In late February, the presidential candidate of France’s Front National (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen, received widespread press coverage for saying, in an interview with La Croix, that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was merely “an incident,” adding that the 3,000 who died should be seen in the context of current events in Iraq, where roughly the same number of people have died each month since the U.S. invasion.  He went on to say that the number of fatalities that day in New York was far lower than those that resulted from the World War II bombings of Dresden and Marseilles.

Le Pen is no stranger to controversy; au contraire, one has the feeling he positively enjoys being anathematized.  He and his party arouse pathological hatred whenever they appear; even when the FN opened an “office” in the virtual internet world called Second Life, opponents organized a virtual uprising to close it down, including virtual bombs and gunfire—clearly a longed-for real-life activity for some “liberals.”

For a shrewd politician, Le Pen also has a habit of making sweeping historical observations, even though he must know that these are, at best, unhelpful to practical politicking.  In 1987, he said, “I’m not saying the gas chambers didn’t exist.  I haven’t seen them myself.  I haven’t particularly studied the question.  But I believe it’s just a detail in the history of World War Two.”  He repeated the sentiment at a 1996 meeting in Germany and was fined 1.2 million francs three years later by a German court.  He has accused Jacques Chirac of being “on the pay roll of Jewish organizations.”  In 2005, he said that the German occupation of France during World War II “was not particularly inhumane.”

His latest sally has attracted opprobrium from some of the more excitable and least-educated representatives of American conservatism, such as the following entries on one neoconservative blog (orthography unaltered): “Who cares . . . france will be an Islamic state by 2015.  They’re screwed.”  Also: “Here’s a difference frog face.  There was a declared WAR during WWII you senile pice of excriment.”  He has also attracted angry ripostes from more considerable personages, such as British RAF veterans, who naturally resent being even obliquely compared with Al Qaeda.

Such differences in perspective serve to underline the conceptual difficulties underlying Le Pen’s latest brainchild: the European Parliament’s newest official grouping, Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty (ITS), which contains MEPs from France, Italy, Belgium, Britain, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Austria under the chairmanship of the Front National’s Bruno Gollnisch.  Yet not all that much unites this disparate group, and it could be argued that an “alliance of nationalists” is almost a contradiction in terms.  At the party’s annual “Bleu, Blanc, Rouge” festival last year, Le Pen introduced delegates from foreign nationalist parties to the audience by joking, “These are our friends from abroad.  They all hate each other—but they are our friends!”

This is Le Pen’s fifth challenge for the presidency, and, at the age of 78, it will probably be his last.  It is unlikely that he can repeat his extraordinary result of 2002, when he knocked out Lionel Jospin in the first round to be defeated by Jacques Chirac in the second.  “Vote for the crook, not the fascist” was one common refrain of that unusual election, when all the forces of business-as-usual combined against the radical challenger.  These same forces are trying to exclude Le Pen from the 2007 race altogether, by making it difficult for him to get the necessary 500 public officials to endorse his candidacy.  As of early March, the FN is almost 100 names short.

The latest polls show Le Pen running in fourth place, behind the Socialist Segolene Royal, the Gaullist Nicholas Sarkozy, and the centrist François Bayrou.  But he is (and we should be) skeptical of such polls, bearing in mind that they failed utterly to predict the 2002 first-round result.  There have been media suggestions that he has become Demob happy and is campaigning as much to enjoy himself as to make serious political points.

Some have seen Le Pen’s latest “anti-American” statement in that light, while others have regarded it as blatant opportunism in a country where anti-Americanism is a vote-winner among all segments of society.  Yet Le Pen has always advocated France’s cultural uniqueness and military independence, as well as checks on American power.  For example, in 2002, he said, “The problem with the Americans is that their disproportionate power makes them undertake policies that aren’t always balanced and well-considered, and therefore dangerous.  Today, there is a worldwide tendency to dance to the tune of the powerful.  I, on the other hand, am a French patriot concerned with the interests of France.  Am I supposed to go crazy with admiration for the Americans just because they are Americans?”

His views on Islam and Israel are more complex.  To quote French political commentator Dominique Moisi, cited in a 2002 interview with Le Pen in Haaretz, Le Pen “combines pro-Israeli and even pro-Zionist attitudes with anti-Jewish attitudes, and anti-Islamic attitudes with certain pro-Arab attitudes.”  His party has had both Jewish and Arab officeholders.  He is nostalgic for French imperialism, yet scathing in his attacks on Israeli expansionism on the West Bank (although he believes that Israel should show no mercy to terrorists).  He alienated some by supporting Saddam Hussein’s government because it suppressed radical Islam—which, he correctly observed in La Croix, “est dangereux quand il est dominant.”  Yet he also supported Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor.  He is an inveterate opponent of Islamic expansionism in France (his present manifesto calls for a ban on the building of new mosques in France), yet he has always stood up for pro-French Algerian Arabs, and, in 1957, he nominated and helped to engineer the election of France’s first Muslim politician.  Such views, far from being inconsistent, as has sometimes been charged, seem nuanced and even statesmanlike, by refusing to give blank checks to either side.  He errs in suggesting that the majority of Muslims have sought to distance themselves from the “fundamentalists.”  In fact, the “mainstream” Muslim organizations have almost entirely failed to condemn the actions of their more literal coreligionists.  Of course, no one can be right all the time.

Other Le Pen policies are similarly bold—and are likely to prove highly popular with voters (which is why Sarkozy is presently promoting a watered-down, insincere version of Lepénisme).  Le Pen’s manifesto calls for greater freedom of speech (for all, including the far left and Muslims); the reinstatement of the death penalty; the suppression of gang violence and the building of more prisons; the abolition of the European Commission and repeal of the Maastricht Treaty; the revival of the franc alongside the euro; the re-erection of trade barriers to ring-fence teetering French industry; and the abolition of inheritance taxes.

Yet his persistent and unnecessary forays into controversial areas of history, and his unfortunate similes, have a tendency to undercut what might otherwise be seen as profundity.  While one could attribute such provocative statements to an admirable and unconditional attachment to free speech, some emanate from less edifying motives, such as his plentiful vein of coarse humor.  For example, when asked by Haaretz what he thought of the Muslim veil, he quipped, “It protects us from ugly women!”  Others are the product of his naturally impulsive and ebullient temperament.  Still others are caused by a defiant dislike of being told what to think by people whose opinions he naturally does not respect.

While all or most of his statements can be defended, contextualized, or explained away, they do have the cumulative effect of making him sound less presidential than he really is.  It is an unfortunate paradox that this honorable and highly intelligent man, who has devoted his whole life to his country and our civilization, undercuts his own credibility because of statements such as these.  Meanwhile, such men as Jacques Chirac, who have never had an original idea or an idealistic impulse in their lives, rise to the highest offices of state—in France and across the West—and go to their graves laden with wealth and honors.  It might have been different, had Le Pen only learned that there are times when it is better just to say nothing.