Last week was meant to be a very big one for Marine Le Pen. Delighted with her first ever invitation to meet a foreign head of state, the far-right French presidential candidate travelled to Lebanon hoping to impress her supporters.
It has taken her some three decades in public life to stage such a trip because the majority of world leaders won’t go anywhere near her. The idea was that Ms Le Pen, a woman largely associated with small-town bigotry, could look like a bona fide stateswoman in talks with Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s president. She could show off her grasp of world affairs, her economic acumen and her skills as a sensitive diplomat.
True to form, the inexorably xenophobic Front National leader did none of these things at all. Instead, the most notable incident of the outing was a boorish publicity stunt reiterating her venomous hatred of foreigners. For initially unexplained reasons, a woman who never stops ranting about how much she dislikes Arab Muslims arranged to go and see Sheikh Abdellatif Deryan, the elderly and very traditional Grand Mufti of Lebanon – and indeed one of the most senior Arab Muslim clerics in the Middle East.
Ms Le Pen was reminded of the protocol for such a visit beforehand, but no matter. All she really wanted to do was refuse to put a white silk shawl over her hair, as the Mufti’s aides politely requested on arrival. In response to their highly respectful suggestion, Ms Le Pen huffed and puffed a bit in front of numerous TV crews and journalists, and then walked off in a theatrical sulk.
As far as the hyperbolic bigots who idolise Ms Le Pen were concerned, this was electoral gold. There she was – the great female figurehead of so-called enlightened secular France putting those backward holy men in their place by playing the martyr in Beirut. Alt-news sites and social media exploded with trolls praising her for “Standing Up to Barbarism” (as many put it).
In fact, the hair covering was absolutely nothing to do with oppression, or belittling women in any way, let alone “barbarism”. There was not even any veil involved, as the propagandists claimed. The Grand Mufti was on his home ground – a place Ms Le Pen had wanted to visit as a guest – and he simply expected her to follow convention. In this sense, he was acting in exactly the same manner as the Pope – another elderly male cleric. Numerous powerful women – from Michelle Obama to Queen Elizabeth II – have covered their heads, or indeed worn a veil, when at the Vatican.
But, no, Ms Le Pen was playing up to the Islamophobes – spreading viciousness like only she knows how: not just towards the Lebanese clergy, but towards all Muslims worldwide. This includes some six million who live in France and are never quite capable of living up to the standards of French civilisation, according to Ms Pen and her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the convicted racist and anti-Semite.
Which brings us to the second big event of Ms Le Pen’s week. Last Wednesday, her chief of staff, Catherine Griset, and her bodyguard, Thierry “Gorilla” Légier, were taken into police custody. By the end of the day, Ms Griset had been charged with abuse of trust. It was all part of a ballooning corruption enquiry which could see Ms Le Pen jailed for more than ten years. She is suspected of creating fake jobs in the European Parliament for her cronies, so as to bank hundreds of thousands of pounds in taxpayer-funded salaries that should never have been paid out.
Paris magistrates aided by judicial police are compiling evidence connected to offences including embezzlement within an organised gang, and the use of forged documents. Ms Le Pen was also summoned to be interviewed by detectives alongside her two colleagues last Wednesday, but refused point blank. Such contempt for the rule of law makes her claim to be a champion of France, and the principles that underpin it, sound particularly feeble.
Ms Le Pen disputes all the fraud allegations, blaming her woes on everything from corrupt judges to fake news journalists. In a particularly bizarre appearance on live TV following the charging of Ms Griset, Ms Le Pen actually said that “justice should not be allowed to disturb the presidential campaign”.
She may well have been tired after her long journey back from Lebanon, but for a reactionary rabble-rouser who is trying to reach the Élysée Palace by portraying herself as a populist devoted to law and order, it was clear that Ms Le Pen’s potentially big week had descended into absolute farce.
Nabila Ramdani is a French-Algerian journalist and broadcaster who specialises in Islamic affairs and the Arab world
On Twitter: @NabilaRamdani