In the 2017 French presidential election, Marine Le Pen led the Front National (FN), to the second and final round, where she was decisively defeated by Emmanuel Macron. Nonetheless, she—or, equally arguably, the political climate—had persuaded 34 per cent of voters to support her, an unprecedented success in FN history. Michel Eltchaninoff’s new book therefore offers a timely and original look at the Le Pen phenomenon from the perspective of her thought processes, repeating the approach he took for his prize‐winning Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin (2015). The result is equally successful.
Eltchaninoff’s method of probing into the thought processes of Le Pen is to scrutinise in depth her political speeches for a coherent worldview. This immediately raises two problems. The first is that a Le Pen speech to industrial workers in Lille is likely to be pitched differently to one directed at fishermen in Brittany or agricultural labourers in rural Languedoc. Indeed, the book’s many examples of Le Pen’s speeches repeatedly demonstrate this as she addresses industrialisation, globalisation, corporatism, immigrants, elites, the countryside, and so on. There are as many divergences as convergences here. Eltchaninoff occasionally acknowledges this, but only briefly and without sufficient emphasis. The second issue—as Eltchaninoff repeatedly observes—is that Le Pen of course relies on speechwriters for much of her material. The question then arises: how much is Le Pen’s original thinking and how much is being guided by the team of writers and strategists that surround her? Nonetheless, these two caveats do little to hinder what is a productive and fascinating analytical discourse replete with meaty historical, philosophical and political references. In the end, we might come to see Le Pen as, in effect, just another politician following typical electioneering tactics; however, this is not how Eltchaninoff sees her. The author, in many ways a typical representative of French intellectual and establishment elitism, regards Le Pen as more disruptive, dangerous and threatening to the order of the French state.
Eltchaninoff starts off with an identification of the ‘four pillars of the far right’: land (‘or soil’), people, life and myth. These punctuate the books and Le Pen’s speeches. He considers ‘land’ to be ‘an obsession of the far right’ which condemns the déracinés, the deracinated or rootless, contaminated by universalist ideology, while the pillar of ‘people’ manifests itself in opposition to the elites. (There are echoes of David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere here.) He links ‘life’ somewhat tenuously to the cult of the leader and ‘the hoped for coup that will overthrow rotten institutions’, and ‘myth’ to ‘the myth of decline’ that pushes discontents toward the antidote of tradition. As a taxonomy of intellectual political theory this works well enough, but the reality is much messier and more amorphous than this, not least among many voters’ thinking. It also misses a central developmental aspect of the right: a reaction to socialism and communism, especially in its more revolutionary manifestations. And while Eltchaninoff sees these pillars as existing in opposition to Enlightenment ideals, he might also have drawn attention to the fact that that it was actually liberals in the nineteenth century who promoted a nationalist agenda in their pursuit of democracy. As Henri Asier has recently written on France’s identity crisis, ‘right‐wing radicals are often branded as reactionary, but they are in fact a modern incarnation of the old revolutionary spirit’. (His comparison is with 1968.)
Eltchaninoff then compares Marine Le Pen with her more notorious father, whom the author has interviewed. This makes for engrossing reading. While he states that, ‘Marine Le Pen is not an intellectual’, he believes that her father’s showy erudition is also unconvincing: ‘Jean‐Marie likes to pose as a man of culture, claiming to adore literature and sprinkling his utterances with Latin phrases, obscure words and imperfect subjunctives. His daughter is less pretentious in this regard.’ Eltchaninoff cites Jean‐Claude Martinez, a former senior leader of FN, saying Marine Le Pen ‘only acts through instinct … What ideas? What concepts? She’s an echo chamber!’ The author therefore dismissively portrays Marine Le Pen as an instinctive but unlearned political leader. That said, his analysis of the contents of her speeches reveals she can take a high‐brow turn when she wants, probably through her speechwriters, as when borrowing ideas from the controversial philosopher Alain Finkielkraut.
Eltchaninoff shows how Marine Le Pen has deliberately distanced herself from her father’s ugly opinions, as well as his ‘infantilism’ and ‘buffoonery’. His provocative dismissal of the Holocaust as a ‘detail’ of history was one of many embarrassing and shameful statements; the daughter, as head of the FN, eventually expelled her father from the party. This was part of her deliberate policy to detoxify the FN and reinvent it as one with higher ideals and goals. In the year before the French election, Jan‐Werner Müller opined that Marine Le Pen had successfully usurped the language of French republicanism and skilfully appropriated it ‘as part of her strategy of dédiabolisation [de‐demonising] in appropriating the souverainistediscourse of parts of the French left … Not only has the FN (supposedly) bid farewell to Le Pen père‘s racism; Marine is now defending France against Europe in terms of republican, democratic values (as opposed to invoking crude nationalism)’. Eltchaninoff, while not citing Müller, is very much of the same position, emphasising Le Pen’s admiration for the Third Republic (1870–1914) and discussing the FN’s ‘neither right nor left, but French’ slogan, adopted in 1995.
The chapter ‘The Human Face of Nationalism’ makes this approach clear, with Le Pen’s championing of feminism and the environment: Joan of Arc, long a symbolic hero of the FN, caters for the first, while the sanctity of the soil reinforces the latter. She also pays homage to de Gaulle, a hate figure for many on the further fringes of the right for his abandonment of Algeria and lack of resistance to institutionalised left‐wing intellectualism. Again, this might be seen as a savvy move. During the 2017 election, a cartoon depicted a perplexed voter declaring: ‘I am going to vote for de Gaulle; he is the one all the others talk about’. By such measures, Le Pen positions the FN as a more mainstream party, but one with more radical policies. Eltchaninoff is not convinced, though, showing how she still appeals to old‐school FN activists through the coded language of ‘innuendo, ellipsis, conflation, appeals to common sense and humour’. This serves her well for more controversial issues such as immigration and France’s growing Muslim population, where she employs a ‘line of argument’ in which it is ‘impossible to distinguish between Islam and Islamism—and that is the desired effect’.
The FN has changed its name (to Rassemblement National), but has it changed its spots? Eltchaninoff thinks not: ‘Marine Le Pen has not eliminated the far right in the slightest. She has given it new strength’. This is debatable in democracies where populism is a resurgent force. I think he puts it much better when he perceptively states: ‘The world of Marine Le Pen is somewhere between George Orwell and Michel Houellebecq’. This is a brilliantly stimulating, satisfying and engaging book; there is plenty to contest, but so much more to enjoy.
Inside the Mind of Marine Le Pen, by Michel Eltchaninoff, translated by James Ferguson, is published by Hurst. 232 pp. £12.99