EuropeMarine Le Pen: The rhetoric behind extremist politician's mainstream success

Published 24 April 2015

Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the French National Front in 1972 to unite under the same political banner several fringe groups – royalists, conservative Catholics, those nostalgic for the Vichy régime and the colonial Empire — and offer a political home to voters who opposed immigration to France from France’s former colonies in Africa and who wanted to take France out of the European Union. Le Pen, however, was an obstacle to the growth of FN. He is a crude anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, and a vulgar racist. He refuses to support the French national soccer team because some of its players are black or Muslim, and hence not “real” French. He criticized the French government’s participation in the efforts to contain Ebola in West Africa because, he argued, if the Ebola virus were allowed to spread freely, it would have “solved” the global “population explosion” (that is, having too many black-skinned people) and, by extension, France’s – and Europe’s — “immigration problem.” His daughter, Marine Le Pen, became the leader of FN in 2011 and set out to rebrand the FN in order to make it acceptable to more centrist voters. Recent election results show that she has been successful. A textual analysis of French political speeches reveals how Marine Le Pen has made extremism palatable in a land of republican values.

French politician Marine Le Pen carried her father’s right-wing fringe political party to first place in the country’s latest elections for European Parliament. Stanford scholar Cécile Alduy says Le Pen’s success at the helm of France’s right-wing National Front can be attributed to a combination of sophisticated rebranding and skillfully crafted moderate rhetoric that sells a conservative agenda that borders on extreme.

An associate professor of French at Stanford, Alduy conducted a qualitative and quantitative analysis of more than 500 speeches by Marine Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to find out what has made their party surge in the polls.

Alduy’s word-for-word analysis of National Front political speeches, published in the book Marine Le Pen prise aux mots: Décryptage du nouveau discours frontiste (Seuil, 2015) has become a flashpoint of political discourse in France.

A Stanford University release notes that the resulting research is the first study of Marine Le Pen’s discourse, the first to compile a corpus of this magnitude of political speeches by a French political organization.

After sifting through the data and performing extensive close readings of the corpus, Alduy found that the stylistic polish of Marine Le Pen’s language conceals ideological and mythological structures that have traditionally disturbed French voters. Her research reveals how radical views can be cloaked in soothing speech.

Marine Le Pen’s language is full of ambiguities, double meanings, silences and allusions,” Alduy said.

However, in terms of political agenda and ideological content, Alduy said the continuity between the younger and elder Le Pen is striking. “What is different is the words and phrases she uses to express the same agenda,” Alduy said.

Alduy, whose research centers on the history and mythology of national and ethnic identities since the European Renaissance, conducted the research with the help of Stanford graduate and undergraduate students and with communication consultant Stéphane Wahnich. 

Academic technology specialist Michael Widner of Stanford Libraries and the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, provided technical expertise throughout and trained students in the art of indexing the database.

With a grant from Stanford’s Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Alduy and her team transcribed and analyzed more than 500 speeches by Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen dating from 1987 to 2013.

Alduy’s team used text analysis software such as Hyperbase or Voyant Tools to measure precisely how Marine’s language differs from that of Jean-Marie.