Marine Le Pen's 'Brutal' Upbringing Shaped Her Worldview
Even if far-right leader Marine Le Pen doesn't make it through the first round of French presidential elections Sunday, there's no doubt she's become a major figure in the French political landscape. In just six years at the helm of the nationalist National Front party, she has changed it from a fringe party into a national political force to be reckoned with.
On a November night in 1976 when Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen was just 8 years old, a bomb ripped through her family's apartment building in Paris. The target was Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former paratrooper in the Algerian war, who founded the controversial far-right party. To this day, the perpetrators have never been caught. No one was killed, but Le Pen and her two older sisters awoke amidst shards of glass and rubble, and with an entire wall of the building blown out.
"She traces her worldview actually, about how violent the world is, back to this event that was so traumatizing," says Cecile Alduy, who has written a book about Le Pen.
In her autobiography, Against the Flow, Le Pen writes: "That night I went to sleep like all little girls my age. But when I woke, I was no longer a little girl like the others."
Forty-one years later, supporters hang on Marine Le Pen's every word at a rally in Paris. It seems like not a single man in the crowd has a sliver of a doubt that she is the best candidate — male or female — to lead the party. It's a striking difference with the campaign of Hillary Clinton in the U.S., where gender was so often evoked.
To understand how a woman was able to command complete control of France's most macho extremist political party, you have to go back to Le Pen's childhood, says Olivier Beaumont, who wrote a book about the Le Pen family, called In The Hell Of Montretout. He says the brutal nature of her upbringing made her very tough.
After the explosion, her family moved into a stone and brick mansion in a gated community just outside Paris. The residence, called Montretout, was left to her father in the will of a rich right-winger who had no heir.
"When she arrives she is traumatized and the house smells of death because he has just died," Beaumont says. "And all day long — morning, noon and night — far-right characters from the party come every day. Her father had his party offices on the first floor. The family lived above. He mixes family life and politics. It's a house of political violence and she's going to grow up bathing in this environment."
Beaumont says Marine's childhood is one of rupture, departures and doors slamming.
Her parents led a bohemian lifestyle, entertaining at all hours and sometimes going away sailing for several weeks and leaving the girls with a nanny. When she was 15, Le Pen's mother left. Alduy says it happened extremely suddenly.
"She came back from school and all her mother's clothes were gone," she says. "She had gone away with another man. And Marine Le Pen was really desperate. She stopped eating."
Le Pen wouldn't see her mother again for 15 years. Her parents subsequently went through a bitter and very public divorce.
Another trauma, says Alduy, was growing up with the Le Pen name.
"Her last name was always a burden," Alduy says. "She has described how being the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen as the National Front was emerging as a new controversial force on one hand lead her to idealize her father, who was greatly criticized. But she also suffered."
Le Pen has said she was ostracized by her classmates, and other families did not invite her home.
Alduy says it caused Le Pen to develop a sort of clan mentality and close ranks around the family and the party.
Le Pen became a trial lawyer and struck out on her own for six years. During this time, she defended not only members of the far right, but represented immigrants pro bono when she thought they were unjustly treated. But she could never really escape her father's orbit.
She married a prominent party member in 1995 and had three children in 1998 and 1999, including a set of twins. She raised them as a single mother after her divorce in 2000. She is currently with longtime companion, Louis Aliot, also a prominent member of the party. They are not married.
The unapparent heir
On the campaign trail, Le Pen doesn't speak a lot about being a woman. But when she does, both men and women identify with her.
When asked who she was and what she stood for in a recent debate, Le Pen said, "I'm a French woman, a mother and a candidate for the presidency. For me this election is about a choice of civilizations. Our country is overrun by insecurity, economic and social disorder and Islamist terrorism. Our values and identity are under threat."
Bertrand Dutheil De La Rochere is one of Le Pen's advisors. He says she has never tried to use her gender for political gain.
"She's a mother, she had three kids within 10 months, but she's a political man," he laughs. "She does not play up the fact of being a woman to say things like, 'I want equality.' "
Dutheil De La Rochere says no one questions Le Pen's authority.
He meets with her every Sunday afternoon and is in charge of issues around secularism, an important principal for Le Pen. He describes her as very serious and very prepared. But he says she also has a fun side.
"She loves cats!" he laughs. "And she has plenty of them. And she loves to go out and sing karaoke." Especially famous French singers like Dalida and her classic "Paroles, Paroles" with Alain Delon, he says.
Dutheil De La Rochere says it's not easy for Le Pen to raise her children — who are all teenagers now — with her busy schedule.
Marine was the youngest daughter of Jean Marie and Pierrette Le Pen. She is said to be the most like her father. Her mother once told a magazine that father and daughter share the same strengths, notably a reading of political situations and how to exploit them. Le Pen is taking advantage of the traditional parties' collapse in this election.
But it was older sister, Marie-Caroline, who was supposed to be Jean-Marie's successor. She even ran in a local election but Beaumont says Marie-Caroline couldn't stand her father's racist remarks about blacks and Arabs, and the two split. He says they haven't spoken in 20 years.
Marine was the one who took the torch left by her sister, Beaumont says.
Marine Le Pen became directly involved in the party in the early 2000s and took over the leadership from her father in 2011.
Her rise marked the beginning of the National Front's journey toward the mainstream of French politics. She tried to "de-demonize" the party and soften its image, but her father seemed to go against all her efforts, Alduy says. "It's really hard to become president if public opinion considers you an extremist radical that might break the country," she says.
While Marine Le Pen tried to reach out to the economically fragile and draw in more young people and women, Olivier Beaumont says her father's xenophobic and anti-Semitic outbursts continued to dog her. So she decided to do damage control and cut him loose.
"She can't stand his provocations about Nazi gas chambers and [World War II Vichy France leader] Marshal Petain, and she thinks he's trying to sink her," says Beaumont.
The biographer says the straw that broke the camel's back was when her father's two Dobermans killed her favorite cat.
"The symbolic political rupture with her father also became physical," he says.
Le Pen moved out of the mansion in 2014, and soon after, threw her father out of the party. The two don't speak anymore. Some speculate it was all just show to convince people the party has truly changed. But Beaumont believes the rupture is real.
"There's a big difference between Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen," he says. "The father only wanted to provoke. The daughter aspires to real power. "
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.