Marine Le Pen ‘de-demonises’ the Front National – by demonising Muslims

There’s an interesting article in Newsweek on Front National leader Marine Le Pen and her efforts to “de-demonise” the FN by ditching public expressions of antisemitism and attracting popular support by conducting a campaign against the Muslim community framed in terms of an appeal to the French secularist tradition:

Her masterstroke is in the new vernacular she brings. It is calibrated for a new crowd, a new era intolerant in new ways, three years into an epic economic crisis that has politicians selling protection.

The days of petites phrases about the Holocaust, it would seem, are over. “Nostalgia for [Marshal Philippe] Pétain or French Algeria doesn’t speak to her, or [National Front] people of her generation,” says Sylvain Crépon, a sociologist at Nanterre University who studies the far right. “Anti-Semitism does nothing for them. They don’t see Jews everywhere, or a Jewish conspiracy.”

But it would be a mistake to call Jean-Marie’s daughter “Le Pen lite”. “On a number of subjects, I am a lot stricter than my father,” she says. “On the [Muslim] headscarf, I am stricter than him … He thinks that sort of behavior lets French people grasp the extent of immigration in our country,” she says, talking tactics. But she argues “Islamization” is just a consequence, less visible 20 years ago, of the rampant immigration he always rebuked. “There wasn’t the headscarf, there weren’t ‘cathedral mosques’ going up on every corner,” she says, without betraying her hyperbole. “There weren’t people praying in the street. Our children didn’t have to not eat pork because it bothers some people,” she scoffs.

Couching old rhetoric in terms new to the National Front, analysts say, is clever. Take “secularism”. The silent sister of liberté, égalité, fraternité has been a cardinal value of every political movement but the far right, where fundamentalist Catholics are loath to divorce state from church. Indeed, for some far-right purists, Marine Le Pen’s semantic creativity amounts to party heresy.

“These are people who pretend to believe that when Marine talks about secularism, she’s in line with people who fought Catholicism a century ago,” her father says with a sneer. “But Marine is in favor of secularism against the surge of Islam.”

Secularism makes a handy alibi for the French republic when she criticizes swimming pools that cater to Muslims with women-only hours. That subtle shift in tone is today a popular device of European far-right leaders, like the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. What makes it a real challenge is that instead of the old knee-jerk diatribes against Arabs or North Africans, “this xenophobic discourse against Islam, against a religion, [is framed] in the name of the defense of liberal values, like women’s rights, gay rights, freedom of religion,” says Crépon. “It’s something that can really work, electorally speaking.”

It’s a strategy that makes the National Front more palatable to moderates. “You have leftists, even very anti-racist leftists, who can relate to Marine Le Pen’s comments because they strike out at a religion,” says Gaël Sliman of BVA, a polling company. “France historically was shaped against religion.”

In December, Le Pen likened Muslims praying in the streets to an occupation. In fact, the worshipers in the streets were overflow from mosques too small for Friday prayers, and political rivals jeered that Le Pen employed the same shtick as her dad. Among the public, though, it was popular: polls showed 39 percent agreed with her, including a majority (54 percent) of Sarkozy’s UMP supporters.