Despite securing a large share of the vote in departmental elections in March, much of the recent coverage of the French Front National has focused on a dispute between the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, and its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. John Gaffney writes on how the dispute has played out, noting that the real winner may be Jean-Marie’s granddaughter, and Marine’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. He argues that Marion is fast becoming the modern incarnation of an old brand of French conservatism that has the potential to push the Front National on to further electoral success.
At times, the recent family arguments within the French Front National and the Le Pen clan have seemed more like an episode of Dallas than an ideological or strategic disagreement between its new and old guard. However, their familial drama tells us a great deal about how contemporary French politics functions, or rather, dysfunctions, as well as the wider significance of this for the future of far-right politics in Europe.
Earlier this month, the 86-year-old founder of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, repeated his scandalous 1987 remark that the gas chambers of the Holocaust were a ‘detail’ of history and that the Nazi collaborator, Philippe Pétain, head of the Vichy State from 1940 to 1944, was a patriot and not a traitor.
There are two things to bear in mind regarding these remarks, over and above any emotional reaction one might have. One is that Le Pen loves to shock. He’s a street brawler and an old-fashioned bully in the style of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. As such, he is finding his daughter Marine’s ‘respectable’ success since 2011 galling.
The second is that, by uniting the myriad far-right groups in the 1970s, Le Pen brought the Front National to the very edge of power by 2010, standing in five presidential elections, and even going through to the run-off in 2002. His outbursts about the Holocaust and Vichy are motivated by his disagreement about the current party strategy and ideology, and his anger is directed mainly at Marine.
Marine does not want to stay on the edges of power, but rather aims to be at the heart of it. And she knows that to get there she has to ‘detoxify’ the Front National. She’s largely been successful in this. Membership has quadrupled to over 80,000 and their share of the vote has grown ever-larger, to the point where Marine has a chance of winning the 2017 presidential elections.
The FN is the most successful hard-right party, in part because the French republic itself is a political mess. The mainstream political parties are swept up in ‘celebrity politics’ and have not come up with a decent idea for decades, particularly on socio-economic issues. There are two Frances now: one for those who have something, and one for those who have very little – perhaps three if you include those few who have a great deal.
More and more of the working population is on short-term contracts, and unemployment remains stubbornly in the millions. The result is that the far-right has not only made moves into the mainstream, but has also hoovered up the Left’s support. FN activists, in contrast to their Socialist Party counterparts, say they have the same concerns about housing, jobs and immigration as the ‘ordinary working person’.
Another reason for the FN’s success is that now the Le Pens are part-dynasty, part-brand. Jean-Marie Le Pen was always fearless and frightening, but was undeniably effective in rallying the far-right around himself. Marine Le Pen took it further, tapping into a more ordinary populism as she widened the Front’s appeal. As a leader, she has a mixed persona. For the faithful at the rallies she throws her arms out wide as if welcoming; maternal yet suggestive of crucifixion.
For the rest of us, she is straight talking and unpretentious – more like an outspoken floor manageress in a department store looking after both her staff and the customers. But there is another Le Pen fille; another ‘heritière’ standing in the wings of history, who could carry the right to power: Jean-Marie’s grand-daughter and Marine’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.
Only 25 years old, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is not only young and visually striking, but also intelligent and formidable, leading a wing of the FN that is well to the right of her Aunt Marine. She is also permanently surrounded and protected by an adoring entourage who see her as a combination of Joan of Arc and Taylor Swift. Marion represents a new form of French right-wing identity; racism and homophobia still cast long shadows, but this group also sees itself in the France of small towns, of communities, of families, a France for whom Paris is another place.
This is a land of ‘hard-working families’, where everyone knows each other, and strangers are treated with the suspicion that they may well be foreign criminals like Zbigniew Huminski. This France fears it is being swept away by a breakdown in values, by violence, by poor governance and by immigration, and is convinced that it is being directly targeted by the kind of radical Islam behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
This is a new, far more politically significant right-wing identity. In Marion, a once shy young woman is now a courageous and articulate force, adored and admired across the far-rights of Europe. She is fast becoming the modern incarnation of a very old French conservatism, which folds Jean-Marie Le Pen’s near-fascism as well as Marine’s rightist populism into a family-friendly, modest, no-nonsense, Christian, anti-Islamic French identity.
While Marine Le Pen may yet struggle to consolidate her position as a presidential winner, Marion already looks set to be on course.
Note: A version of this article originally appeared at New Internationalist. The article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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John Gaffney – Aston University
John Gaffney is Professor of Politics at Aston University and Co-Director of the Aston Centre for Europe. His new book, France in the Hollande Presidency: The Unhappy Republic, will be published by Palgrave in May 2015.