By the Blouin News Politics staff

Why Le Pen’s hostage gaffe doesn’t matter

by in Europe.

French president Francois Hollande (2ndR) flanked by former French hostage (LtoR) Marc Feret, Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe and Thierry Dol, delivers a speech upon the hostages' arrival at the military airport of Villacoublay outside Paris, on October 30, 2013

President Hollande flanked by former French hostages. AFP PHOTO/KENZO TRIBOUILLARD

Two years into an extensive image makeover of her extreme-right party — target: the political mainstream — Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen is showing her true stripes. During a radio interview Thursday, Le Pen questioned the appearance of four French hostages liberated this week after three years in the captivity of African Islamists. Namely their beards:

Two of them had beards cut in a rather strange way. Their clothing was strange. One hostage had a scarf on his face. That all calls for some explanation on their part.

When asked whether she was hinting that the hostages had converted to Islam during their detention, the FN leader hedged: “I’m not making allusions. I’m telling you how I felt. I wouldn’t go so far as to offer a theory.”

Granted, Le Pen has hardly disguised her anti-Islam stance since taking over the party leadership in 2011. Indeed, her reboot of the Front National, dubbed “Marinisation“, has consisted in large part of pivoting away from the party’s historic anti-Semitism, to target France’s many Muslim immigrants instead. However, in the lead-up to next year’s critical European elections, Le Pen is also stressing her party’s Eurosceptic, protectionist position, which has been welcomed by frustrated French voters across the political spectrum. Le Pen’s comments risk turning attention back to her party’s insular platform, and away from its recent focus on economics — and President Hollande’s spectacular failings in that regard.

The misstep is curious. Especially given the sensitivity of such kidnappings in France, where highly-mediatized campaigns for a hostage’s release often endure for years. Accordingly, France has shelled out millions of dollars over the past decade to free French hostages in Africa. (Elysée officials deny paying a ransom for the latest hostage release.)

And sadly enough, while anti-Islamist rhetoric has found an audience in France, where immigration remains a touchy subject, Le Pen’s aspersions on the freed hostages — and soon-to-be French heroes — are unlikely to find much support, except among hardliners on the extreme right. Which is precisely the niche Le Pen has been trying to escape. (See her moves to bar journalists from labeling the FN as an “extreme right” party.)

Hours after her radio interview, during which she expressed her “unease” at seeing the bearded hostages, Le Pen backtracked and claimed she had meant to criticize their “political manipulation”. (By whom, we’re compelled to ask.) But the French right and left alike had already pounced on the gaffe. The spokesman of Hollande’s Socialist Party (PS), Eduardo Rihan Cypel said, “Mrs. Le Pen is so blinded by her hatred of Muslims that she can’t even join the rest of the nation in rejoicing at the release of our hostages.”

Jean-François Copé, president of the main opposition party, the moderate-right UMP, took advantage of Le Pen’s polemic comments to denounce the Front National as a whole, and evoke recent statements made by former FN municipal candidate Anne-Sophie Leclere, who compared France’s black justice minister Christiane Taubira to a monkey. (Leclere has since been axed by the FN.) Socialist MP Julien Dray jumped into the fray via Twitter: “Marine Le Pen aspiring writer for season 4 of #Homeland.”

But lest one spots an opening to counter the FN’s summer gains, think again. The right-wing party’s approval ratings are on the rise, even as the UMP and PS fumble. National polling puts the FN far ahead of both parties at the 2014 European elections. Le Pen is France’s third most popular politician. Quite the contrast with Hollande, who, after a disastrous first year in office, is France’s most disliked president on record.

Despite isolated blunders by Le Pen and company, “Marinisation” is working.