Le Pen's Last Laugh?

Will Jean-Marie Le Pen get the last laugh? He sent French voters screaming into the streets to keep him from the presidency in 2002, but France's notorious far-right curmudgeon is all smiles now. Long derided as a bigoted, anti-European Union outlier by the French press, the ever-populist Le Pen is now palpably enjoying the view from the leading side of the polls--on France's referendum on the EU Constitution. The vote, scheduled for May 29, has become the biggest populist issue for the right wing since immigration. NEWSWEEK's Tracy McNicoll sat down with Le Pen at his office chateau outside Paris to discuss the anti-Europe movement. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Recently, poll after poll has put the anti-constitution vote ahead in France. And you've said that a "no" vote will probably win.

Jean-Marie Le Pen: The government will use every means possible and imaginable [for a "yes" win]. Now, in confidence, the prime minister tells us that ... it's a French Europe that we're trying to build--a sort of French colony. It's like an old joke during the war: "Come quick! Come quick! I took 50 prisoners, but they won't let me go!" [Laughs.] Well it's exactly that, isn't it? France took 24 prisoners, but they won't let it go!

In Europe now, we represent no more than a chip; there are 24 other [countries] and there will be 27, 30, umpteen, we don't know. Since our leaders have told us the only condition for entry into Europe is to respect human rights, well, in that case, we could maybe let in Australia, Japan, some countries like that. There's a French fable called "The Frog Who Wanted to Make Herself as Big as the Cow." She puffs and puffs herself up and, at a certain point, she explodes--even before getting very big.

And who's the cow?

Well, the cow is the great powers, like the United States.

Where does the United States come into play here?

Oh, the United States pushes hard for the constitution of a Europe that would be subordinate to it. Europe already is, for that matter!

The French "no" camp is pretty eclectic. Will you join forces with other opponents of the constitution in your "no" campaign?

Of course not. Why? Everyone exerts their influence in their own sphere. I'm trying to convince people through arguments that can touch all sorts of people, and not just people in my strict political obedience.

French President Jacques Chirac appears to be keeping his distance from the constitutional debate, ostensibly to avoid turning the referendum into a plebiscite about him. You aren't very popular with some parts of the French population. Do you feel any need to keep your distance, too, to avoid personifying the "no" vote? I'm not ashamed to be what I am. Democracy has it that people have to take me as I am; that's how it is. I feel I represent a very strong current, a national current, attached to notions of nation, of homeland, that I think represents the majority of the French people. Since I don't believe that Jacques Chirac is respected, I think that if he declares himself openly and firmly in favor of the constitution, it will be what is called in bullfighting "the strike of descabello"--when the bull is in agony and the matador strikes its nape, killing it instantly. So, I'm waiting for Jacques Chirac to finish off a faltering "yes" vote by openly supporting it.

What happens if the "no" wins, then, for Chirac?

Ah, I don't know! That's the great uncertainty of the sport. Maybe he'll put a bullet in his head. [Laughs.]

You've said that voting "yes" would be a shot in the head for France. What are the big immediate worries, if the "yes" side wins?

To me, voting for the constitution is high treason. Deciding that a group of people, whatever its motivation ... should take up the task of making the French nation disappear from the history of the world--I find that monstrous.

Supporters of the constitution say France will be isolated if it votes "no."

That's classical reasoning. When I was running for office in Nice, my adversaries said that if I were elected the sea would recede, the palm trees would die, the tourists would leave and everybody would fall down sick. And so if the "no" wins, well, the constitution is rejected, and we'll have to accept the consequences. They have to stop lying to the French people ... They go through all of this parliamentary theater to make the French believe that the laws made in Brussels are then submitted to elected French officials who can modify them. No, we can only approve them. That's all ... They want us to acquiesce to suicide. Well, no--we don't want to die. They will have to take notice and deal with it. And I think it might provoke new elections--presidential, legislative and others.

Critics accuse the "no" camp of taking advantage of French apathy or lack of knowledge about Europe.

Well, that's rich! That the pro-Europeans are reproaching us for that! They're the ones who have all the powers. They're the ones who monopolize the powers of information. So if the French aren't informed enough about Europe, it's their fault! But why don't they inform us? Because they don't want us to know the truth about the concessions that have already been made!

But if the French don't know what they're debating, doesn't Europe become the scapegoat for everything?

Listen, when someone invites you into a car, and the car breaks down, you tend to think it isn't a good car. I don't think it's Europe's fault; I think it's the leaders' fault. Just like with immigration--I've been saying it for 30 years--don't blame it on the immigrants! The only ones responsible are the French politicians, on the right and on the left. And the only ones responsible for the current situation, for the weakening of Europe--because Europe doesn't become strong by uniting weaknesses, it becomes weak--are the politicians, the political classes in every country that want to keep their advantages and privileges.

A closer look at the polls shows half of eligible voters either undecided or abstaining.

That's possible. They clearly aren't attached to the great project of "The New Europe." It's exactly what happened in Spain. The Spanish referendum was interpreted as some extraordinary victory. Well, when you look more closely, you see that [only] 32 percent of the Spanish electorate voted "yes." The least we can say is that it wasn't a triumph.

Constitution proponents say it's wrong to confuse the issue of Turkey's entry into the EU with the constitution.

But it's natural. Listen, the Turks signed the constitution. We invited them to sign it, [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan signed it. So they say, "You can't confuse the issues, it won't happen now, it won't happen." Well of course it will happen. And it isn't just Turkey. With the definition that the Europeanists give it, any country can be part of Europe. Tomorrow, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, North Africa, Senegal, South Africa--why not? It's the frog that wants to make itself as big as the cow. Europeanism is a step on the ladder of globalization. It's the systematic destruction of intermediate structures, of national structures, to make the political material more malleable to create the big market that will bring "peace, prosperity, happiness, we'll all love each other, we'll dance circles around the earth."

What about you? Planning a fifth run for the French presidency in 2007?

For the moment, yes. You see, I'm not a bureaucrat. For me, retirement means nothing. [Laughs.]