Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
As the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the right-wing French political party the National Front, Marine Le Pen grew up in politics, starting to campaign with her father at 13. Trained as a lawyer, she won her first election in 1998, as a regional councilor, and in 2011, she succeeded her father as party leader. She soon distanced herself from his more extreme positions, and eventually—after he reiterated his claim that the Holocaust was a “detail” of history—she expelled him from its ranks. These days, in the wake of the European migrant crisis, the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, and the Brexit vote, Le Pen’s nationalist, Euroskeptical, anti-immigrant message is selling well. Recent polls show her as a leading candidate for the presidency in 2017, with respondents preferring her two to one over the Socialist incumbent, François Hollande. Le Pen spoke with Foreign Affairs’ deputy managing editor Stuart Reid in Paris in September.
Antiestablishment parties, including the National Front, are gaining ground across Europe. How come?
I believe that all people aspire to be free. For too long, the people of the countries in the European Union, and perhaps Americans as well, have had a sense that political leaders are not defending their interests but defending special interests instead. There is a form of revolt on the part of the people against a system that is no longer serving them but rather serving itself.
Are there common factors behind Donald Trump’s success in the United States and yours here in France?
Yes. I see particular commonalities in the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both reject a system that appears to be very selfish, even egocentric, and that has set aside the people’s aspirations. I draw a parallel between the two, because they are both success stories. Even though Bernie Sanders didn’t win, his emergence wasn’t predicted. In many countries, there is this current of being attached to the nation and rejecting untamed globalization, which is seen as a form of totalitarianism. It’s being imposed at all costs, a war against everybody for the benefit of a few.
When asked recently who you supported in the U.S. election, you said, “Anyone but Hillary.” So do you support Trump?
I was quite clear: in my view, anyone would be better than Hillary Clinton. I aim to become president of the French Republic, so I am concerned exclusively with the interests of France. I cannot put myself in an American’s shoes and determine whether the domestic policies proposed by one or another candidate suit me. What interests me are the consequences of the political choices made by Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump for France’s situation, economically and in terms of security.
So I would note that Clinton supports TTIP [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership]. Trump opposes it. I oppose it as well. I would also note that Clinton is a bringer of war in the world, leaving behind her Iraq, Libya, and Syria. This has had extremely destabilizing consequences for my country in terms of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the enormous waves of migration now overwhelming the European Union. Trump wants the United States to return to its natural state. Clinton pushes for the extraterritorial application of American law, which is an unacceptable weapon for people who wish to remain independent. All of this tells me that between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it’s Donald Trump’s policies that are more favorable to France’s interests right now.
The unemployment rate in France now stands at around ten percent, the second highest among the G-7 members. What are the roots of France’s economic malaise, and what solutions do you propose?
These days, everyone is proposing the National Front’s solutions. We recorded a nice ideological victory when I heard [Arnaud] Montebourg [a former economy minister in Hollande’s Socialist government] pleading for “made in France,” which is one of the major pillars of the National Front.
The unemployment rate is much higher than that because there are a bunch of statistical shenanigans going on—involving internships, early retirement, part-time work—that keep a number of French from being counted in the unemployment statistics.
There are a number of reasons for [the high unemployment]. The first is completely free trade, which puts us in an unfair competition with countries that engage in social and environmental dumping, leaving us with no means of protecting ourselves and our strategic companies, unlike in the United States. And in terms of social dumping, the Posted Workers Directive [an EU directive on the free movement of labor] is bringing low-wage employees to France.
The second is the monetary dumping we suffer. The euro—the fact of not having our own money—puts us in an extremely difficult economic situation. The IMF has just said that the euro was overvalued by six percent in France and undervalued by 15 percent in Germany. That’s a gap of 21 percentage points with our main competitor in Europe.
It also has to do with the disappearance of a strategic state. Our very Gaullist state, which supported our industrial champions, has been totally abandoned. France is a country of engineers. It is a country of researchers. But it’s true that it is not a country of businesspeople. And so quite often in history, our big industrial champions were able to develop only thanks to the strategic state. In abandoning this, we are depriving ourselves of a very important lever for development.
Let’s talk about abandoning the euro. Practically speaking, how would you do it?
What I want is a negotiation. What I want is a concerted exit from the European Union, where all the countries sit around the table and decide to return to the European “currency snake” [a 1970s policy designed to limit exchange-rate variations], which allows each country to adapt its monetary policy to its own economy. That’s what I want. I want it to be done gently and in a coordinated manner.
A lot of countries are now realizing that they can’t keep living with the euro, because its counterpart is a policy of austerity, which has aggravated the recession in various countries. I refer you to the book that [the economist Joseph] Stiglitz has just written, which makes very clear that this currency is completely maladapted to our economies and is one of the reasons there is so much unemployment in the European Union. So either we get there through negotiation, or we hold a referendum like Britain and decide to regain control of our currency.
Do you really think a “Frexit” referendum is conceivable?
I, at any rate, am conceiving of it. The French people were betrayed in 2005. They said no to the European constitution; politicians on the right and the left imposed it against the wishes of the population. I’m a democrat. I think that it is up to no one else but the French people to decide their future and everything that affects their sovereignty, liberty, and independence.
So yes, I would organize a referendum on this subject. And based on what happened in the negotiations that I would undertake, I would tell the French, “Listen, I obtained what I wanted, and I think we could stay in the European Union,” or, “I did not get what I wanted, and I believe there is no other solution but to leave the European Union.”
What lessons do you take from the success of the Brexit campaign?
Two major lessons. First, when the people want something, nothing is impossible. And second, we were lied to. They told us that Brexit would be a catastrophe, that the stock markets would crash, that the economy was going to grind to a halt, that unemployment would skyrocket. The reality is that none of that happened. Today, the banks are coming to us pitifully and saying, “Ah, we were wrong.” No, you lied to us. You lied in order to influence the vote. But the people are coming to know your methods, which consist of terrorizing them when they have a choice to make. The British people made a great show of maturity with this vote.
Do you worry that France will find itself economically isolated if it leaves the eurozone?
Those were the exact criticisms made against General de Gaulle in 1966 when he wanted to withdraw from NATO’s integrated command. Freedom is not isolation. Independence is not isolation. And what strikes me is that France has always been much more powerful being France on its own than being a province of the European Union. I want to rediscover that strength.
Many credit the European Union for preserving the peace since World War II. Why are they wrong?
Because it’s not the European Union that has kept the peace; it’s the peace that has made the European Union possible. This argument has been rehashed repeatedly, and it makes no sense. Regardless, the peace hasn’t been perfect in the European Union, with Kosovo and Ukraine at its doorstep. It’s not so simple.
In fact, the European Union has progressively transformed itself into a sort of European Soviet Union that decides everything, that imposes its views, that shuts down the democratic process. You only have to hear [European Commission President Jean-Claude] Juncker, who said, “There can be no democratic choice against European treaties.” That formulation says everything. We didn’t fight to become a free and independent people during World War I and World War II so that we could no longer be free today just because some of our leaders made that decision for us.
What do you make of Germany’s leadership in recent years?
It was written into the creation of the euro. In reality, the euro is a currency created by Germany, for Germany. It’s a suit that fits only Germany. Gradually, [Chancellor Angela] Merkel sensed that she was the leader of the European Union. She imposed her views. She imposed them in economic matters, but she also imposed them by agreeing to welcome one million migrants to Germany, knowing very well that Germany would sort them out. It would keep the best and let the rest go to other countries in the European Union. There are no longer any internal borders between our countries, which is absolutely unacceptable. The model imposed by Merkel surely works for Germans, but it is killing Germany’s neighbors. I am the anti-Merkel.
What do you think of the state of relations between France and the United States, and what should they be?
Today, French leaders submit so easily to the demands of Merkel and Obama. France has forgotten to defend its interests, including its commercial and industrial ones, in the face of American demands. I am for independence. I am for a France that remains equidistant between the two great powers, Russia and the United States, being neither submissive nor hostile. I want us to once again become a leader for the nonaligned countries, as was said during the de Gaulle era. We have the right to defend our interests, just as the United States has the right to defend its interests, Germany has the right to defend its interests, and Russia has the right to defend its interests.
Why do you think France should get closer to Russia under President Vladimir Putin?
First of all, because Russia is a European country. France and Russia also have a shared history and a strong cultural affinity. And strategically, there is no reason not to deepen relations with Russia. The only reason we don’t is because the Americans forbid it. That conflicts with my desire for independence. What’s more, I think the United States is making a mistake by re-creating a kind of cold war with Russia, because it’s pushing Russia into the arms of China. And objectively, an ultrapowerful association between China and Russia wouldn’t be advantageous for either the United States or the world.
In the latest polls, the National Front is projected to make it to the runoff of the presidential election. In the past, notably in 2002, the other parties united to block the National Front in the second round. Would you be ready to form alliances, and if so, with whom?
It’s not up to me to decide that. This presidential election will be about a big choice: Do we defend our civilization, or do we abandon it? So I think there are people from the entire political spectrum, from the right and the left, who agree with me and who could join us.
The National Front that you are leading has changed a great deal from the party your father led. At what point in your career did you realize that the National Front had to distance itself from its extremist image if it was going to be competitive?
In the past, the National Front was a protest party. It was an opposition party. Naturally, its rising influence has transformed it into a party of government—that is, into a party that anticipates reaching the highest offices in order to implement its ideas. It’s also true that a political movement is always influenced by its leader’s personality. I have not taken the same path as my father. I am not the same age as he is. I do not have the same profile. He is a man; I am a woman. And that means I have imprinted on the party an image that corresponds more with who I am than with who he was.
How can France protect itself from terrorist attacks like the one in Nice in July?
So far, it has done absolutely nothing. It has to stop the arrival of migrants, whom we know terrorists infiltrate. It has to put an end to birthright citizenship, the automatic acquisition of French nationality with no other criteria that created French like [Amedy] Coulibaly and [Chérif and Saïd] Kouachi [the terrorists behind the Paris attacks of January 2015], who had long histories of delinquency and were hostile toward France. This isn’t the case for everyone; I’m not generalizing. But it’s a good way to have a surveillance mechanism. We need to revoke citizenship from dual nationals who have any kind of link to terrorist organizations.
We especially need to combat the development of Islamic fundamentalism on our territory. For electoral reasons, French politicians rolled out the red carpet for Islamic fundamentalism, which has developed in mosques and so-called cultural centers financed not only by France but also by countries that support Islamic fundamentalism. We also have to regain the mastery of our borders, because I can’t see how we can combat terrorism while having open borders.
You have said that apart from Islam, “no other religion causes problems.” Why do you think that this is true?
Because all religions in France are subject to the rules of secularism. Let’s be clear, many Muslims have done that. But some within Islam—and of course I’m thinking of the Islamic fundamentalists—cannot accept that, for one simple reason, which is that they consider sharia to be superior to all other laws and norms, including the French constitution. That’s unacceptable.
For a century, since the law on secularism was passed, no one has sought to impose religious law by bending the laws of our country. These Islamic fundamentalist groups are seeking to do this. This must be said, because we cannot fight an enemy if we do not name it. We must be intransigent when it comes to respecting our constitution and our laws. And honestly, the French political class has instead acted in the spirit of Canadian-style reasonable accommodation rather than in the spirit of an intransigence that would allow us to protect our civil liberties. We see it in the huge regressions in women’s rights taking place today on French soil. In certain areas, women can no longer dress as they wish.
You support the ban on the burkini. Why is it a problem?
The problem is that it’s not a bathing suit. It’s an Islamist uniform. It’s one of the many ways in which Islamic fundamentalism flexes its muscles. Once we accept that women are subject to this Islamist uniform, the next step is that we accept the separation of the sexes in swimming pools and other public spaces. And then we’ll have to accept different rights for men and women. If you don’t see that, then you don’t understand the battle we face against Islamic fundamentalism.
But does this measure really help integrate Muslims in France?
What is integration? It is to live side by side, each with their own lifestyle, their own code, their own mores, their own language. The French model is assimilation. Individual freedom does not allow one to call into question the major civilizational choices France has made.
In France, we don’t believe in the concept of a consenting victim. French criminal law, for example, doesn’t allow people to harm themselves on the grounds that they have the right to do so because they are acting on their own. We don’t accept that, because it undermines the major choices we have made as a civilization regarding women’s equality and the rejection of communitarianism—that is, organized communities that live according to their own rules. That is the Anglo-Saxon model. It is not ours. The Anglo-Saxons have the right to defend their model, but we have the right to defend ours.
Do you think that the American model of integration is more effective than the French one?
I don’t have to judge that. That’s a problem for Americans. Personally, I don’t want that model. That model is a consequence of American history. Communities came from different countries to a virgin land to create a nation made up of people from everywhere. That is not the case for France. France is a very old human and legal creation. Nothing is there by chance. Secularism is how we handled religious conflicts that had plunged our country into a bloodbath.
I don’t seek to impose my model on others, but I don’t want others to decide that my model is not the right one. I’m often offended when foreign countries condemn the French model. I don’t condemn the American model. But I don’t want mine condemned. I think that communitarianism sows the seeds of conflict between communities, and I don’t want my country to face conflicts between communities. I recognize only individuals. It is individuals who have rights. It is individuals who have free will. It is individuals who assimilate themselves. In no case is it communities.
This interview has been translated from the French, edited, and condensed.
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