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Who Is Marine Le Pen?

Marine Le Pen almost certainly will not become president of France next month. But, simply by reaching the election's second round, she has transformed the face and psyche of France for a long time to come.

PARIS – I vividly remember French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s first appearance on television. It was just before the 2002 presidential campaign, and I had to moderate a debate on French public television. For political balance, we needed a representative of the far-right National Front (FN), then led by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Bruno Gollnisch, the manager of Jean-Marie’s campaign and his heir apparent, turned us down, offering to send Marine instead.

It was obviously a trick played not just on a media viewed as hostile, but also on Le Pen herself – a rival whom Gollnisch resented for having been, in his view, unduly promoted by her father in the FN apparatus. Le Pen was a largely unknown 33-year-old lawyer with little practice, though she had an obvious instinct for the punch line. In the end, Gollnisch’s plan may have backfired: a few days after Le Pen’s appearance, the headline in a weekly magazine read, “What is new with the FN? Marine!”

On April 21, 2002 – a date that still resonates in French political memory – the 73-year-old Jean-Marie received 17% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, thus knocking the former socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, out of the second-round runoff. But citizens of all persuasions then rallied against Le Pen in a so-called “Republican front,” giving the conservative candidate Jacque Chirac a massive 82% of the vote.

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