marine Le Pen paid tribute to her father. She evoked “the noble soul, perseverance, vision and boldness with which he led the National Front.”
“All these qualities,” she said, “allow us to say that he undeniably is a historical figure.”
Just hours before Marine was praising her father’s noble soul, a Jewish journalist with the France 24 television station was reportedly assaulted by National Front security personnel — and Le Pen took the opportunity to sign off with a racist slur.
"The person in question believed it was necessary to say that it was because he was Jewish that he was thrown out,” Le Pen said. “That couldn't be seen either on his [press] card or on his nose — if I dare say it.”