Less than a week before France’s presidential election, Marine Le Pen remains a frontrunner after working hard to sanitize the image of her party, the National Front, and to distance it from the uglier associations of Europe’s far right.
However, descriptions of the inner workings of her party by present and former close Le Pen associates, as well as court documents, raise fresh doubts about the success and sincerity of those efforts.
Even before Le Pen’s remarks this week denying France’s culpability in a notorious wartime roundup of Jews, revelations in the French news media, including a well-documented new book, revived nagging concerns about the sympathies of the woman who would be France’s next president.
Two men in her innermost circle — Frederic Chatillon and Axel Loustau — are well-known former members of a violent, far-right student union that fought pitched battles with leftists and took a turn toward Hitler nostalgia in the mid-1990s.
They are longtime associates of Le Pen since her days in law school in the 1980s and remain among her closest friends, according to numerous accounts.
French television recently broadcast video from the 1990s of Loustau visiting an aging prominent former SS member, Leon Degrelle, a decorated warrior for Hitler and the founder of the Belgian Rex party, a pre-war fascist movement.
Other video showed Chatillon speaking warmly of his own visit with Degrelle, who was a patron saint of Europe’s far-right youths until his death in 1994.
Some in the National Front flatly deny Chatillon and Loustau are either anti-Semitic or nostalgic for the Third Reich, while others make no secret of avoiding them, precisely because of their taint, but their lingering presence in Le Pen’s inner circle has called into question the sincerity of her strategy to “undemonize” her party and renounce its heritage of deep-rooted anti-Semitism since she took over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011.
“By the evidence, she considers it’s not something very important,” said historian Nicolas Lebourg, a leading National Front specialist at the University of Montpellier.
The two trusted men continue to work closely with the party’s top leadership, including Marine Le Pen. They have been charged by French prosecutors in an elaborate campaign-finance scheme that has been crucial to keeping the National Front afloat for years.
The financial scandals have not dented Marine Le Pen in the polls before the first round of voting on Sunday. Potentially more damaging might be the revelations about the people she has surrounded herself with, in particular Chatillon and Loustau.
“They have remained National Socialist,” said Aymeric Chauprade, once Marine Le Pen’s principal adviser on foreign affairs until a falling out, partly over his pro-Israel stance.
“They are anti-Semites, nostalgic for the Third Reich, violently anti-capitalist, with a hatred for democracy,” he said in an interview. “People think they’re marginal, but in fact, I discovered, she protects them. She supports them. They are at the heart of everything.”
Chauprade recalled a dinner with Chatillon and others in the spring of 2014 that was “full of anti-Semitic jokes,” but added: “They are not joking. They are real Nazis.”
Court documents and a new book, Marine Knows Everything, by two investigative journalists, Marine Turchi and Mathias Destal, depict the two men as unreformed Nazi sympathizers.