European Municipal VotesMonday, March 31, 2014
Le Pen: ‘We don’t have problems with Islam’
HENIN-BEAUMONT — Marine Le Pen saw political gold in the abandoned coal mines of northern France that once pumped life, jobs and an identity into places like Henin-Beaumont — a bleak town that the far-right leader says is the avant-garde of her anti-immigration party’s march to power.
Le Pen’s party, which disdains the European Union and globalization and fears that Islamic culture will subvert French civilization, is seeking to build a grassroots base upon which to draw ahead of May elections for the European Parliament and the French presidential vote in 2017.
She wants to officially scrub away the racist stigma that has long clung to the National Front and ultimately to upend the French political system by winning broad support for the party's “patriotic” doctrine.
Le Pen said in an interview that, while local concerns were at the centre of the municipal vote yesterday at which her party won key victories, the National Front will ensure that party priorities like secularism are respected where it wins. That could be a potential flashpoint for conflict in towns with large Muslim populations where some groups seek to build mosques or serve halal food in school cafeterias.
“We don’t have problems with Islam,” she said, while adding: “France has Christian roots. (The French) want to recognize their own country, recognize their lifestyle, their habits, their traditions.”
Yesterday’s results showed the National Front has benefitted from widespread disappointment in the forces that have dominated French politics for decades. Scandals are engulfing former President Nicolas Sarkozy and his fractious conservative party. Meanwhile, the Socialists are suffering from President François Hollande’s deep unpopularity and a government that has failed to create jobs or improve the economy.
“The system fears our vote, our choice for change,” Le Pen said at a rally in a packed hall in Henin-Beaumont last week.
She was there to support her party’s mayoral candidate, Steeve Briois, who eventually won, but made clear the local vote carries a national message.
“The municipal elections have an essential role, to give hope to the French,” she said. “You are the avant garde, the first to witness with rage in your hearts” all that is wrong with France.
With a dearth of trained officials, the National Front could not compete on equal footing with leading parties. But it still ran candidates in 596 towns — a party record. It won around 15 municipalities yesterday, early results showed, but even that represents a sharp disavowal of mainstream politics.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged voters last week to “do everything” to keep National Front candidates from reaching city halls.
‘Like a good father’
National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the final round of presidential elections in 2002 but was crushed in the runoff. The party, financially strapped from the presidential fight, did poorly in the 2008 municipal elections.
Along came Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter. A 45-year-old mother of three, she took over the National Front in 2010, working to clean its racist and anti-Semitic image and shoo away jack-booted followers in an attempt to make it a legitimate political alternative, not just a catch-all for protest votes.
She’s been so successful that her party’s tirades against Muslim immigration are mimicked on the right and, more subtly, on the left. Marine Le Pen placed a strong third in the 2012 presidential race, and the National Front won two parliamentary seats.
High unemployment and crime rates, corruption, and a visible Muslim population, are like calling cards for the National Front — and the extreme right elsewhere in Europe. Switzerland’s recent winning referendum to cap immigration was a morale boost for the National Front and extreme-right parties across Europe.
Le Pen told the AP that she thought Islamic Sharia law would take over French justice within three decades if “mass immigration” wasn’t stopped.
The National Front would run towns it wins “like a good father,” she assured, hoping for victories in southern France, including towns where the party’s Parliament members are implanted.
But some remember four extreme-right victories in southern France in 1995 municipal elections, and worry. Corruption, deficits and bids to impose National Front ideology, such as banning books from libraries and adding National Front literature, proved disastrous.
Under the National Front, Henin-Beaumont will likely implement mainstream policies to provide a sanitized window to the broader French electorate.
“The martyred city of Henin-Beaumont, you will be the renaissance of France,” she told the crowd at her final rally there. “You will show that another kind of politics is possible.”