The Third Man

Jean-Marie Le Pen laughed, and then laughed some more. The right-wing scourge of French politics, now 78, wouldn't say, exactly, whether he thought he'd be up against the Socialists' Ségolène Royal in the final one-on-one duel for the presidency this May. But he clearly liked the idea. "Absolutely! Me, I have nothing against women. I am ... " Le Pen actually giggled as he talked over the phone from the European Parliament in Strasbourg. "I am pretty much a 'gynophile'." And he chortled some more.

Does that strike you as funny? Maybe it was something in the air in Strasbourg. But the banter certainly was vintage Le Pen: mocking political correctness, presenting himself as more than a little misunderstood. Oh, no, he is not a bigot or buffoon as his critics charge, much less a fascist or anti-Semite or, in this case, a sexist. He's just speaking up for French values as he sees them.

What's unquestionable is that Le Pen, for better or worse, is the driving force behind a major shift in both the style and the substance of French politics. Royal has picked up on voters' visceral dissatisfaction with the arrogant and ossified leadership of the main parties, which Le Pen's popularity first helped to expose. Her main rival, Gaullist Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, has seized on many of Le Pen's ideas and catchphrases, including a version of "France, love it or leave it." In the process, Sarkozy has helped not only to legitimize these notions but also the man who first voiced them. "I consider that the Le Pen-ization of Sarkozy, in that he is coming into my territory, [shows he] recognizes that I have good reason to be there," Le Pen declared last October.

For the moment, he is running third and sometimes fourth in the polls. But French opinion surveys are famously unreliable, especially where he's concerned. In 2002, he recalls, "I was, generally speaking, under 10 percent--at 8 or 6 percent--a few days before I was in the runoff!" That Le Pen managed to garner 17 percent of the vote--defeating Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin--still haunts French politics. Never mind that voters, appalled at what they had done, flocked to re-elect Jacques Chirac with an 82 percent majority. The important thing is that France has never been so mindful of the power of the protest vote.

This time around, people may be more cautious with their ballots. (One recent survey suggests that some 40 percent of those who went with Le Pen before will go with Sarkozy now.) Yet at the same time, the softening of Le Pen's image, the " banalization " of this man, once treated in the media as an unspeakable monster from an unmentionable past, may have given him more-solid support. In the years since 2002, French voters have shown their continued dissatisfaction with the old ruling class. In 2005, they voted down the European constitution endorsed by Chirac, Royal and Sarkozy. Only Le Pen was on the popular side of that issue. "They represented 92 percent of the political class and they were crushed," he gloats.

Le Pen has also softened some of his notoriously rough edges. When he was out in the right-wing badlands, he'd draw attention to himself with sly language that was widely understood as code for ideas more sinister than he openly stated. In 1987, he referred to the Nazi gas chambers as "a small detail in the history of the second world war." About the same time, Le Pen referred to AIDS as "a kind of leprosy." But today, if you ask Le Pen about those gas chambers, he says, "These subjects I don't discuss. They are too costly for us." He adds: "One day, I happened to discuss it and it cost me 150 million old francs," or about €183,000 in fines.

On the immigration issue, Le Pen hangs tough. "We can't pretend we don't notice the threat weighing on us," he says. "When 10 million foreigners enter a country like ours in 30 years, mostly from the Third World--and when the global population rose from 1 to 7 billion in 100 years, and continues to grow--I worry about finding myself in a country without defenses or borders, subject to a crazy and criminal immigration policy." But even here he's careful. "I've always said it wasn't the immigrants' fault and that we shouldn't be angry with them, but exclusively with the French politicians, right and left, who betrayed their mission to defend the French nation and people."

There is virtually no chance Le Pen will be the next president of France. But he cannot be ignored, if only by virtue of his role as spoiler emeritus. This season of French politics promises to be volatile, with sharp swings in public mood. Who knows? On voting day, the provocateur the French used to love to hate may just keep on laughing.