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By Ben Harris
The headquarters of France’s National Front party is located in Nanterre, a middle class suburb in the west of Paris. It was cold and overcast when I arrived there in mid-afternoon, the coldest and grayest day all week, and it gave the neighborhood a bleaker quality than it probably deserves.
On a quiet residential street of two-story homes and neatly tended gardens, the National Front building stands out. It’s a cold, modern office building amid the area’s century-old architecture. Le Corbusier might have liked it, but I found it soulless and conspicuous. It was the only building around with an enormous French flag hanging from the facade.
Inside, Marine Le Pen, the party leader and youngest daughter of the notorious Jean-Marie Le Pen, was due to hold a press conference at 5:00 p.m. I signed in (no ID check necessary) and took my place among the journalists milling about. At the stroke of the hour, Marine entered.
Her father famously described her as "a big, healthy, blonde girl, an ideal physical specimen," and I can vouch that at least half that statement is true. Marine is tall and stocky, her face framed by cascades of golden hair. Healthy? Her teeth are dark, most likely from the cigarettes she was quick to remove from her desk when we sat down later for an interview. And ideal? Well, that’s a matter of taste.
The occasion for the presser was the release last week of 2010 earnings reports for the companies in the CAC40, France’s benchmark stock index. Suprise! The companies did rather well, which presented Le Pen the opportunity to assail them for making obscene profits, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy for allowing them to do so. She invoked themes of social justice and fairness that, taken together, amount to a textbook example of the link between economic crisis and the rise of extreme parties.
When it was over, Le Pen took a few questions and hammed it up for the cameras. An Australian reporter asked her for a private audience, which she declined. Then her press secretary led me up two flights of stairs to Le Pen’s office on the top floor. It was gently lit by a lamp. A flat screen monitor and an ashtray with several butts sat on a wooden desk. On the wall was a blue painting that Le Pen told me was done by an Israeli artist. More ▸