For the first seven hours after the attack on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, the National Front, France’s far right political party, kept an old feature about the influx of Roma and “gypsies” into French cities on its website. Then, shortly after 6 p.m. Paris time, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the increasingly popular party with the slogan “The French Come First,” appeared in front of three French flags and hammered out her demands—and a selfless offer.*
It is time for “frank and clear responses” against “inaction and denial,” she declared. In other words: The country’s two main political parties have failed to stem the Islamist tide, and you the voters now have all the evidence you need that France requires new leadership. “I intend to assume this vital responsibility so France can defend itself in the war that has been declared upon her,” she continued.
Populist parties in Europe have long done a fine trade based on the cultural and religious differences of Muslim citizens. That has been particularly true in recent years as efforts to integrate Muslims has become mired with controversy over headscarves, halal food, and the construction of mosques. The National Front, like other populist parties in neighboring countries, has emphasized the link between the cultural accommodation of local Muslims and recent political instability in Egypt, Libya, and Mali.
Mainstream French parties have tried to fend off the National Front’s advance ever since it unexpectedly made it to the final round of presidential elections in 2002. Last May, its nationalist, xenophobic message helped the party capture 25 percent of the vote in the European Union parliament elections. After Wednesday’s tragic attack, the party’s relevance can no longer be doubted.
Marine Le Pen’s challenge has been to dissociate her party from its founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, a polarizing figure known for frequent racist and anti-Semitic commentary. Shortly after taking control of the party in 2011, she gave more important roles to younger party members and started reining in the impolitic language of party functionaries. She sent her deputy to Israel to meet with officials there and met personally with the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. Last June, Marine confiscated her father’s video-blog on the party’s website after he said that a Jewish rock star and National Front critic should be included in the “next batch going into the oven.” She understands that the French far right will never succeed at the ballot box until its embraced by the mainstream—and that means dragging it out of the gutter.
The Charlie Hebdo attack will further weaken the taboo of voting Le Pen. Although it may have been the most deadly, Wednesday’s shooting is actually the third such terrorist assault in the past two years. In 2012, a French gunman from Toulouse targeted dark-skinned French soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren in attacks that left seven dead. In 2014, another Frenchman aimed his AK-47 into the lobby of the Jewish Museum in Brussels, immediately killing four.
Despite this dismal record, this week’s atrocities are not the harbinger of an armed Muslim uprising, despite the alarming number of French Muslims who have departed for Syria to join ISIS and now pose an unthinkable danger should they choose to return. But in the wake of this week’s attack there is no obvious limit to how high the National Front could rise.
To be fair, no recent French government could be characterized as lax toward Islamists. Nicolas Sarkozy oversaw bans on the Islamic headscarf and burka, and François Hollande has committed French armed forces to combat religious extremists in Mali, Syria, and Iraq. French intelligence has foiled dozens of violent plots over the past decade.
Le Pen’s attractive force, however, does not rely on the logic of the political world as it is. It lies in the brand her father built as a political pariah speaking “truth to power” in a system dominated by Gaullists and Socialists who all attended the same elite schools. She wears mainstream media contempt as a badge of honor and enjoys kibitzing from outside national political institutions. Although the National Front has run candidates at every level for more than 40 years, the party has never governed anything larger than a small municipality. Its lack of a parliamentary or executive record works in its favor at a time of disillusionment with the ruling political class. Le Pen doesn’t need to prove she can do it better. For now, pointing out others’ failures will be enough to keep her center stage while she waits to run for president in 2017.
Of course, President Hollande could still emerge as a strong national leader. With the lowest approval numbers of any French president in history, his standing can only improve. On Wednesday, he appeared outside the bullet-ridden offices of Charlie Hebdo to offer his condolences and condemnation, followed by a formal announcement designating Thursday as day of national mourning. His performance was less dramatic than President Bush standing on the rubble with a bullhorn, but it was a strong statement nonetheless.
Standing with the victims targeted while they defended the values of free expression on Wednesday—#JeSuisCharlieHebdo—is a moral imperative. But with their assault on Charlie Hebdo the terrorists should not be allowed to force democratic citizens to endorse the magazine’s content, which many French citizens often found objectionable.
When the shock and sadness recede, it will become apparent that despite hashtags to the contrary, not all French “are Charlie Hebdo.” Numerous Catholic and Muslim groups offended by their cartoonists regularly filed lawsuits for incitement of racial or religious hatred against the newspaper—including after they republished the Danish prophet cartoons. Despite the understandable temptation to enter into a clear-cut opposition of “us versus them,” we can only hope that other political leaders will emerge to urge caution and respect while rejecting the murderers with every fiber of their being. It would be an unfortunate irony, and a distortion of these satirists’ legacy, if “politically incorrect” became the new politically correct.
On Wednesday, Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, went on sale in French bookstores. In it, the novelist imagines France in 2022 as a country ruled by a Muslim president, in which there are numerous conversions to Islam, widespread polygamy, and creeping Sharia. Before Wednesday’s attacks, the author was accused of undue provocation. In response, Houellebecq said, “Marine Le Pen doesn’t need me.” Now she truly doesn’t.
Marine Le Pen told a talk show host on Thursday morning she was “still waiting for her phone to ring” with an invitation from the prime minister to participate in Sunday’s national unity march. But Le Pen’s phone has remained silent. Government leaders are gambling that they don’t need her and can keep the National Front at a safe distance from its street-level display of strength and solidarity. For now, she will continue to taunt them from the other side of the barricades.
*Update, Jan. 8, 2015: This sentence was updated to clarify the timing of Marine Le Pen's appearance in Paris.