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.
Fifteen years later, Marine Le Pen has outshone her father, convincing 21.3% of French voters to choose her to succeed François Hollande at the Elysée Palace. But, to win the second round, she will need to defeat Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old centrist who finished ahead of her in the first round, with 24% of the vote.