The many shades of racism that could get France its first female president

Right-wing Marine Le Pen's softer facade makes her an even more formidable opponent for Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron visits France Inter's office, next to a TV screen displaying far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. AFP
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In cinemas across France, audiences laugh out loud at the third film in a hugely popular series depicting a bourgeois, provincial French couple's struggles to accept that their four daughters have avoided suitably solid Frenchmen in favour of Maghrebi, African, Jewish and Chinese husbands.

Against the backdrop of a presidential election in which race plays a key role and would be dominant but for the cost-of-living crisis, it feels impossible not to make the connection, however innocent the timing of the release.

Whether or not they all realise it, the filmgoers' amusement is necessarily laughter at precisely the attitudes that have helped propel Marine Le Pen from the marginalised political wilderness of the far right to the brink of presidency.

Sunday's first round of voting put her close to five points behind Emmanuel Macron, whose chances of winning a second term now rest on his ability to prevent large swathes of voters switching from the defeated 10 candidates, or heavy first-round abstention, to Ms Le Pen.

Support for the main parties that ran France for decades has disintegrated, leaving only Macron as the obstacle to a radical presidency

There are differences as well as similarities between the artistic portrayal of sensitive issues and reality. The couple featured in the films, titled for English-speaking release as Serial (Bad) Weddings, are well-to-do whereas Ms Le Pen has traditionally appealed mainly to lower-income groups.

In other pertinent respects, although the screenplay is inevitably cliched, corny and – to some critics – at least borderline racist, the theme reflects attitudes readily found in French society.

My great niece, born to my French nephew and his Moroccan wife, once startled my sister-in-law (her grandmother) by announcing when served ham for lunch: "I'm Moroccan, I'm Muslim and I don't eat pork." I suspect her grandfather, though he considers his outlook moderate and tolerant, would have been taken aback had he been present.

Much longer ago, the mother of two friends of mine was distraught that both her daughters had chosen to marry black men. She told my future mother-in-law, herself unimpressed by her own daughter's choice of an Englishman: "Even that would be preferable." The racism or xenophobia may be petty, but it is there all the same.

An inability to respect other cultures, beliefs and traditions has always seemed to drive the politics of the Le Pens, pere et fille.

Marine's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was repeatedly punished in the courts for inciting racial hatred; he was seen as both anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim as well as being a defender of the wartime French collaborationist regime of Philippe Petain. When his daughter realised she needed to clean up her own act if she seriously wanted political success, he insisted the difference between them was no more than a wafer-thin.

But as part of her protracted campaign to "de-demonise" her image, and persuade voters her party – given the gentler title of National Rally in place of the off-puttingly strident Front National – was a respectable political movement, she led moves to expel her own father.

The last straw was his unapologetic repetition of the offensive claim that Nazi death camps were a mere detail of the Second World War.

During the campaign for this month's elections, she has presented a deliberately softer facade, dwelling less on previously obsessive attacks on immigration and radical Islam, focusing instead on widespread anger at diminishing household budgets.

Part of the massaged Le Pen strategy, undeniably successful, has been to establish distance between her policies and those of the other far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour. If both were tainted by past support for Russian President Vladimir Putin – a common characteristic of the European populist right – Mr Zemmour seemed to go even further than his rival in Islamophobic rhetoric.

His allusions to the "great replacement", Muslims supposedly overwhelming French society and rejecting republican values, have been greeted with comprehensive disdain which Ms Le Pen has been quick to exploit.

"There is a fundamental difference," she told one interviewer. "Mr Zemmour leads a fight against Islam. My fight is against Islamist ideology."

On the basis of the first-round results – 8 million votes for Ms Le Pen, only 1.6 million behind Mr Macron; just 2.4 million for the eliminated, fourth-placed Mr Zemmour – she chose the thrust of her campaign wisely.

In 2017, the youthful Mr Macron headed his newly created party, La Republique En Marche (the Republic on the Move). Despite having served in the deeply unpopular socialist president Francois Holland's government, he appeared refreshingly centrist and drew voters from conventional left and right camps.

That was then. Wearied by the pandemic, alarmed at the impact of price rises for essential needs and exaggerated perceptions of a country besieged by immigrants, many voters have had enough. To them, Mr Macron is out of touch with everyday concerns, initially unsympathetic when lower-income people who believed themselves overlooked or forgotten staged countrywide "gilet jaune" or yellow vest protests.

Now, support for the main parties that ran France for decades has disintegrated, leaving only Mr Macron as the obstacle to a radical presidency that would appal the western establishment.

He remains the slim favourite to win when France makes its final choice in the conclusive April 24 vote.

Voting intentions are currently put at 54-46. But the far right has come a long way since 2002, when the senior Le Pen also reached the run-off only to be brushed aside in a landslide for the centre-right Gaullist, Jacques Chirac.

For his daughter, 20 years later, the lead for Mr Macron is narrow enough for her to feel that with or without help from the racial stereotypes and prejudice mirrored on cinema screens, she is still in with a fighting chance of becoming the first woman to preside over France.

Published: April 11, 2022, 3:13 PM
Updated: April 14, 2022, 8:11 PM