The Unexpected Challenger

Rescue workers put an injured child that was pulled out of a burning day-care center onto an ambulance in the city of Hermosillo, Mexico Friday June 5, 2009. Flames engulfed the day care center in this northern Mexico city, killing at least 29 children and injuring dozens.(AP Photo/El Imparcial)
AP Photo/El Imparcial
Jean-Marie Le Pen has long been a fixture on the far right of French politics, but when he unexpectedly emerged as the challenger to French President Jacques Chirac, more than one million French citizens took to the streets to protest.

Statements over the years like, "I prefer the French to foreigners," have given Le Pen the moniker of a fascist, a racist and a neo Nazi. With the French presidency in his sights for the first time in a career spanning more than four decades in politics, he's now singing a softer tune. He spoke Friday with CBS News Anchor Dan Rather:

DAN RATHER: Do you have any chance of victory in this election? After all 30 percent of the electorate stayed home in the first round, and the leftist vote was split among nine candidates. Now virtually all the other candidates on the left and right have thrown their support to Chirac in an effort to defeat you and the polls are predicting that Chirac will end up with 80 percent of the vote.

JEAN-MARIE LE PEN: Jacques Chirac got 19 percent and I got 17 percent on the occasion of the first ballot of the election. We both are going to try and concur the approval of our citizens, and Chirac, of course, as somebody who's never said a word against the communists, is benefiting from the approval of the communist side.

RATHER: Mr. Le Pen: you've been called both a racist and a fascist... first of all — are you a racist?

LE PEN: Well those are the words that are used by my adversaries, it is not at all the reality... and if I was a racist how could I have Black people, Arabs, Jews, in my political party?

RATHER: Did you or did you not call the gas chambers of the holocaust a — and I quote — footnote of history?

LE PEN: That's an answer that I gave 15 years ago on the occasion of an improvised interview. I was not an expert of the question of the gas chambers, and it was not something that I meant to be pejorative and it was something that I explained on the occasion of a press conference the next day.

RATHER: Would you explain to me exactly what your plans are to deal with what you have called the quote "immigrant problem?"

LE PEN: I consider that there is this disequalibrium between the Third World and what it is possible to call the continent, which has been invaded by waves of immigration which were not controlled and the political leaders of the left wing have favored such a phenomenon and it is in this circumstance quite impossible to assimilate these people. For example, the immigration commission, you know, said that we should expect about 27 million people immigrating in the course of the next 20 years. That is not something which is possible. Otherwise, we'll just disappear.

RATHER: Mr. Le Pen, is it true or untrue as has been widely reported that you favor the setting up of internment camps for Muslims and for Africans and ultimately repatriating them?

LE PEN: No — it is absolutely untrue. Actually, there are transit camps which are in existence and as a matter of fact the French government has set up such a transit camp for immigrants who go to the United Kingdom. It is impossible to have illegal immigrants staying at the Ritz hotel. Those people are kept in humane conditions waiting for the time to go back home and I think there is such a thing in existence in the south of the United States waiting for illegal immigrants coming from Mexico.

RATHER: Do you or do you not favor these camps in France?

LE PEN: Well, it is a temporary solution. The best solution is for them not to come to our country, and I mean the illegal immigrants, and the best way to make sure that they will not come to our country is to make sure that they understand that they will not get any welfare benefits — any kind of housing or medical care benefits — and we will try to take the measures which are necessary to make them understand that.

RATHER: You have been widely interpreted, widely seen as anti-American. Is that a fair assessment?

LE PEN: Oh no... I have a lot of friends in the U.S and I consider myself a friend of the U.S., but as a friend, I am very frank and I tell my friends very direct things. But I am totally with the United States in the struggle, the battle against terrorism.

RATHER: I've been told repeatedly that you are a supporter of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Is that true?

LE PEN: No. Chirac is the true friend of Iraq. He had a nuclear power station built in Iraq. It is true to say that my wife is involved in charity for the children of Iraq and what I do disapprove of is the American and British policy of the last ten years against the Iraqi people which has led to the deaths of a million Iraqi children.

RATHER: So you do or do not support the regime of Saddam Hussein?

LE PEN: No I do not support this regime. And, I will not interfere in the political situation of any country.

RATHER: I've heard any number of American business people say they would deeply fear a Le Pen government in France. Does or does not American business have something to fear should you come to power?

LE PEN: Well, I am a democrat and a republican and have proved that for 46 years. I have never been accused or convicted of any misdemeanor or crime and that is not something that you can say about any political leader in France.

RATHER: So American business doesn't have anything to fear from a Le Pen administration?

LE PEN: Absolutely not. I propose that we get out of the process of building federalist Europe, I think France should stay independent — still cooperating and without any hostility.

RATHER: Mr. Le Pen, rightly or wrongly, your reputation in the United States is as a person who represents a building neo-fascism in Europe, and I want to make sure that I give you an opportunity to address that frankly and directly.

LE PEN: No. It is absolutely untrue, the National Front, the political party of which I am the leader, does not have anything in its program which could be considered as fascist. I am a patriot just like the American people. I love my country, but that doesn't mean that I hate other countries. I don't have a tendency to xenophobia; I am just a Francophile. I have many colored people in the National Front and that is very easy to see when you don't look through the eyes of my adversaries. No, no — not at all. I do not see what justifies such a statement. There are Jews in our political party and they feel all right, I can tell you. We do not distinguish between colors of people's skin or people's religions or anything of the kind.