So did his attempts to blame polygamous African families for the country’s social problems and his calls to expel illegal immigrants.
This week, pledges to curb immigration figured prominently in New Year’s addresses by government ministers. On Thursday, Nicolas Sarkozy, the headline-grabbing interior minister, reiterated that he wanted France to expel 25,000 illegal immigrants this year, up from 20,00 last year and 10,000 in 2002. Like other ministers, he zeroed in on polygamy and pledged to restrict visas for wives and children of immigrants.
Le Pen, 77, who gained notoriety when he referred to Nazi gas chambers as “a detail of history,” is a fixture of French politics, with an electoral base of some 15 percent. But while he is still considered extremist and unelectable, some of his ideas are no longer taboo.
“Today you can say things that you could never have said 20 years ago,” Jean-Louis Bianco, a Socialist lawmaker, said in a telephone interview. “Le Pen has left his mark on the political discourse – and also on some actual policies.”
On the right fringes of Gaullism, some officials have long flirted with views on foreigners similar to those of Le Pen; they have occasionally struck electoral alliances with the National Front in local constituencies.
A turning point came in 2002 when Le Pen unexpectedly defeated Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister, in the first round of presidential elections, and received 4.6 million votes in the run-off, his best showing ever.
Since then, Le Pen’s trademark themes of immigration and law-and-order have acquired a higher priority for the government of President Jacques Chirac, although with less of the rabble-rousing. In November, however, these issues sprang to the forefront of national consciousness as youths in poor, largely immigrant suburbs clashed with police officers and set thousands of cars afire.
How deeply the rightward shift in thinking has entrenched itself in France has been dissected in recent weeks in the press and by the chattering classes.
“You still win elections in the center in France, but the center has moved,” remarked one senior government official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about politics.
Recent opinion polls are telling. In a survey conducted by TNS-Sofres last month, 43 percent of respondents judged Le Pen’s ideas “excessive,” but only 39 percent of respondents found them “unacceptable,” down from 48 percent in 1997.
Sixty-three percent of those questioned said there were too many immigrants in France, an increase of 4 points from 2000.
A separate poll by the CSA institute showed that one in three French people consider themselves “racist;” a year ago it was one in four.
“These statistics don’t tell us anything about whether more people will vote for Le Pen, but they do tell us that his ideas don’t put people off in the same way they used to,” said Brice Teinturier, political research director at TNS-Sofres in Paris.
For a long time, Le Pen was the only one speaking out on certain subjects that are now being addressed by the political center, and Teinturier said it was in fact “reassuring that mainstream politicians are reclaiming some of that territory from the far-right.”
But other analysts warn that politicians who shift their rhetoric and policies to the right in an attempt to court Le Pen’s voters risk legitimizing him in the process.
“It’s very dangerous, especially at a time when society is suffering from an identity crisis and mass unemployment,” said Bianco, a close aide of former President François Mitterrand. “Sarkozy contributes to a banalization of Le Pen’s ideas.”
Sarkozy, who heads the governing Union for a Popular Movement and is a leading contender to succeed Chirac in 2007, wants to lure up to half of the National Front’s electorate, according to one of the front’s campaign strategists, Manuel Aeschlimann. Sarkozy has adopted language similar to Le Pen’s, calling the rioters “thugs” and vowing to purge crime-ridden housing projects with industrial-strength methods.
On Thursday, Sarkozy denied that he was helping to shift French politics to the right, declaring that his aim was to bring National Front voters back into the mainstream and adding, “Why don’t I have the right to speak to all voters?”
(His denial followed a well publicized political stunt last month in which protesters, intending to point up the similarities between the two men, plastered posters of Sarkozy around Paris with the message: “Vote Le Pen.” )
But Le Pen’s influence on politics goes beyond language. An analysis in the newspaper Le Monde last month listed a string of Le Pen’s proposals that have now been addressed by the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, including some of those mentioned by Sarkozy on Thursday.
Le Pen, who this week announced his campaign team for the 2007 presidential election, struck a confident tone in his New Year’s remarks last week.
“Politicians now copy entire sections of our discourse, which they still ranted against a few months ago,” he said. “Countless personalities reacted to the crisis last November by shamelessly copying the analysis and the proposals of the National Front.”
Le Pen’s party appears to have benefited from the riots. National Front membership has increased by about 20 percent, to nearly 90,000, since October, a party official said.
To be sure, there are several core ideas of the National Front that are still widely viewed as unacceptable, among them Le Pen’s proposal to give French nationals preference over immigrants for jobs and social services. Sarkozy has complemented his law-and-order agenda with proposals to give immigrants the vote in certain local elections and to introduce affirmative action, while the government has declared 2006 the year of “equal opportunity.”
“The best weapon against the National Front is economic growth and jobs,” said Stephane Rozes, political director of the CSA polling institute. “Those who believe that you can win National Front voters by turning the current social problems into an ethnic conflict are playing with fire.”
“As Le Pen has said many times,” Rozes added, “people tend to ‘prefer the original to the copy.'”