Marine Le Pen wants you to think she’s changed. Since winning a slot in the second round of the French presidential election this Sunday, she has tried to make us forget her xenophobic roots and become the cost-of-living candidate. The strategy goes back years in fact, and judging by her scores creeping up every election, it’s been effective. “Dédiabolisation” we call it. To stop seeing the devil in her. The patient work of smoothing one’s public image while stretching the Overton window until you sit in the middle.
Le Pen pushed the most problematic figures in the Front National out of the spotlight, starting with her own father, who founded the party and ran for president many times himself. She styled herself with just her given name – friendly, girl next door Marine, the colour of seaside holidays and the French flag. She found her party a less martial moniker too. She gave up on Frexit and the franc. She had Zemmour to keep people angry about foreigners and feminists; she talked energy bills and rural poor, and made an IG account for her cats. Le Pen’s father was the anti-immigration candidate. She became the anti-system candidate.
But two hours into last night’s TV debate, the mask fell. Marine Le Pen is exactly who she always was.
She was asked about secularism and her face hardened when in a single breath she mixed Islam, terrorism and foreigners. Then she said this:
“I support banning the hijab from public spaces. I think that the hijab is a uniform imposed by islamists. I think that a vast number of women who wear it don’t have a choice, even if they dare not say it. (…) We must free all these women.”
Le Pen’s weak protestation that she’s not combatting Islam, but Islamic extremism, does not hold. She coats her islamophobia in secularism, but singles out just one religion. She believes she knows better than millions of French Muslim women not only the tenets of their faith, but the content of their own minds. She does not understand that the violence of the State telling a woman what not to wear cannot repair the violence of a community pressuring her to cover up. It seems she didn’t even get past Article 1 of the Constitution, which she could be sworn to defend in a few days. She could only chuckle when Emmanuel Macron pointed out that she’d incite “civil war” and mark France as a pioneer in human right violations. “We’ve been first in many things,” she retorted.
Marine, friend of the downtrodden, never came back on set. Instead Marine, her father’s daughter, detailed her immigration plan.
1) Hold a national referendum on immigration
A favoured tool of populists, a referendum lets you justify just about anything because “the people wills it.” We all know how much we can trust voters to answer the exact and specific question they are asked with thoughtfulness and diligence. (The question will be exact and specific, right?) We also know how safe things get for minorities when their rights and existence are put to a majority vote.
2) End birthright citizenship
“French citizenship must be inherited or earned,” Le Pen said. Goodbye jus soli. Hello jus sanguinis. Like in the UK, children born in France and who have only ever known France could be left in limbo, possibly stateless, and face years of bureaucratic battle to obtain papers.
3) Reserve welfare benefits for French citizens and/or residents of more than five years
Details are sparse but this looks a lot like Britain’s No Recourse to Public Funds. While Le Pen isn’t keen on excluding foreigners from national insurance (they tend to pay in more than they take out), she’s targeting a specific trope: immigrants with too many children getting fat on childcare benefits. She also intends to restrict family-based immigration.
4) Prioritise French citizens for access to public housing and employment
Now we’re getting down to business – enshrining discrimination into law. Reading Le Pen’s proposed bill is chilling: “The law will determine foreigners’ access to any public or private employment, to the exercise of certain professions, economic or community activities, to remits in professional organisations or unions, and to welfare benefits.” I hate to affirm Godwin’s law here, but it’s the exact tenor of the October 1940 Vichy law excluding foreign Jews from many professions. Then we had camps. The UK hostile environment looks kind in comparison.
5) Offshore asylum processing
Nationalists’ new blockbuster policy. Never mind international law, the Constitution and the Declaration of Human Rights within it, Le Pen wants to end asylum at the border. She thinks every asylum-seeker should apply at a French embassy or consulate abroad and then kindly wait in their bomb shelter for a response. On the plus side, the queue outside the Kiev embassy would make for a nice compact target for Vladimir Putin.
The list goes on. Make the president constitutionally bound to “preserve French identity and heritage.” End all possibility of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Systematically deport foreigners convicted of a crime or who “disturb public order” without judicial oversight. Prosecute all who assist an undocumented migrant, "directly or indirectly." Reinstate border controls within the Schengen area. And it bears repeating again: ban the hijab on the street. To say nothing of her proximity to Putin, her plans to distance from NATO or her insistence, like a good Brexiteer, that she can get everything she wants from the EU and give nothing back.
I’ve hesitated to publish this. Journalists don’t take sides in an election. But I went back to the values statement I published elsewhere on this website and I knew I had to. Everything above is fact. Marine Le Pen’s plan for France is one of nationalism, xenophobia and islamophobia. She wrote it down and she reaffirmed it on TV tonight. “Dédiabolisation” may have gotten her more primetime access and double the voters, but I’m not fooled. The devil is still showing.