Jean Marie Le Pen (born 1928) was a French political activist who led the radical right to its most important, although limited, electoral successes since World War II.
Born in the Breton fishing port of La Trinité-sur-Mer in 1928, Jean Marie Le Pen became a "national orphan" when his fisherman father was lost at sea in 1942. After a Jesuit education, he studied law in Paris, where he became president of the law students' "corporation" and began his career of radical rightist, anti-communist activity. Le Pen left his studies to enroll in the elite 1st Foreign Paratroop Battalion and served in the final months of the 1954 Indochina campaign.
Back in Paris, he came to the notice of the shopkeeper turned radical-right politician Pierre Poujade, on whose list he was elected deputy for the Seine in 1956. Le Pen soon broke with Poujade, joining the Centre National des indépendants et paysans, under whose auspices he was reelected in 1958. As a deputy, Le Pen returned to his unit in 1957, serving in the infamous Battle of Algiers during which French troops smashed an urban terror campaign through the systematic though unavowed use of torture. Several specific charges of torture have been levied against Le Pen. He has denied them, but his defamation suits against papers repeating them, such as the Canard Enchainée, have been unsuccessful. From Algiers, the deputy-soldier also participated in the 1956 Suez expedition.
Le Pen worked for "French Algeria" as orator on the summer 1957 caravan which visited the vacation beaches. During both the May 1958 revolt and the 1960 insurrection, the rightist deputy was briefly interned by the authorities, but he took no part in the later abortive generals' putsch. In 1965 he served as secretary-general of the ill-fated presidential election campaign of Tixier-Vignancour.
To support himself during the dry years, Le Pen founded a company to sell historical recordings. An historical appreciation stressing the popular and legal character of the Nazi rise to power that he wrote for a set of documentary recordings led to his conviction for "apology for war crimes" in 1968. In 1976 he received a substantial inheritance from an industrial heir with radical-right sympathies.
Elected President of the National Front
Meanwhile, in 1972 Le Pen founded and had become president of the Front National, an organization designed to reunite the French radical right that included many former members of the violent neo-fascist organizations Occident and Ordre Nouveau. In maneuvers with more "revolutionary" components of his party, Le Pen gained increasing control and steered the Front National to electoralism and legalism while drawing on the clientele of more intransigent groups. Unlike its rival, the Parti des Forces Nouvelles, however, the Front National eschewed alliances with parties of the respectable right. Despite this, neither the Front nor Le Pen achieved more than derisory electoral results. In 1981 he could not even get on the presidential ballot.
The advent of a Socialist president and a government with Communist participation, along with the continuing recession, gave the Front National its chance. Le Pen responded by concentrating on, and linking, the issues of immigrant workers (actually the North African minority) and "insecurity" (law and order). In first-round municipal elections in 1983 Le Pen received 11 percent of the vote in Paris and the Front National 17 percent in the left municipality of Dreux, forcing its way onto the unified right list for the second round (later over a third of the local electorate voted Front National).
The Penetration of the Front
The 1984 European Parliament elections, using proportional representation, gave the Front 11 percent, ten deputies (including Le Pen), and major media coverage. Further elections confirmed the Front's penetration, with results depending on the use of proportional representation (e.g., 1986 legislative elections, which gave the Front 35 deputies) or majoritarian two-round consultations (1988 presidential and legislative elections). The Front National's greatest strengths were east of a line from Le Havre to Perpignan, in the Midi, with its strong Pied Noir vote, the Paris area, and urbanized districts with or near large immigrant groups. Its voters came from across the spectrum, from such right parties as the Rally for the Republic (RPR—the old Guallist party) through the Socialists, though more rarely the Communists, despite that party's concomitant decline. While the left vigorously opposed Le Penism (though its policy of proportional representation favored it), the right parties were divided between principled condemnation and the need for local electoral alliances.
Le Pen denied being fascist or racist and sued, usually successfully, anyone who publicly called him such. His ideology drew most from the reactionary tradition of the French right, from Charles Maurras and Auguste Barrès (between whom it effected an uneasy synthesis) through Henri Pètain, updated to be Republican and legalist, and with a Reaganite neo-liberalism replacing the more traditional corporatism. The support of Romain Marie's integrist Catholic groups did not translate into votes in traditionalist Catholic areas. Though his lieutenants included many with neo-fascist or anti-Semitic backgrounds, his periodic lapses into language that approached anti-Semitism, or a less than systematic hostility to Nazism, can be understood as the real man showing through or as calculated scraps thrown to the more extremist among his followers.
Support for Baghdad
Alone among major French politicians, Le Pen criticized allied policy in the Persian Gulf in 1990 and 1991, adopting an anti-Atlantist position that may represent the adjustment of this professional anti-communist to the end of the Cold War.
In 1996, Le Pen called for U.N. sanctions against Iraq to be lifted during a visit to Baghdad. "This visit comes within the framework of political moves to remove sanctions on the Iraqi people, silence on which has become a moral scandal due to the tragic situation emanating from their continuation," Le Pen said. Le Pen met President Saddam Hussein and Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz during his visit and blamed the U.S. for the suffering of the Iraqi people. Le Pen met with Saddam on a trip to Baghdad in November 1990, during the Gulf War. Le Pen backed Saddam in the conflict and has since lobbied for the United Nations to lift its embargo on Iraq. Also on this excursion, Le Pen's wife Jany presented Iraq's health authorities with medical supplies and two ambulances.
Back in France, amidst a growing economic crisises, Le Pen surprised everyone when he received strong support in the first round of France's presidential elections in 1996 by collecting 15 percent of the vote, his best showing in three tries for the presidency, on a campaign to expel France's 3 million immigrants, which would mean expelling 1,000 people a day for seven years. The election placed The National Front as the third most popular party in France. Despite the strong showing, he had not exactly become mainstream. Opinion polls indicate 71 percent of the French consider his party "a threat to democracy," and analysts place him on the right-wing fringe of the political spectrum. Despite his strong showing in 1996, he opted out of the presidential race in 1997.
Le Pen's Beliefs
Although Le Pen continues to insist that he is neither racist nor anti-Semitic, his party shares the rhetoric of European neo-Nazi groups and he is the target of France's main Jewish organization, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions (CRIF) and France's Movement against Racism MRAP. CRIF denounced Le Pen for continuously spreading anti-Semitist propaganda due to comments he made in the French press. He was convicted in 1987 in a French court for anti-semitism and made to pay a hefty fine. And MRAP said Monday vowed to sue Le Pen for saying gas chambers had nothing to do with anti-Semitism and repeating they were a mere detail of World War II. Also, card-carrying members of his party have been implicated in several highly publicized deaths of Arabs in France. He once suggested that people with AIDS—"a deadly disease, contracted mainly from sodomy," he says—be confined to specialized homes, which he dubbed "Aidatoriums."
French state television in February 1997 ran a documentary highly critical of far-rightist politician Le Pen after a court rejected his bid to have excerpts of his speeches deleted from the program. The program, "Le Pen in Quotes," used testimonies from historians and disgruntled former allies of Le Pen to draw parallels between his statements on immigrants and racial inequality with the ideology of the Nazis and of the French wartime collaborationist Vichy regime. The one-hour program on France-2 television also cited inconsistencies in Le Pen's statements on his personal history and wealth, producing testimonies purported to show that he had built up a large fortune from personal legacies of National Front sympathizers.
Further Reading on Jean Marie Le Pen
Since Le Pen was for most of his life the representative of a marginal political current in France, the radical right, and only rose to national prominence in the late 1980s, most works about him are available only in French. In English, one can get a good background on the political currents which gave him birth in René Rémond, The Right Wing in France, From 1815 to De Gaulle (1969). On Le Pen's electorally important activities since 1983, one can look at James G. Shields, Campaigning from the Fringe: Jean-Marie Le Pen in John Gaffney, editor, The French Presidential Elections 1988 (1989) and Julius W. Friend, Seven Years in France, François Mitterrand and the Unintended Revolution 1981-1988 (1989).