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The Saturday Profile: Approaching 90, and Still the ‘Devil of the Republic’

Meanwhile, the National Front is carrying on without its founder. For the first time ever he did not attend the party’s congress last Saturday. Changing the party’s name, as Marine Le Pen envisions doing, is “suicidal,” Mr. Le Pen grumbled.

He lost elections for more than a half-century, but Mr. Le Pen feels he is now getting the last laugh. He is not surprised by his success in the bookstores. “I was a man of good will who never knew political success,” he said. He was seated heavily in an antique pink armchair, elaborate ship models around him recalling his childhood in a Brittany fishing village.

“But my ideas have made progress, even in the programs of my opponents. That’s why my struggle was not without value,” Mr. Le Pen continued, smiling slightly. Indeed, the hard-line immigration policies of the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, sound like a distant echo of the far-right patriarch.

The Saturday Profile: Approaching 90, and Still the ‘Devil of the Republic’
The Saturday Profile: Approaching 90, and Still the ‘Devil of the Republic’

Mr. Le Pen dismisses them as “purely for show.” But the Macron policy emphasizes limits and expulsions. These respond to an anxiety most French now feel about migrants, as demonstrated in polling. That anxiety was responsible for Mr. Le Pen’s greatest electoral successes, limited though these were.

But as much as his well-known views — his admiration for France’s collaborationist World War II leader, Marshal Pétain; his hatred of the country’s liberator, Charles de Gaulle; his casual anti-Semitism and racism; his approval of torture in the Algerian war — it is the sense that Mr. Le Pen’s long life encompasses the whole sweep of postwar French history, albeit darkly, that accounts in part for his current bookstore triumph.

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Mr. Le Pen at a National Front meeting in 1984 in Lyon, France. He never came close to attaining high office.Credit Luc Novovitch/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“I can’t say it completely astonishes me,” said Eric Roussel, a historian who wrote an early book about Mr. Le Pen. “There’s been a change in the society. Not everyone who buys it is necessarily a Le Pen voter. His age means he’s awarded the status of a senior witness. There are not that many left.”

Mr. Le Pen seems also to have gained begrudging respect for raising the immigration issue early on and persevering, Mr. Roussel said: “People are saying, ‘He raised a problem that does exist.’ His idea that he was a sentinel, that’s beginning to impose itself.”

Mr. Le Pen’s book is a mirror of the postwar decades, and is part of a well-entrenched tradition of far-right, anti-Semitic writers — Charles Maurras, Louis-Ferdinand Céline — which has had a large purchase on French cultural life. Their writings, and questions over whether they should be republished or honored, continue to make headlines here many years after their deaths.

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Mr. Le Pen is still very much alive, writing in vivid colloquial prose of a life in a string of fascinating chapters: as a war part-orphan, having lost his fisherman father to a mine in 1942 when he was 14, making him a “pupil of the Nation,” as they were designated; as a boisterous law student in postwar Paris, already militating at the far-right edge; as a French Foreign Legion paratrooper who volunteered to fight the Vietminh in an already-lost colonial war in 1953 out of “patriotism”; as a parliamentary deputy in 1956, the youngest in France, hurling a vicious anti-Semitic insult at the revered former prime minister Pierre Mendès France; as a tough-talking paratrooper in the battle of Algiers who defended his colleagues’ use of torture but denied practicing it himself (he later lost a libel suit over the issue); and, finally, as the marginally employed, far-right agitator who, pushed along by a buddy who was a wartime Nazi collaborator, François Brigneau, founded the National Front in 1972 as, Mr. Le Pen said, “the grandest French adventure since World War II.”

He was only a teenager during the war, but the experience was formative. Defying his mother’s warning he looked at his father’s battered remains when they washed up on a Brittany beach and was deeply shocked. “My mother cried all day, and I heard her sobbing at night,” Mr. Le Pen writes. Later, he made a farcical attempt to join a resistance unit in Brittany. “My first war decoration” was a “magisterial slap” from his outraged mother when he returned home, Mr. Le Pen writes.

That unheroic foray, rendered in self-mocking prose, was one of the formative elements in the creation of an outrageous contrarianism that runs through the pages of his memoir. “He’s reached the goal of his life, to be a national agitator,” said Mr. Roussel, the historian, using the French word provocateur. “His goal was never to attain power.”

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Mr. Le Pen and his daughter Marine after she was re-elected as president of the National Front in 2014. She has since pushed him out of the party he helped found.Credit Jeff Pachoud/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Thus, in Mr. Le Pen’s pages French S.S. volunteers are to be defended: “Must I then say that those who signed up for the crusade against Bolshevism on the Eastern Front were traitors?” he writes. And, of course, the German military is to be exculpated, as having acted honorably. France’s postwar purge aimed at collaborators is to be excoriated.

“No doubt the discipline imposed by the Germans was painful,” Mr. Le Pen writes, referring to the harshness of the occupation for ordinary French citizens. But that same discipline, he declares, “was also applied — and rigorously — to their own troops.” That view, excusing the Germans, is not shared by reputable historians or by French citizens generally.

The postwar purge “allowed any old armed nobody pushed along by ideologues to massacre at leisure: and from that point of view it was worse than the Occupation,” Mr. Le Pen writes. General de Gaulle was a “horrible source of pain” for the French, a “false ‘great man,’ ” while Marshal Pétain, the leader of the Vichy government during World War II, “didn’t fail to uphold honor” in making a separate peace with the Nazis. Pétain later fervently sought to collaborate with them, a fact Mr. Le Pen elides.

As the daylight faded from his study Mr. Le Pen returned unprompted to the Holocaust, the subject on which he made what historians consider perhaps his greatest transgression, and the one that sank the fortunes of the National Front. He has repeatedly called the gas chambers a “detail” in the history of World War II.

“Look, the gas chambers, I didn’t personally see them,” Mr. Le Pen said. Turning angry, he said, “Cost me 30,000 euros” — in fines, about $37,000, for Holocaust denial, which is a crime in France.

“Well, that was a pretty lightweight pretext to ostracize me, anyway,” he concluded.

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