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The New National Front Is the Same as the Old National Front

The New National Front Is the Same as the Old National Front

France’s far-right patriarch, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and his daughter and heir, Marine Le Pen, are supposedly not on speaking terms. And yet earlier this year, they appeared side-by-side for almost two hours before a magistrate in a secret arbitration hearing in which the elder Le Pen rose to defend the younger.

At issue were the taxes owed on some of the Le Pen family’s properties: chiefly, the sprawling mansion and estate of Montretout in the swank Saint-Cloud district west of Paris, where Marine Le Pen grew up and where her father still lives. France’s tax office claimed that Le Pen and her father had underestimated by millions of euros the value of the dynasty’s real estate. Should she be found to have done so, Marine Le Pen would not only be hit with a hefty tax bill, and another inconvenient political scandal amid mounting investigations into her and her party’s financial affairs, she could potentially even face prison time.

And so Le Pen père came to his daughter’s rescue. As Le Monde reported last month, “for almost two hours, one and then the other, assisted by their lawyers, pleaded their common case on the value of Montretout.” Jean-Marie Le Pen testified on behalf of himself and Marine Le Pen that the family estate was not worth nearly as much as French authorities claim. Le Monde noted that “so much are their assets entangled” — father and daughter are also co-owners of another clan home in the Upper Seine region outside Paris — the pair “were obliged to get along.” The Journal du Dimanche reported the Le Pens even “embraced each other out of courtesy.”

The events at the hearing run directly contrary to Marine Le Pen’s preferred narrative about her leadership of the National Front. She portrays the moment, in 2011, that she took control of the party from her father as a break from what came before — the beginning of a process of dédiabolisation or “de-demonization” of a group formerly notorious for its anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies. That narrative took a hit this weekend. Marine Le Pen made headlines Sunday for claiming that France was not responsible for deporting Jews to Nazi concentration camps — a comment that gave the country flashbacks to her Holocaust-denying father. But the remark came amid a new spate of reporting and scholarship in France that has cast doubts on whether the new National Front is really any different from the old National Front.

The National Front was co-founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen and members of the extreme right nationalist group Ordre Nouveau, or New Order. The party quickly became a broad church of reactionaries. It brought together an often-uncomfortable alliance of Vichy nostalgists, royalists, Catholic ultra-fundamentalists, working-class whites, and skinheads. By the 1990s, extreme left anti-Zionists had also joined this motley crew. For the most part, the various factions embraced, or at least tolerated, Le Pen Sr.’s recurring Holocaust denials and increasingly outrageous and overt racism. Marine Le Pen, however, saw firsthand how her father’s inflammatory rhetoric was preventing the party from expanding its voter base. Le Pen shocked France when he managed to reach the second round of the presidential elections in 2002, only to be crushed by Jacques Chirac, who won with 82 percent of the vote.

To this end, since taking control of the family’s political movement, Marine Le Pen has spent the past six years officially distancing the National Front from the anti-Semitic, neo-fascist roots that made the party, for many in France, untouchable. She intermittently, and with much fanfare, fires party candidates, elected officials, and apparatchiks who get caught spreading anti-Semitic hate. (Nice party boss Benoit Loeuillet was swiftly suspended by Le Pen last month, for example, after he was secretly filmed denying that there were not “that many deaths” in the Holocaust.) In 2015, she dramatically expelled her father from the party he founded over the latest of his periodic rants. She has scrubbed the family name, along with the National Front brand, from her current election campaign, opting instead to go with the slogan “MARINE Presidente.” And over the past decade she has overseen a shift from her father’s relatively free market economics and emphasis on small government toward a heavily protectionist, populist program she calls “economic patriotism.” Her rhetoric is hard-line when it comes to Muslims — she described them in 2010 as an “occupation” akin to the Nazis for praying in French streets — and immigrants generally, but she has never embraced the anti-Semitic hate speech of her father and painstakingly avoids his homophobia. As recently as last month she insisted there is “no relationship” with Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The efforts seem to have paid off. Today, the 48-year-old Le Pen is polling neck-and-neck with centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron for the top spot in the first round of France’s presidential election, thanks in part to dédiabolisation. And the strategy has won Le Pen some unlikely fans: former leftists, disillusioned young people, and some stars of French cinema, such as Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat last month wrote favorably about Le Pen, arguing that she has “actively tried to distance her movement from the sort of toxic bigotry that Trump’s campaign saw advantages in winking at” and that she “might actually deserve to win.”

But that analysis may be too generous. An election-eve wave of investigative journalism and research has painted a picture of an organization that, at its highest levels, is awash with Hitler admirers and Holocaust-denying far-right nationalists, including within Marine Le Pen’s inner circle, who could well be poised to work at the Élysée Palace should she win on May 7. “The French should know,” said former National Front senior figure Aymeric Chauprade, who spoke to journalists Marine Turchi and Mathias Destal for their book Marine Knows About Everything, published last month, that “if they vote for Marine Le Pen that she is not free” and her closest aides embrace a “visceral anti-Semitism.”

That book, recent TV news and radio reports, and an article in the newspaper Le Canard Enchainé have zoomed in on the veteran Le Pen advisor Frédéric Chatillon. As the Canard reported, and as outlined in Turchi and Destal’s book, the secretive former Sorbonne law school buddy of Marine Le Pen’s is a Hitler enthusiast who was once cited by French intelligence for making the Fuhrer salute at an Algerian war commemoration. He has also celebrated Hitler’s birthday and organizes fancy dress parties where guests come dressed up as Jewish inmates of World War II death camps. An admirer of dictators from Moscow to Damascus, he has done business with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. When the Panama Papers emerged in 2016, Chatillon was named in relation to a money-laundering operation involving sums of more than $318,000.

Chatillon was charged with running a complex campaign-finance fraud system for the National Front in the 2012 elections, and has been legally banned from working for the party ever since. But in an article titled “The Little Nazi at Marine Le Pen’s Door” Le Canard Enchainé last month reported that Chatillon is still a paid member of Le Pen’s campaign team. A series of media reports suggested the supposed pariah remained close to Le Pen and was nicknamed “the omnipresent Chatillon,” because he is nearly always at campaign headquarters and makes regular appearances at important internal National Front events. Not only that, Chatillon offers strategic advice to Le Pen on finances, political communication, and foreign policy, according to disgruntled former National Front officials. When Le Pen congratulated Russia and China for opposing intervention against Assad in Syria, she was allegedly parroting talking points from Chatillon, who joined a group of hard-right French political figures who were visiting the dictator in Damascus in March 2016.

Chatillon has also been integral to drumming up much-needed financing for the party, though in ways that have often come back to haunt it. He is now linked to multiple investigations of alleged financial fraud on the part of the National Front. In 2013, he led a plan to borrow more than $10 million from an Italian bank, though it subsequently fell through.

Journalists have also focused on Axel Loustau, the National Front’s treasurer, who serves as a councilor in Greater Paris and who has been charged with campaign financing fraud, and top Le Pen advisor Philippe Peninque. Loustau and Peninque, along with Chatillon, are former members of the Groupe Union Defense, an ultra-nationalist right-wing youth group that was virulently anti-Israel and eventually forcibly disbanded. Together, Loustau and Chatillon have visited the late Belgian Waffen-SS Nazi collaborationist politician Léon Degrelle in order to pay their respects. In 1992, Chatillon visited Degrelle in Spain twice, according to an intelligence report obtained by the authors of Marine Le Pen Knows About Everything. The men attended far-right soirees where one former National Front member interviewed by the TV program Envoye Speciale said “they laughed about Auschwitz, they said there was a football stadium and a pool for Jews, and that the deported weren’t gassed at all. They just died from illness and exhaustion.”

Such extremist figures jockey for power among various factions within the National Front, which includes a rival group headed by Le Pen’s more moderate, openly gay, but fiercely anti-immigrant advisor Florian Philippot and another by her staunchly Catholic, socially conservative niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. But in Chauprade’s view, Chatillon and others like him have influence because they “have power over the finances of the FN.” Le Pen herself covers for them and refuses to cut them loose, he said, even though they leave the party open to renewed demonization, with their penchant for Holocaust jokes and admiration of national socialism. As one frustrated National Front official leery of Chatillon’s influence put it, “We chased the devil Le Pen out of the big door, but Marine’s demons have come back in through the windows.”

Old ties to friends and family count for a lot for Le Pen. The joint tax arbitration appearance with her father came less than a month after the National Front confirmed that Jean-Marie Le Pen had agreed to help bankroll his daughter’s cash-strapped presidential election campaign with a loan of more than $6 million through his campaign financing vehicle. (Le Pen also contributed one of the 500 signatures his daughter required to officially qualify for the race for France’s highest office.)

Le Pen may have succeeded in reshaping the National Front image outside of France. In the United States, she is feted by Republicans such as Steve King. In the Netherlands, she has formed a European alliance with anti-Islam immigrant-bashing politician Geert Wilders, who once made a point of keeping his distance from the National Front. But most French voters remain skeptical about the National Front’s dédiabolisation, said historian Valérie Igounet, who released two books this year, National Illusion and France First. The books are based on years of research and interviews with National Front supporters, showing that “while the slogans may have changed, Marine Le Pen is still singing the same song” of nationalism, xenophobia, and law and order as her father.

Foreign media coverage has focused on new National Front converts: former left-wingers angry at having lost out on globalization and furious at mainstream parties, or unemployed youths. Yet a broad swath of the party remains faithful to the values of the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Igounet predicts Le Pen will lose this spring because the National Front is still seen as extremist by a majority of voters. “The party is not ready, and a majority of the French are still afraid of it,” she said. “French citizens are not dupes.” Indeed, polls still show Le Pen losing to her likely opponent, Emmanuel Macron, by a large margin in the second round. But the margin isn’t expected to be nearly as wide as it was when her father lost to Chirac more than a decade ago. Many in the electorate remain much more certain about their vote for the National Front candidate than for Macron — a sign that, while French citizens may not be dupes, dédiabolisation still appears to be convincing some of them.

Photo credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images