In this exclusive interview, Jean-Marie Le Pen heaps contempt on the palm-greasers, opportunists and back-scratchers who make up the French political establishment.
If there is calm in the eye of the storm, it was certainly to be found at Jean-Marie Le Pen’s sumptuous villa in Saint-Cloud, Paris, on Tuesday afternoon. In the world outside, the international media reverberated with an orgiastic denunciation of the man the world loves to hate; in Parc Montretout, the brisk click of the sprinklers on the immaculate lawns, and the distant cry of a peacock were the only sounds to disturb the fragrant spring air. A Dobermann lying on the gravel looked at me lazily as it basked in the sun.
Jean-Marie Le Pen’s office, which commands a magnificent view of the city, contains an appealing jumble of old telescopes, icons, Louis XV chairs and a statue of St Joan of Arc. I hand him my card. ‘You are from the land of the laughs,’ he quips, roaring with laughter himself, and throwing his head back so that the trademark chin sticks out horizontally.
In order to kick off the conversation on a theme he likes Europe I show him a map recently published by the European Parliament. All the great nations of Europe are cut up into little pseudo-ethnic sub-regions, but there is a huge Großdeutschland in the middle, incorporating Alsace, Austria and most of Switzerland. It is published by the Radical Group. ‘These people are Radically Bonkers,’ says Le Pen, collapsing in another thunderous chuckle. ‘The same people who are in favour of quickie divorces are trying to weld together the ancient nations of Europe in a perpetual marriage. What are they going to do if we want to leave the EU? Send in the Wehrmacht? The Germans suffered a lot at the end of the war. It was their own fault, of course. But now they want to take their revenge, and so Europe will be dominated by Germany America’s most obedient ally.’
Le Pen means ‘the boss’ in old Breton but his allure is boyish. The official hagiography has sepia photos of little Le Pen in shorts on the beach, in boats, chaperoned by ladies in hats and by grim Jesuits in soutanes and, aged eight, the wicked grin is already distinctly recognisable. But the caption says, ‘A vision of France as it used to be’, and this is the point: Le Pen is a man gripped by an apocalyptic vision of France’s national, political, social and moral decline but through whose deep pessimism there constantly erupts a desire to laugh, and a sharp urge to provoke or even to shock. The various attempts on his life have done nothing to deter him. ‘It’s not me who has become extreme Right,’ he says. ‘It’s the whole of society which has become extreme Left. They put me in jackboots and a helmet and say I am Hitler. But they have been doing that for 50 years now. That’s the only way they can try to get me because I haven’t had my hands in the till. But when I was 16, I took my father’s revolver and joined the Resistance. I’m not saying I was a great hero. But what little I did was on the right side.’
Le Pen sees himself as the man who sticks up for little people against the big guns of the French political establishment. His victory speech on Sunday night sounded like the Sermon on the Mount, so often did he refer to the poor and the meek. He refers to all his most notorious remarks, like the one about the gas chambers being ‘a detail in the history of the second world war’ (a comment for which he later apologised, and which he claims was misunderstood in the first place) as being nothing but the result of political provocations manufactured by his very numerous enemies. ‘You must realise,’ he tells me, ‘that my victory was won by someone who does not have one hundredth of the means at the disposal of my adversaries. I would be 10 per cent ahead of them if I did. But nothing is lost,’ he says, referring to the second round on 5 May. ‘I have a 10 per cent chance of winning. The gaggle of media sycophants’ whenever he insults anyone, which is often, each rude word is savoured slowly in a crescendo ‘which, by the way, is totally dominated by Marxists and which is a nauseating world I hold in utter contempt, immediately rushed to support Chirac. It means that Chirac has now been formally crowned as the uncontested leader of the French Left. The Communist party, the Trotskyites, the Socialists, the Freemasons, the Unions they have all acclaimed him as the godfather of their Mafia. But I am the candidate of France against euro-globalisation!
‘In any case,’ he adds, ‘this is not a French presidential election. It is an election for the governor of Kansas. In fact, it’s worse. Kansas can at least decide to reintroduce the death penalty’ something Le Pen regards as the ‘indispensable cornerstone of any penal system’ ‘but, here, we have made so many compromises on national sovereignty that we are no longer an independent state. Indeed,’ he gestures through the open French doors to the city of Paris outside, ‘huge cities and massive migratory flows are the two sure signs that a society is dying. If nations are mortal, as Valéry writes, they all die in the same way. Did you know that Babylon had a peripheral avenue three times longer than the Paris périphérique?’
Apart from this brief reference, he does not mention immigration. Various French acquaintances I consulted before the interview confirmed that immigration formed little or no part of his presidential campaign. ‘Le Pen is not a racist,’ said one. ‘It’s only the other parties who talk about immigration now,’ said another. Le Pen’s campaign was based instead on law and order, unemployment, and on his policy of abolishing income tax. ‘Why am I so viciously attacked in the British press?’ he asks me. Le Pen’s views on immigration are the same as Norman Tebbit’s, while his views on urban blight, social collapse and the decline of traditional values can be found every week in the columns of the Daily Mail or The Spectator. The Sun, for that matter, has spent the week enumerating Le Pen’s various hateful policies, such as closing the refugee centre at Sangatte or opposing the right of homosexuals to adopt children, but the obligatory photograph of Hitler with which it adorned the rant did little to distinguish the list from everything the Sun itself generally supports. Le Pen accuses the Left of exploiting the immigrant as its new totem in the place of the worker, but without really ever having cared for either. ‘What makes me sad,’ he has written, ‘is that the great majority of the immigrant community just wants to live in peace, and yet the Left takes up an immigrant cause which is in reality only that of a minority of delinquents.’ But the idea that Le Pen proposes to ethnically cleanse France of its present immigrant population is nonsense.
When people in this country ask, ‘Could it happen here?’, the answer depends on what you mean by ‘it’ and ‘happen’. Leaving aside the important historical fact that the far Right in France is strong when Gaullism is weak, and vice versa it fills the political vacuum left by the weakening of that state authority which the French so ardently crave the political earthquake on 21 April was not the sudden rise of the Front National. Le Pen’s party has had very solid support for years, and on Sunday it polled only slightly more than it did in 1995 and 1997. Instead, the truly momentous event was the electoral humiliation of the governing duopoly. The candidate of the Socialist party which has ruled France for the last five years polled 16 per cent: this is less than half the level at which a British government would be considered to be in catastrophic crisis. Meanwhile, the ‘President of all the French’ is supported by less than one in five of them. Despite this, France’s political system is so deeply dysfunctional that the same old politicians who were discredited on Sunday will probably be re-elected to power as if nothing had happened. People forget what a remorseless merry-go-round French politics is: Jacques Chirac, the man who on 5 May will be elected to another five years of judicial immunity, first served as prime minister when Harold Wilson was in No. 10 Downing Street.
Indeed, the esteem in which the French political class is held by its own supporters was encapsulated with depressing frankness by the slogans which schoolchildren were made to parade around the streets on Monday: ‘Votez escro, pas facho!’ ‘Vote for a crook, not a fascist.’ What a choice! Le Pen, meanwhile, heaps contempt on the whole miserable band of palm-greasers, opportunists and back-scratchers. But in any case, the first round of any French election is the political equivalent of a punt on the 2.15 at Doncaster: it makes no difference to the final outcome, and is merely a chance to have a flutter on one’s own little personal exotic fantasy. When I put it to my friends that the world thought Le Pen was within reach of power, they laughed in derision.
For that matter, Le Pen gave me the distinct impression of not being particularly interested in power himself. ‘You know,’ he said, with a backward wave of the hand, ‘great historical events are the result of a concatenation of people and of Providence. I have spent all my life fighting losing battles, starting in Indochina. As St Joan of Arc said, "You fight, you fight and maybe one day God will hand you victory."’ The reference to St Joan is not the only time Le Pen displays a rather mystical quality. ‘I can foresee things,’ he tells me, ‘because I stand up straight, instead of staring at my navel like most politicians. I have spent seven years of my life at sea; I have sailed the oceans and stared at an infinitesimal part of the billions and billions of stars in the heavens. My beliefs are simple ones. I believe in the nation and the family. Together with the nation, the family is the crucible for what little possibilities there are for human happiness. Society must have certain fundamental values or else there can be no personal development. I see all this in constant decline.
‘And another thing,’ he says, drawing our conversation to a close. ‘You’ll think this is odd, coming from a politician in the middle of an election campaign. But I regard it as pre-apocalyptic that people are, right now, fighting around the stable of Jesus. If there is a massacre at the Church of the Nativity, if blood is shed, I will take that as a serious sign, as a warning from Heaven. But life must go on,’ he says, and giggles.
April 30, 2002