So, here they go again. Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen: arch rivals, political nemeses and the two frontrunners going head-to-head in the second and reportedly final clash of their careers - and in a (very heated) TV clash last night.
The hotly-anticipated televised presidential election debate saw the two candidates sit 2.5m apart and argue over the cost of living, immigration and the EU, with current president Macron tormenting his rival over her Kremlin links ahead of the second round of the election this weekend. He also claimed the leader of the populist National Rally party’s proposed banning of Muslim veils would cause a civil war.
Sunday’s election runoff will be ring-wing candidate Le Pen’s third attempt to become France’s first female president and this time the former lawyer, 53, is attempting to shed the legacy of growing up in France’s far-right first family, urging UK and US leaders to “drop the preconceived ideas” they have about her.
Recent months have seen the National Rally leader and mother-of-three look more polished and presidential as she opens up about her childhood as the daughter of a Holocaust-denier and a nude Playboy model, living with a friend as a single woman in her fifties, and her love of cats, calling herself a “French woman, a mother” on a mission to protect her country’s values and identity from “insecurity, economic and social disorder and Islamist terrorism”.
Macron – France’s current president and the country’s youngest – has told voters not to be fooled by his rival’s seemingly moderate rebrand, calling her a “a racist” of “great brutality” and warning that she’s Putin ally. Meanwhile she has branded his comments “aggressive”, insisting she wants to fix the cost of living crisis and re-unite the country she believes her rival has “torn apart”.
Her manifesto is pared down compared to previous bids and recent weeks have seen her quick to attempt to shake off her reported ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin, who she visited in 2017 and is long said to have admired.
But she was still quick to congratulate Viktor Orban, Hungary’s nationalist and anti-immigrant leader, on his victory last month and remains hardline on several pledges: a referendum on immigration; a constitutional rewrite to ensure “France for the French”; and a banning of the Muslim headscarf, to name a few.
Macron might be ahead in the polls – for now – but Le Pen has been narrowing the lead in recent weeks. While early forecasts predicted a comfortable win for the current president, more recent projections by polling firm Ipsos show Le Pen securing a close second place with 49 per cent of votes compared to Macron’s 51 – a far slimmer margin than when he defeated her with 66 per cent in 2017. “She’s dangerous,” the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said last week of Le Pen being the closest she’s ever been to victory. “She could win this presidential election.”
From her traumatic upbringing as the youngest of three daughters to her complicated relationship with her father, here’s what you need to know about the far-right candidate known as MLP.
A political upbringing defined by trauma
When Marine Le Pen was eight years old, her family’s apartment in Paris was ripped apart by a devastating bomb. The target? Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, now 93: an openly-racist former paratrooper in the Algerian war who founded the controversial far-right party National Front (renamed National Rally in 2018) and once called the gas chambers of the Holocaust a “detail of history”.
Le Pen and her two older sisters found themselves awake amidst glass and rubble and though no one was killed in the attack, the event changed her life forever. “That night I went to sleep like all little girls my age. But when I woke, I was no longer a little girl like the others,” she wrote many years later in her autobiography, Against The Flow.
“She traces her world view actually, about how violent the world is, back to this event that was so traumatizing,” says biographer Cecile Alduy.
After the bomb, the Le Pen family moved to a mansion in a gated community outside Paris, with her father’s political offices on the first floor. Biographers say her parents lived a bohemian lifestyle, with a conveyor belt of party guests at every hour of the day and night and often leaving the children with a nanny while they went away for weeks at a time.
She admits that growing up as a Le Pen could be a burden, with teachers, friends and lovers shunning her because of her name. “It wasn’t easy for people to go out with Marine Le Pen,” she once told Closer magazine. “I remember one man chose to break up with me, the pressure from his social circle was so heavy.” At school, teachers reportedly referred to her sisters as “daughters of a fascist”.
The second trauma in Le Pen’s upbringing came when she was 15, in 1984, when her mother Pierette Lalanne walked out on the family overnight. “She came back from school and all her mother’s clothes were gone,” says Alduy. “She had gone away with another man. And Marine Le Pen was really desperate. She stopped eating.”
That other man, it transpired, was Jean Marcilly, a journalist who was writing a book about Lalanne’s husband, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Jean-Marie later told Playboy magazine that his wife “only has to clean” if she needed money, to which she retaliated by posing in the same magazine as an undressed maid (Playboy had to print extra copies to meet demand).
The Playboy episode took place in 1987 and the Le Pen parents divorced that year. Le Pen stuck by her father’s side, not seeing her mother again for 15 years. “A strong father figure was essential to Marine as she grew up,” a close family friend in Paris has said.
Le Pen went on to train as a trial lawyer at Paris’ Panthéon-Assas University, starting her career defending members of the far-right. There are also reports that she did some pro bono work defending illegal immigrants who were facing deportation, but little is known about this and why she went on to radically change her views on this subject in later life. Was it her experience working in immigration or her family’s right-wing history that pulled her back into taking an anti-immigration stance as a politician?
The lawyer who succeeded (and threw out) her father
Critics say Marie is the most similar to her father of all three Le Pen sisters, with her mother once telling a magazine the pair shared a talent for knowing how to exploit political situations.
Her older sister Marie-Caroline was originally meant to be Jean-Marie’s successor, but dropped out of a local election after her father’s racist comments. The pair reportedly haven’t spoken in 20 years.
Instead, youngest sister Marine stepped up to the plate, joining her father’s party at the age of 18 and joining the administrative side of the party when she was 30. At this point she was married to prominent party member Franck Chauffroy, who she wed in 1995. They had three children between 1998 and 1999, including a set of twins, but divorced in 2000. “Her personal and political life became intertwined. Her father was the FN, and she chose all her lovers from the party too. The FN became her life. It was the Le Pen FN against the world,” said a family friend.
Le Pen worked as the party’s Director of Legal Affairs until 2003 and eight years later, in 2011, she took over from her father as president of the National Front (he became chairman), with critics describing her as a “war machine,” “a bull charging ahead,” an “ideologue”. In 2002, she married her party’s former national secretary Eric Lorio in 2002 but refused to talk about her private life, not wanting her children to suffer the same tarnishing she did from her father’s career growing up. She and Lorio divorced in 2006.
Meanwhile Le Pen and her father continued to have a complicated relationship. He lived in a house in house in Rueil-Malmaison, 12km from the centre of Paris, but also owned a mansion in Montretout in nearby Saint-Cloud, which he used as an office and where his daughter lived - in a stable at the bottom of the garden.
She struggled to shed her father’s toxic image and xenophobic and anti-Semitic reputation, particularly his comments on Nazi gas chambers, and slowly set about a softening and a “de-demonisation” of the party.
She reportedly contemplated a move away from Montretout for a while, but biographer Olivier Beaumont says the straw that broke the camel’s back was when her father’s two Doberman dogs killed her favorite Bengal cat at the family mansion in 2014. She moved out of her stable in the garden that year and into a house in the chic Parisian suburb of La-Celle-Saint-Cloud.
The following year, 2015, she brutally expelled her own father from the party, three months after suspending him and following his repeated view that the Holocaust was “a detail of history”. “I am outraged; I feel like I've been ambushed,” he said on TV after the decision, with his lawyer calling the move a “political assassination”.
Following her election defeat in 2017, she changed the name of the party from the Front National to the Rassemblement National, or National Rally.
The big bad wolf softens
Le Pen might still be the right-wing candidate in this year’s election battle, but the period since the last election has seen her undergo a more moderate rebrand. Well, by Le Pen standards, anyway.
The last five years have seen her attempt to “undemonise” the party, abandoning certain policies that alienated mainstream voters (she has dropped her party’s opposition to dual citizenship and abortion, for example) and referring to herself as “Marine” on campaign posters in a bid to shed connotations associated with her family name. She has opened up about these connotations in comments about her personal life, such as the trauma of her childhood home in Paris being bombed; about friends not being allowed to play with her because of her name; of the surname affecting her legal career.
Shedding this right-wing image has been helped by the emergence of anti-immigration TV pundit turned politician Eric Zemmour, who is even further to the right, and voters at recent campaign rallies have even said she appears as “more sympathetic” than Macron, a former banker who she says embodies the “power of money” and works for the few.
Last night’s TV debate saw Macron fight back, accusing her of being tied to the Kremlin, leading France out of the EU with her attempts to reform Brussels, and causing a civil war through her proposed plan to ban Muslim headscarves. But she calls his arguments confused and dishonest.
She now paints herself as a unifying figure on a mission to heal the “fractures” Macron has brought about in the country and “restore France to order in five years”. Recently, she has styled herself as a champion of the poor and the downtrodden, scrapping income tax for under 30s, slashing VAT on fuel, allowing an early retirement of 60 for those who have worked 40 years, and tapping into the concerns of everyday voters facing rising living costs. “Those who did not vote for Macron are destined to join me, I count on all French voters,” she told cheering crowds on Monday. “We are very close, I can win this presidential election.”
Le Pen tells voters she is no longer the “big, bad wolf” of French politics. But she still holds onto other ideas that fit her more traditional far-right identity - particularly her hardline anti-immigration stance and skepticism of the EU. She wants French laws to take precedence over EU legislation and has stolen the UK home secretary Priti Patel’s idea of dealing with asylum requests abroad.
She is in favour of France leaving Nato and still wants to ban Muslim headscarves in public, even though she recently took a selfie with a teenager who was wearing one (“What would you have done? Pulled her veil off and mistreated her?” she reportedly asked far-right rival Zemmour when he accused her of “going soft”).
A two-time divorcee with a housemate and a love of cats
Le Pen’s relationship with her father remains complicated. Last year he publicly joked about supporting Zemmour over his own daughter and she only learnt of his recent wedding to longtime partner Jany, 88, a day later, through media coverage (Jean-Marie Le Pen didn’t invite any of this immediate family to the wedding, and aides say Le Pen was sad not to be invited as she and her father had recently started making up).
So what about the rest of her family? Le Pen and her mother Pierette Lalanne are reportedly no longer estranged - after 15 years apart, Lalanne made a rare appearance to voice her pride for her daughter when Le Pen sat down for an Oprah-style interview with reality TV host Karine Le Marchand in November.
The interview saw Le Pen open up about how she’s been happily single for the last three years, after two divorces and a 10-year relationship with party deputy Louis Aliot. “I’m happy to be single and don’t want to count on men for anything,” she told Closer magazine this month.
She has also spoken about her unusual living situation for a political candidate running for office. She currently lives with a childhood friend, Ingrid, who is “like a sister”, plus several cats - her love for whom she has put front and centre of her new jolly, down-to-earth image. “There are no men in this house. Only women. Even the cats are females,” she told Le Marchand.
Le Pen and her pal Ingrid currently live in a modest rented house in the western suburbs of Paris and the mother-of-three has joked that it’s calmer than living with a man. “The difference is that you don’t scream at each other,” she told Le Marchand and the two million who tuned into their interview last year, adding: “I want my private life to be a haven of peace, planting flowers in the garden.”
The interview was just one of a series of moves designed to reframe the far-right candidate as a modern, moderate candidate working to make her party less extreme than the one she inherited. Her Instagram is a mosaic of smiling selfies in soft, pastel-coloured power suits and her adviser Bertrand Dutheil De La Rochere has been quoted saying she loves cats and karaoke, and juggles her busy political schedule with looking after her three teenage children, Jehanne, Louis, and Mathilde.
Voters this month say she seems to have become “less extreme,” more “mature” and “self-assured” — even “presidential” — and Le Pen herself says she’d live in the Élysée Palace alone with just her cats if she wins. Some voters seem won over by this softer, more presidential image, but others are unconvinced, saying she’s the same right-wing candidate, “but with cats”.
Either way, it’s a far cry from the far-right, Holocaust-denying dynasty she was born into. Commentators say her father wanted to be a disruptor, whereas she actually wants to win - and this is the closest she has come. As this month’s run-off between Le Pen and Macron approaches, it’s the same question on lips across the country: could it be her third time lucky?