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Leading Sarkozy to the Guillotine.

She is the most patent blonde France has produced since Catherine Deneuve.

Mardi 22 mai 2012 // La France

Her office, in a squat, ugly, gray and blue building west of Paris, smells of cigarettes and ambition. Her legsjiggle as she talks. Images of Joan of Arc, another tough, charismatic crusader who wanted to keep foreigners from invading France, are everywhere.

Didn’t her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Holocaust-denying demagogue who ran the party until last year, press her to stop smoking to give her more stamina for speeches ?

Oui, Marine Le Pen says.

But she hasn’t ? "Non."

Buyed by the usual Gallic Archie Bunkers, plus some younger voters and blue-coilar workers fed up with the austeritydiet prescribed by Germany, she captured a surprising 6.4 million votes in the first round of the French presidential election.

Le Pen, the 43-year-old head of the National Front, was catapulted into the position of kingmaker. Only she pufled a fast one and decided to make herself a queen instead.

On May Day, she theatrically stood in front of the Paris Opera beside a picture of a gold statue of Joan of Arc mounted on a horse. She declared of her party, which had always lurked on the extreme right-wing fringes, "We are at the center of gravity."

The father was a provocateur and a spoiler. The daughter is a provocative spoiler with an eye for power.

The flailing Nicolas Sarkozy, who pulled a Romney and veered appallingly to the right on immigration and culturewar issues, was hoping for a lifeline. Instead, Le Pen stuck le shiv in the president’s gut.

She told a sea of passionate supporters that she would cast a blank ballot and that it didn’t matter whether they voted for the Socialist, François Hollande, or the conservative incumbent : "They are the same."

Showing contempt for Sarkozy’s effort to cater to the 65 percent of her voters he needed to win a second term, she asked the crowd, "How does it feel to go from being fascists, racists and xenophobes" to people who are being eagerly courted ?

It might have seemed unpatriotic to throw away a vote and perverse for a right-winger to hand the keys to the Elysée Palace to a Socialist, but Le Pen has a brazen, brutal strategy.

Even though Sarkozy lost his bearings pandering to Lepenistes, as Mitt Romney did with the Tea Party, Le Pen let the guillotine fall.

Playing off her name, she called for a Bleu Marine revolution, a wave that would crash on Sarkozy and his U.M.P. Party. In the chaos and infighting that would follow, she could refashion the French right by harvesting U.M.P.’s harder right, starting with the June legislative elections.

It is a strategy - worthy of Cardinal Richelieu — to consolidate power by crushing rivais.

The Le Pen family drama is like a happier "King Lear." Jean-Marie Le Pen, now 83, turned over power to the youngest of his three daughters, a tait, sturdy-looking blonde with intense blue eyes, an expressive face and a fondness for simple dark pantsuits and black boots. She,is twice divorced with a 13-year-old daughter named Jehanne, after Joan of Arc, and iayear-old twins, Louis (named after French kings) and Mathilde. Her paramour is Louis Alliot, her vice president at the National Front.

The clan lives in the family’s posh compound with their lives and mates -entangled in the party. After 15 years of not speaking to her mother, who ran off with her father’s biographer and posed for Playboy, the.two women have reconciled. Her mother now lives in a cottage in the compound and helps take care of the grandkids.

"Time and love did it," Marine said of the reunion. "Love is a hall of a mediciné " (Aÿoung Frénch journalist, Elvire Camus, translated for me during the interview.)

Although Marine Le Pen claims her partywas never racist or Islamophobic or anti-Semitic, her father took it easy on the Nazis, saying that the French occupation was "not particularly inhuman," that "the races are unequal," that "Jews have conspired to rule the world," and that the gas chambers of the Holocaust were "a detail of history." He nicknamed Adolf Hitler "Uncle Dolfie," according to his ex-wife. An AIDS victim, he said, was "a kind of leper."

Marine has steered the rhetoric of resentment from Jews to Muslms, comparing havingto put up with streets blocked for Muslim comparing having to put up with streets blocked for Muslin prayer to enduring the Nazi occupation. She warned that the other parties wanted to "Islamize" France and introduce "Shariah law," and stirred up fears about halal meat impinging on French culture.

So, I ask her, quoting a New York Times Magazine profile : " Is Le Pen fille a différent person from her father, or has racism simply become mainstream ?"

"The question is really abusive," she bristles. "We were never racists. The vision that the U.S. might have of us is a complete caricature." She dismisses those who call her cynical and for not designating the person she thinks can best lead France out of the European economic morass.

"Hoid it !"she snaps. "Nicolas Sarkozy never was in a position to win, even before the first round." His party, she scoffs, shouldn’t have "reinvested" in aman who lied, who betrayed, who did the opposite of what he promised.

Does it create tension with her father when she opens up the party, mingling left and right positions, and smoothsits notorious reputation ?

"I guess it’s not very easy to abandon a 4o-year-long construction, a movement built around his image," she says, adding that she thinks he is proud of her as she rebuilds around ber own vision, but that, like many French, he doesn’t wear his heart on a string."
She says that she’s stubborn enough to prevail in arguments with her stubborn father and that, in the end, he will concede that she is now the party leader, saying : "I am only a simple militant and I accept your decision." (Incroyable.)

Asked what she does for fun, the rigorously private Le Pen says she likes Stephen King novels, but not in the campaign season, which offers enough suspense. Right now, she says, "I work ail the time."

Giving a feudal political kingdom an image makeover is a full-time job.

 Maureen Dowd

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