France’s ‘pathetic reality family show’

In 1998, Bruno Mégret, the anointed successor of France’s far-right political party, the National Front (FN), attempted to stage an internal coup against founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Mégret ridiculed his former mentor’s unwillingness to make political compromise in the face of an ascendant left, and accused him of “sterile provocations in the media.” He was later expelled from the FN, along with some 60 percent of the party’s cadres. After that failure, Mégret went on to engineer another far-right party, the Mouvement National Républicain (MNR). Surprising company joined Mégret on his exit from the FN: Le Pen’s eldest daughter Marie-Caroline, the heiress to the FN throne, and her husband Philippe Olivier. The pair’s betrayal created the first feud within the Le Pen political family.

Now it is déjà vu, with another daughter embroiled in a family feud, but with much higher stakes. On April 27, the 86-year-old Le Pen is scheduled to appear before the FN’s nine-member executive committee to answer for a raft of inappropriate comments he made in a television interview on April 2 and repeated a week later in an interview with Rivarol, a far-right newsletter. Among the comments he’ll be asked to explain: his refrain of the infamous claim he made in 1987 that Nazi gas chambers were but a mere “detail” of World War II, a war that he has also said was not “particularly inhumane in France.”

Le Pen should know better: He was convicted and given to a three-month suspended prison sentence and fined 10,000 euros in June 2013 for making the same claim. And this is just a sample of the many outrageous comments from the right-wing demagogue: Over the past few decades, he has incensed the French with nauseating jokes about crematory ovens, even suggesting making an “oven-load” of the Jewish singer Patrick Bruel.

But this time he seems to have crossed a line that could cost him his political career. “Jean-Marie Le Pen seems to have descended into a strategy somewhere between scorched earth and political suicide,” said FN party head Marine Le Pen in a statement after her father’s most recent incendiary comments. “His status as honorary president [of the FN] does not give him the right to hijack the National Front with vulgar provocations designed to damage me, but which unfortunately hit the whole movement.” Several of Marine’s deputies also immediately called on the elder Le Pen to retire from politics — something he seems unwilling to do.

“Marine Le Pen may want my death, but she cannot count on my help,” Jean-Marie said on April 9, refusing to engage in any dialogue with his daughter’s entourage. The ideological differences between the most radical FN faction, which remains faithful to the father, and the more modern, younger, pro-Marine group now dominating the party, grow more irreconcilable by the day. And the generational war has become ugly.

After years of trying to handle her father with tact, Marine now seems determined to draw the curtain on his political legacy, which is harming both the party and her ambitions. She has spent the last five years making every possible attempt to cast the FN as non-anti-Semitic, more republican (albeit, still anti-immigration), and more acceptable to mainstream French voters. With her eyes on the 2017 presidential election, she is not about to let her father’s indiscretions destroy her dreams.

As told by Jean-Marie, the party’s entire 43-year history is inextricable from his political career. An oft-reviled public figure, he has run for president no less than five times, even winning nearly 18 percent of the vote in the second round of the 2002 election. He remains the FN’s honorary president, a member of the European Parliament, and a regional counselor for Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur, where he was hoping to lead the FN list in the forthcoming regional elections until last week, when he gave in to his party’s demand not to stand in the December elections.

Jean-Marie belongs to the tradition of the French anti-republican right, which dates back to Vichy regime leader Marshal Philippe Pétain and those who wax nostalgic for French Algeria. In 1956, then-Member of Parliament Le Pen — elected as part of the populist movement of Pierre Poujade, he was France’s youngest MP at the time — decided to enlist in the fight to maintain France’s imperial hold on Algeria. Through persistence, personal charisma, and a little luck (in 1976, he became the sole heir to the fortune of cement mogul Hubert Lambert) Le Pen built the FN from a tiny radical group in 1972 to a mainstream party, winning 35 seats in 1986 thanks to the introduction of proportional representation. (The electoral law changed again in 1988 and the FN lost all but one of its National Assembly seats.)

A look back at the FN’s historical roots, however, tells a different story. The FN was not originally founded by Le Pen, but rather formed from the remnants of a neo-fascist, anti-immigrant group called Ordre Nouveau, which picked Le Pen to lead the new party. Even though he had been an MP, he was not fully active in politics at the time and had been waiting for an opportunity to dive back in. In 1973, he took control of the FN, which allowed him to start building the party into a political engine to fuel his own ambitions. He was helped by a number of radical politicians, including those in Ordre Nouveau, most of them long-since vanished from the limelight.

The story Le Pen peddles asserts how essential he is to the FN’s fundamental identity. He has undoubtedly embedded his family’s name in the party’s firmament over the past 40 years. Under Jean-Marie, the FN also transformed into a family business, at one point involving all of his three daughters. Today, only Marine, Yann (Jean-Marie’s second daughter), and the latter’s 25-year-old daughter Marion (also one of the FN’s two members of parliament), are still closely involved in the party organization.

But Jean-Marie Le Pen’s virtual inseparability from the FN will make Marine Le Pen’s ongoing project all the more difficult. Since taking over, she has been trying to detoxify the party to build it into a nationalist, anti-European Union vote-winning machine. She has, for instance, appropriated the old FN slogan “French people first” as her own. Last May, the FN won a record 24 seats of France’s 74 for the European parliament. But despite its allusions to the glories of old, the “new” FN has had limited electoral success, holding just two seats in the National Assembly and two in the Senate.

Under Marine, the FN has restocked its bureaucracy with fresh-faced cadres, free of the elder Le Pen’s baggage. That’s included prominent figures like Florian Philippot, 33, a former adviser to center-right movements who now serves as the FN’s vice president, and Nicolas Bay, 37, the party’s general secretary. To sideline the old guard and reassure some of the more moderate electors, Marine also created her own personal brand during the 2012 presidential campaign (where she ran for the first time in place of her father): “Blue Marine,” aimed chiefly at expanding her electoral base beyond the FN while keeping the party organization under her iron fist.

The latest row between father and daughter includes all the ingredients of Greek tragedy: inflamed rhetoric, betrayal, repudiation, and (political) parricide. “In the interest of France, I am supporting Marion Maréchal-Le Pen to lead the FN list in the regional elections,” Jean-Marie Le Pen said in a statement about his grand-daughter, who now seems poised to lead the FN list in the southern region of Provence Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Publicly supporting Marion while breaking with Marine was the only way for him to step out without losing face. Le Pen père has fewer supporters within the party he built, many of them having passed away or retired from politics. But he can still count on old-guard friends like Bruno Gollnisch, who alluded to a possible run against Marion Le Pen on his blog. “Marion is the most popular, but I would probably favor Gollnisch who is more experienced,” said Le Pen.

What will happen to the FN once the dust has settled? After the Mégret split in 1998, the party lost much of its steam, along with half of its seats in the European Parliament in 1999. This time, the new generation is in place: not just Marine and Marion, but also the young party officials who have been hired by the new leader since 2011.

Both of France’s main parties, the center-right Union pour la Majorité Populaire (UMP) and the ruling center-left Socialist Party, have been celebrating the decline of the FN over the past few weeks. Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, the general secretary of the Socialist Party, joked on April 9 that “Marine is ready to kill her father to reach power.” Three days later, UMP President Nicolas Sarkozy asked: “Can you imagine a 2017 election where the two second-round candidates will be François Hollande, this president who has promised so much and delivered so little, and Marine Le Pen, who after lecturing all of us is now imposing on us this pathetic family reality show?” 

Perhaps they shouldn’t be so quick to gloat. The FN may yet pick up the pieces. It is hard to predict the final line up of candidates — much less the state of the economy or the climate regarding immigrants — by the time the 2017 election season begins. Despite the serious family row, it is still possible for Marine to make it to the second round of the 2017 election, with or without her father’s support. A test of Marine Le Pen’s skills in driving her party towards power will be the next regional elections in December. By then, her father and his supporters might have reduced their ambitions.

This piece was originally published by
Foreign Policy