Far-Right Candidate Is A Serious Contender In French Presidential Election
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, there has been Brexit, there's been the election of Donald Trump, and now France is facing a political year like no other. In May, the French will elect a new president. And many say far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who was never thought to have a real chance, is now a serious contender. Yesterday, Le Pen gave a speech which looked to a lot of people like the beginning of her campaign, and let's hear about it from correspondent Eleanor Beardsley who is in Paris. Eleanor, good morning.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So could you start by just reminding us who Marine Le Pen is?
BEARDSLEY: Well, right, Marine Le Pen is head of France's far-right National Front party. This party is anti-immigrant, it wants to get back control of its borders and sovereignty from the EU. Le Pen says she wants to abandon the euro currency, bring manufacturing jobs back home. And she has big support from the working class. Now, David, that sounds familiar, doesn't it?
GREENE: Yeah, it does, themes we've heard a lot in the last year.
BEARDSLEY: Exactly. Well, Le Pen was delighted when Donald Trump was elected president. She hailed it as a real victory for the people. And she's also an admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
GREENE: Something else we've heard. Is there a good chance that she could win here?
BEARDSLEY: Well, David, everyone assumed she would be a finalist in France's two round voting system, but no polls have ever showed her winning. But now with Trump being elected and Brexit passing for Britain to lead the European Union, no one is sure anymore. And also, the polls got it wrong in France. The mainstream conservative candidate for president won huge in the primary in November. He got 66 percent of the vote, yet polls consistently had him in a distant third. So it was so bad that one major newspaper has renounced to doing any more polls. They say they're just not going to take them anymore.
GREENE: They're just stopping doing polling? Wow.
BEARDSLEY: Stopping doing polling, that's how wrong they got it. Anyway, you know, I've been watching Ms. Le Pen for years. Now, she took over head of the party from her father in 2011. He was an irascible, xenophobic, anti-Semitic guy. He fought in the Algerian War, and he was a tough guy. She's broken with all that. She's remaking this party. She's moving away from that neo fascist anti-Semitic past. She's brought in women and young people. And actually, she's not on speaking terms with her father right now.
So now she's also personally evolved. She used to be very combative you'd hear on the radio. She's so smooth now and calm, you know, logical. She's a trial lawyer, so she knows how to argue, and she has an answer for everything. For example, with President Putin, you know, if people say you're too close to him, she says simply, he puts his country first. He puts the needs of the Russian people first, and we need people to do that in France. That's what our leaders don't do. The French first, she says. Now, who's going to argue with that?
GREENE: Wow. Well, are people arguing? Are people hearing her message about Putin and still criticizing him, expressing concern?
BEARDSLEY: Well, there is a lot of concern about that because actually the National Front, her party, has gotten financing from a Russian bank. Now, Le Pen says that's because no French bank will lend her money, and she points to that as proof that the banks are tied up in certain hands and they're undemocratic in France. She says she'll take - they asked for loans from banks across Europe, even the U.S. What's wrong with getting a loan from a bank?
But all of this has made people think, wow, she - too close to Putin, and there is a real fear of hacking now because people watched what allegedly happened in the U.S. election when the Russians hacked into the Democratic Party. And analysts say French campaigns are woefully unprepared. No one is prepared to be hacked. And so campaigns are now, you know, hiring cyber specialists and trying to reinforce online security, but it's a huge issue now in the French campaign.
GREENE: OK. So many of the political themes we saw in Britain and the United States last year sounds like we'll be seeing in France in 2017. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Thanks a lot, Eleanor.
BEARDSLEY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.