Saskatoon StarPhoenix


Marine Le Pen’s point man in North America fights lonely battle


Denis Franceskin’s American friends know him as Denis — pronounced Dennis — a fact of his American life, among others, that the Frenchman accepts with a shrug, since that’s just the way life goes when your day job involves working as an executive at an upscale health club in Montvale, N.J., about 50 km north of New York City.

Only a handful of Franceskin’s colleagues are aware of his political activity, after the workday ends, while an even smaller handful ever ask him about it. Which is understand­able, he says, because it would take a lot of hours to explain “everything.”

“Talking politics is very French,” Franceskin says.

So, here is the short version: Denis Franceskin is Marine Le Pen’s point man in North America. He might be the loneliest part-time French politician on Earth. The former French language teacher and one-time profession­al wrestling impresario from Marseille is the National Front’s candidate in North America, vying to win over French voters living in Canada and the United States and secure a seat in the French legislativ­e elections in June.

His odds of actually doing so are not good.

“I won’t say hopeless,” Franceskin says from Montvale.

Le Pen, the right-wing populist, is in a run-off against Emmanuel Macron for the presidency on May 7. A triumph, no matter the result, for the National Front, a party that has gone from the fringe to the middle of the electoral fray with its antiimmigr­ation/anti-European Union/multicultu­ralismspel­ls-death-to-French-identity (and prosperity) messaging.

Among French citizens living in North America, however, the party remains profoundly unpopular.

In the first round of voting on April 23 almost 4,000 French in Ontario cast ballots. Only 212 ticked the box marked Le Pen. Macron, meanwhile, received 37.11 per cent of the almost 34,000 total votes in Canada, compared to 7.32 per cent for Le Pen. (The breakdown in France was 24.01 per cent for the banker versus 21.3 per cent for the populist.)

What does it mean? Daniel Weinstock, a law faculty member at McGill University and a dual citizen, has a theory, offering himself as a case study. Weinstock has relatives in France. He even lived there, once, for about a year. But his citizenshi­p derives from his mother, who was born in France. Meaning Weinstock is as Canadian as Carey Price, with a world view reflective of where he is from and not where he is eligible to vote.

“Le Pen has no resonance for those of us who have been socialized in a political culture like we have in Quebec,” he says. The second part of the theory involves the French who immigrate to Canada. Many come for economic opportunit­y, but Weinstock sees something else at play.

“In France, multicultu­ralism is a bad word,” he says. “I think people come here, not only but in part, because they want to be in a more diverse society where the fact of multicultu­ralism isn’t seen as a threat to the nation.

“And that’s the antithesis of what Marine Le Pen stands for.”

It is a good theory. But it doesn’t explain Denis Franceskin. The 38-year-old is an immigrant. He graduated from the University of Provence Aix-Marseille in 2005 and moved to the U.S. to teach French to banking executives. He thought he would stay for a year. But he had a friend, and they had an idea: get into the wrestling business.

“Like most kids from my generation, I watched wrestling,” Franceskin says. “Macho Man Randy Savage was the best.”

Lanny Poffo is a retired profession­al wrestler, whose ring-name was Leaping Lanny. Leaping Lanny is the younger brother of the Macho Man, whose real name was Randy Poffo. Lanny Poffo did some commentary work for a wrestling event Franceskin put on in Marseille and appeared at some autograph signings. He thinks of him as a “friend.”

The deals they did were done on a handshake. After Leaping Lanny buried his father and famous sibling in the span of two years, it was Franceskin who sent his mother, Judy, flowers.

“Denis doesn’t even know my mother,” Poffo says. “I’d vote for Denis in whatever he does.”

Franceskin’s wrestling business foundered after the markets crashed in 2008. So he got his real estate licence before moving into the hotel industry. Now he runs a health club for a multi-billion-dollar American company. Along the way he married an American, had two American kids — and met Marine Le Pen at an event in New York City about six years ago.

“She is the complete opposite of what people say,” Franceskin says.

He means: the Le Pen he knows isn’t an extremist, while the Le Pen voters he knows — his family supports the party — aren’t blue-eyed and blond-haired Catholic devils. In fact, some are Muslim. Le Pen, meanwhile, is a patriot in Franceskin’s view, and he wishes French voters would remember that she has never been in power and isn’t to blame for the problems crippling the country, including an unemployme­nt rate that hovers around 10 per cent — more than double that of Germany.

Franceskin’s campaign is self-funded and mostly run over the Internet. He has a few volunteers — friends. Beyond that, it is just him, and 80,000 or so French voters in North America, the majority of whom reject the party he represents.

“I don’t give up on what I believe in,” he says. “You don’t fight, only if you are certain to win.”

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 ?? DENIS FRANCESKIN ?? Denis Franceskin, National Front’s candidate in North America, with French presidenti­al candidate Marine Le Pen.
DENIS FRANCESKIN Denis Franceskin, National Front’s candidate in North America, with French presidenti­al candidate Marine Le Pen.

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