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Meet France's Sarah Palin!

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A new beacon for the bitter, Marine Le Pen is poised to take the reins of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right Front National party this weekend. She's forty-something, female, telegenic -- and is managing to sell a more palatable version of her father's anti-EU, anti-immigrant, pro-trade-barrier, crypto-racist policies to a certain much-aggrieved segment of the French population.

A presentable female politician feeding off the anger and resentment of voters, using code words and veiled hints to touch on the unsayable issues of the day, skilled at inserting herself into the center of emotional debates about subjects such as Islamophobia (seeing Muslims praying on the streets of France, she declared recently on a national French television show, was reminiscent of the “Nazi occupation.” Headlines for days.) Sounds familiar?

Perhaps, but Le Pen is a Palin-esque figure with a French touch. She’s a twice-divorced mother of three, whose own mother fled to the States with her father’s biographer and later posed in Playboy while wearing only a mop and an apron -- a reference to Le Pen Sr.’s statement that she “should clean houses” rather than receive alimony payments from him.

Le Pen’s not shy about her divorced status, using it to define herself as a modern leader in touch with the realities of her followers’ lives as they are actually lived, as compared to the out-of-touch, out-of-fashion old cronies of her 82-year-old father. One of those old cronies, Bruno Gollnisch, is her only challenger in this weekend’s leadership challenge.

She’s also un-Palin-like in her sure-footed demagoguery even in tricky or hostile environments, such as the national political show A Vous de Juger (“You Be the Judge”) where she lobbed her Nazi quote and where she has appeared twice in the last year. It’s all part of a charm offensive she’s been mounting as the new face of French Intolerance, at a crucial moment for the French right. Sarkozy, who managed to siphon off many of the Front’s supporters in the last elections by going hard-right and playing the same anti-Islamic cards but with more subtlety than the aging Le Pen, is stuck with dismal approval ratings he just can’t budge.

Critics say Marine Le Pen’s talk of a new Front National is just a quick coat of paint over the same old anti-foreigner, anti-Semitic, Little-France ideology, and it’s hard to argue with them. Another difference between Le Pen and Palin? Palin makes her own gaffes, while Le Pen has to try and walk back some of the ugliest statements of her father (Auschwitz’s gas chambers being “a detail of history,” for instance) without losing the supporters those appalling statements attracted.
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