Since its founding in 1972, France's National Front, and the Le Pen dynasty that runs it, has always been vehemently xenophobic. Now, party head Marine Le Pen seems to think that French citizens who return to the country not looking adequately Anglo-Saxon have some "explaining to do" - even if they are returning from thirty-seven months in the captivity of Al-Qaida.
In September 2010, four French citizens -- Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dol, and Marc Féret - were kidnapped by al-Qaida's North African branch, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, while working for a French nuclear conglomerate that managed a uranium mine in Arlit, Niger. They were taken to the northern desert of Mali and held there for thirty-seven months, until their release on Tuesday. (The French government asserts that their release was brokered by Nigerien president Mahamadou Issoufou, and denies paying any ransom, but sources close to the operation told Le Monde that up to 25 million euros had been paid for the hostages' release.)
The four men was greeted by President François Hollande at the Villacoublay military airfield near Paris on Wednesday, looking like a group might after spending over three years in the captivity of Al-Qaida - gaunt, shaken, and subdued. Two sported the long beards sometimes worn by Islamic militants and one wore a chèche, a long cloak that can be draped like a veil and a turban in the Sahara to keep the ever-swirling desert sand at bay.
Marine Le Pen - who has never been a hostage to anything except a willing one to her surname - took it from there. "I found their dress surprising," she told the Europe 1. "The two men had trimmed beards in a strange manner and their clothing was strange." Despite the hostages' past three years of likely constant scrutiny and fear, Le Pen piled it on. "I think perhaps they need to explain all of that, it gives an odd impression to French people." (Legrand's mother told the French i-Télé TV station that the quartet's beards and clothing were meant to show "a form of solidarity with the remaining hostages out there.")
Blowback to Le Pen's comments came from the across France's ideological spectrum. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, spokeswoman for the leftist French cabinet, called Le Pen's remarks "incredibly indecent," and Socialist deputy Yann Galut called her comments "the extension of her way of thinking, of seeing Islamisation everywhere." Roger Karoutchi, a senator from the center-right UMP, said: "Thirty-seven months held in the desert and Marine Le Pen says the hostages should have come back clean-shaven and in three-piece suits. What to say?"
It was a perplexing statement coming from Le Pen, at a moment when she has been trying to repackage the National Front as softer and more moderate. Since replacing her infamous Holocaust-denying father Jean-Marie as the head of the party in 2011, she has taken pains to distance the National Front from the radical and racist reputation he gave it. In September, she even attempted to ban politicians and journalists from describing the party as "extreme right," by threatening to sue them if they did (the threat has been widely ignored.) Her strategy, called "Marinisation," seems to be working - an Ifop survey taken in September showed that almost a quarter of French voters planned to support the party in next spring's European elections -- up from 6.43% in the last elections in 2009.
But has Le Pen really veered from the party's nationalist orthodoxy, or just found a more politically-acceptable scapegoat to train her party's latent xenophobia on than its historic focus on Jews? Le Pen and the National Front are now targeting the millions of Muslims who have immigrated to France in the past decades, many from France's ex-colonies. Muslims in France are scapegoated for the same diaspora of societal ills - unemployment, crime, and the dilution of "national character" - historically blamed on Jews, and are now invoked by Marine Le Pen in much the way her father marshaled anti-Semitism for political gain.
Although she claims to have no prejudice against Islam itself, just the "integration of Islam into public life," she once compared Islamic call to prayer in the streets of Paris to the Nazi occupation during World War II. It's an ironic metaphor for a woman who plays to the same base desire to stamp out difference, and to blame it for social and economic unease by denigrating the same group she compares to a party more closely resembling her own.
As the National Front's ranks continue to swell, thanks in part to dissatisfaction with alternatives on the center-left or center-right, it remains to be seen how far Le Pen will go to placate her fringe constituency while trying to appear mainstream enough for disaffected moderates. Her mere demi-retraction after the furor over her comments about the hostages grew ("I expressed myself clumsily," she said in a written statement, in which she claimed she meant to criticize not the hostages but their "political instrumentalisation,") indicates that it's a line she's willing to toe. How much frustrated French moderates are willing to tolerate a woman whose first thought for hostages is their "strange" appearance rather than their wellbeing is another question, and will shape the future of France more than a million chèches.