Le Pen, Jean-Marie (b. 1928)

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LE PEN, JEAN-MARIE (b. 1928)


French politician.

While there are some politicians whose views change during their lifetime, Jean-Marie Le Pen, began at the extreme right of the political spectrum and remained there throughout his life.

Although ostensibly of humble origin—his father was a skipper who perished at sea in August 1942—as a war orphan, he pursued secondary-level studies privately in religious establishments and studied for a law degree in Paris, where in 1949 he became president of the Corpo of law students, a markedly right-wing organization. His various activities—his initiative among the royalist students, in particular, and his liking for violent confrontations—explain why, having obtained his baccalaureate in 1947, he did not graduate in law until 1952, although this is normally a three-year course of study. He then interrupted the deferment to which he was entitled as a student in order to carry out his military service. He volunteered for Indochina, but did not arrive there until 1954 after the battle of Dien Bien Phu, shortly before the Geneva Convention agreements put an end to the French phase of the Vietnam War. He nevertheless remained for a time in Indochina, where he was employed in Saigon as the editor of the journal of the expeditionary forces, but he soon returned to France, having left the army.

A movement for the protection of traders and artisans against the tax system (Union de Défense des Commerçants et Artisans, or UDCA) was forming under the leadership of Pierre Poujade, a bookseller from Saint-Céré in Lot, a department of southern France that was particularly affected by economic modernization. But having started from corporate protests, "Poujadism" gravitated toward traditional far-right themes—antiparliamentarianism, condemnation of deputies as incompetents and swindlers, and nationalism with regard to those said to be "discarding" the colonies. The movement put forward candidates at the January 1956 elections; these were mainly traders, artisans, and small farmers, representatives of social categories that were in difficulties, but Jean-Marie Le Pen found some themes there that were dear to him and he achieved selection as the Poujadist candidate in the fifth arrondissement in Paris. The Poujadists obtained an unprecedented success that was facilitated by the elimination of Gaullism, which had freed up many electors. Through the proportional system then in force, Jean-Marie Le Pen was elected a deputy.

At twenty-eight years old, he was the youngest deputy in France. His relations with Pierre Poujade soon deteriorated, and he concerned himself primarily with Algeria, where the uprising for independence had started. He took parliamentary leave to rejoin the army for six months. He participated first in the Suez expedition in October 1956, then in the battle of Algiers, where he took part in what could mildly be termed "tough interrogations." He soon returned to Paris and resumed his parliamentary seat, just as power was collapsing. The question of Algeria undermined the Fourth Republic. During the crisis of 1958, which brought General Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) to power, Jean-Marie Le Pen was one of the leaders of the activists, but disputes soon broke out between these extremist proponents of French Algeria and General de Gaulle. At the 1958 elections, Le Pen held his seat in the fifth arrondissement and, in the following years, he took part as far as possible in all the activities and all the plots in support of French Algeria. Fiercely anti-Gaullist, he voted against the Évian agreements that granted independence to Algeria but at the 1962 elections he underwent the fate of most of the proponents of French Algeria and was roundly defeated by one of the Gaullist leading lights, René Capitant.

The last triumph of the extreme Right in this period was Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancourt's presidential campaign in 1965, in which Le Pen played an active part, but for many years Gaullism reduced the extreme Right to nothing more than small factions. Lacking funds, Le Pen had to seek to provide for his family's needs through various businesses. He became rich only through a legacy from Hubert Lambert, the owner of Lambert cements, in circumstances that were in fact strongly debated at the time, in particular by one of his oldest friends, Jean-Maurice Demarquet, who had also been elected as a Poujadist deputy in 1956. At the same time, from 1972 he was nevertheless president of one of these small groups, the Front National, which was not to gain momentum until the 1980s. In fact, after a very early political youth, it was only around twenty years later that Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to reestablish himself in the French political landscape. At this point, his biography coincides with the progress of the National Front.

It is nevertheless highly unlikely that without Le Pen himself his far-right party would ever have achieved such great significance. Despite his verbal gaffes, such as the remark that "the gas chambers were a mere historical detail," Le Pen successfully retained an increasingly working-class following at presidential elections: in 1988 he garnered almost 15 percent of the votes cast, bettering this score in 1995 and creating a virtual panic in 2002 by cumulating nearly 17 percent in the first round, thereby eliminating the Socialists' candidate Lionel Jospin and getting through into the second round for the first time. In view of Le Pen's age—he was seventy-six in 2002—and his serious health problems, however, some asked whether he had not reached the high point of his political career, which may indeed have been close to its end.

See alsoImmigration and Internal Migration; National Front; Riots in France .


Conan, E., and G. Gaetner. "Qui est vraiment Jean-Marie Le Pen?" L'Express, 12–18 March 1992.

Rollat, Alain . Les hommes de l'extrême-droite. Paris, 1985.

Sirinelli, Jean-François, ed. Dictionnaire historique de la vie politique française au XXe siècle. Paris, 1995.

Jean-Jacques Becker