Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founding father of France’s far right Front National (FN) party, is ruffling feathers again. During a visit to Marseille Tuesday night, Le Pen bemoaned the influx of immigrants to France, adding that the “problem” could be resolved in less than three months by “Monseigneur Ebola.” The FN founder went on to note that the majority of France’s immigrants are Muslim, a religion that, according to Le Pen, has a “conquering mission.”
The outburst is standard for Le Pen, who has been convicted nine times since 1991 for making xenophobic and anti-Semitic statements. But coming days before critical European elections kick off on May 25, Le Pen’s speech could undermine the FN’s normalization campaign led by his daughter and party president Marine Le Pen. The younger Le Pen has staked the FN’s survival on a party reboot, aiming to move it from the political fringes to the mainstream, alongside the ruling Socialist party (PS) and the opposition center-right UMP party. This has meant steering away from the party’s historic anti-Semitism, focusing instead on immigration and unemployment, and downplaying the FN’s more radical elements. While Islam remains a frequent target, the younger Le Pen has relied on subtler attacks, backtracking if needed (see her French hostage gaffe).
The strategy is working. The FN made an unprecedented showing in local elections last month, even as the PS stumbled. This despite hiccups like public defections and FN candidates straying from the moderate party line — notably the party’s founder. Now, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s comments about immigration have the Socialists and the UMP on the offensive. Wednesday saw the predictable outpouring of indignation on social media. Socialist MP Olivier Veran tweeted: “Does the #FN president condemn the honorary president [Jean-Marie Le Pen]’s words? Will she withdraw his bid for the European elections? #Ebola.” Women’s Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Balkcem tweeted: “JM Le Pen’s comments are bloodcurdling. Refusing the unacceptable is within everyone’s reach. Vote on Sunday.”
Yet the elder Le Pen’s speech is unlikely to curb the FN’s momentum, and sadly, may even boost his bid at a seat in the European Parliament by resonating among his support base. Opinion polls indicate that nearly one in four French voters (23%) will vote for the far-right party in the European elections, compared to 21% for the UMP and 19% for the PS. An FN victory could see the far right party’s influence spread to Brussels, and push France’s mainstream parties to adopt a harder line on immigration.
In the meantime, the FN is sticking to its Eurosceptic platform. Marine Le Pen made her own speech on Tuesday that, while more nuanced, echoed her father’s declarations. According to the FN leader, France is stuck between two iron traps, the first one being imposing European regulators, and the second, “the import of foreign cultures by a flood of foreigners who, unlike those who came before, wish […] to impose a change in our customs and our lives.” Like father, like daughter.