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France's Marine Le Pen Contends Populism Is The Future


French voters will choose a new president this spring. After Donald Trump's victory here and Britain's vote to leave the EU, it appears France could follow the populous trend and could choose someone once thought to be an unlikely winner. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joined a group of journalists who sat down today with the far-right politician Marine Le Pen.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Marine Le Pen strides into the room in a blue wool blazer and her casually quaffed platinum blonde hair, taking a seat in front of a campaign poster that reads, in the name of the people, Le Pen wishes everyone a happy new year.

LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: I began by asking Le Pen if the chaos surrounding Britain's exit from the EU hasn't changed her mind about a possible French withdrawal.

LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Au contraire," says Le Pen. She says the day after she's elected president of France, she'll go to the EU and negotiate a return of French control over its borders, currency, finances and laws. And if she doesn't get it, she says, she'll call a referendum on France leaving the EU.

LE PEN: (Through interpreter) The EU knows the people don't believe in it anymore, so it functions through threat, intimidation and blackmail. The way the EU reacted to Brexit was very revealing, especially for anyone who thought it had an ounce of democracy left in it.

BEARDSLEY: When asked if she thinks she could be elected on a populist wave like Donald Trump...

LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: ...Le Pen asks, "what's populism? If it's someone who wants to defend government for the people, of the people and by the people, then yes, I'm a populist."

Le Pen has been criticized for her admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin and because her party, the National Front, has taken a loan from a Russian bank with close ties to the Kremlin. Le Pen says that's because French banks wouldn't lend her party the money. Asked if she fears Russian intervention in the French presidential election, she laughs.

LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Every time something goes wrong, it's because of the Russians," she says, calling accusations of Russian hacking in the U.S. election not credible. "The U.S. can't lecture anyone," she says, "since it listened in on the personal phone conversations of its closest European allies."

The 49-year-old former trial lawyer and mother of three took leadership of the anti-immigrant National Front Party from her aging father in 2011. Analysts say she succeeded in breaking with the party's fascist, anti-Semitic past and moving it more toward the center. She's attracted both criticism and popular support for her anti-immigrant policies. She says she's not against legal immigrants, and she's not anti-Muslim.

LE PEN: (Through interpreter) There are two Islams. One is a religion that is perfectly compatible with French values, and practicing Muslims, like Christians and Jews, have never posed a problem. But there is another political, fundamentalist, totalitarian Islam that wants Sharia law over French law, and I will fight it without mercy.

BEARDSLEY: Le Pen doesn't believe popular support for Brexit and for Donald Trump is a passing phase. She says many people have finally rejected what she calls savage globalization that has brought mass migration and factory closures.

LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Free trade is dead," she says, "and the world is turning a page." "There's a new economic and cultural patriotism," she says, "and it's the way of the future." Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNDARA KARMA SONG, "DEEP RELIEF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.