France: Marion Marechal’s Long-Game?

On 25 May 2018 Marion Marechal Le Pen, the former National Front MP and niece of the party leader Marine le Pen, announced that she was changing her name. She would, she stated, from now on be called Marion Marechal. According to Marion Marechal, who stood down as an MP prior to the June 2017 French parliamentary elections, her decision to abandon the Le Pen family name was meant to mark her move away from politics and her adoption of new ‘civilian’ career as an educationalist. She pointed out that she had adopted the Le Pen name prior to standing as a candidate in the 2012 parliamentary elections. This apparently personal act is, however, related to on-going divisions over ideology and strategy within the French populist right.

The National Front was founded in 1972 under the leadership of Jean Marie Le Pen as a coalition of fringe right-wing groups including monarchists, ultra-Catholics, small business and anti-state Poujadists, and Nouvelle Droite students and intellectuals. Jean Marie Le Pen sought to unite these diverse and fissiparous groups behind a nationalist anti-immigrant position which, strategically sought to contest every election, no matter how hopeless were their chances of winning. This electoral strategy yielded success when in the 2002 presidential elections Jean Marie Le Pen emerged as a right-wing outsider challenge to the centre-right incumbent, Jacques Chirac. Jean Marie Le Pen was resoundingly defeated in the second round of these presidential elections, but only after left-wing voters had reluctantly to vote for Chirac as part of a ‘republican alliance.’

Marine Le Pen, the youngest of Jean Marie Le Pen’s three daughters, made her political debut in 1998 when she was elected as a regional councillor for Nord-Pas-de-Calais in north in north-east France. In the aftermath of the 2002 presidential elections the internal politics of the National Front became increasingly familial and dynastic as Marine Le Pen rose to prominence within the party leadership. In January 2011 Marine Le Pen was elected as leader of the National Front. As party leader Marine Le Pen sought to set the party on a new strategic course. This strategy was based on the understanding that while the National Front had secured a significant electoral following it continued to be locked out of power by the readiness of supporters of the mainstream parties of the right and left to unite against it. Marine le Pen attempted to counter this tendency by following a policy of ‘de-diabolisation’ involving the development by the National Front of a more moderate public image. Marine Le Pen, in particular, sought to present the National Front as being liberal on social policy issues such as gay and female reproductive rights. Marine Le Pen also sought to rein in or remove some of the party’s more militant supporters. Most notably in August 2015, in an act of political parricide, Marine Le Pen had expelled her own father, Jean Marie Le Pen, from the party, following his repeating of remarks he had made previously about the Holocaust being a ‘detail of history.’ Marine Le Pen put in place economic policies which would potentially be attractive to voters who had formerly supported left-wing political parties. This economic nationalism was seen as corresponding to the concerns of voters in the deprived rural and urban areas of northern France where Marine Le Pen had her party support base. It was calculated that this populist economics would allow the National Front to reach out beyond its traditional right-wing support base, attract new voters, and achieve electoral success.

The April/May 2017 presidential elections were a major electoral test for this strategy. In the second round of the election Marine Le Pen faced Emmanuel Macron, the candidate of the radical centrist, En Marche movement. Macron gained 66.1% of the vote and 20.7 million votes to 33.9% and 10.5 million votes for Marion Le Pen. While this was, arguably, an impressive result for Marine Le Pen in terms of vote share it did not come close to the victory that many National Front supporters had been expecting. The June 2017 parliamentary elections saw a slump in support for the National Front. Marine Le Pen was elected as an MP, but her parliamentary performance has been lacklustre.
Following the election the National Front entered a period o introspection and division. Its post-election strategic direction remains unclear. In September 2017 Florian Philippot, one of the key architects of Marine Le Pen’s northern populism, left the party after criticism of his role in the election campaign. In February 2018 Philippot found his own political party, the Patriots, but it seems unlikely that this will present a serious challenge to the National Front. Marine Le Pen seems to be attempting to push forward with her previous policy of rebranding whilst also appeasing some of the party’s more traditional supporters. At the National Front congress in Lille in March 2018 Marine Le Pen proposed that, as part of a continuing process of change, that the party should change its name to National Rally. It is the intention that, following consultation with the membership, the new party name should be in place in time for the 2019 European elections. The National Front tends to do well in European Union elections, which are conducted under a single round proportional system, and the party leadership appears to hope that they will provide an opportunity for electoral revival following the defeats in May/June 2017. The reactions at the Lille conference to Marine Le Pen’s suggested name change were, however, mixed. The name change was finally approved on a vote of only 52%. Marine Le Pen may also be feeling a sense of disquiet at the continuing influence, and potential challenge from, her niece, Marion Marechal.

In the June 2012 parliamentary elections Marion Marechal Le Pen was elected as MP for the southern French constituency of Vaucluse. At the age of 22 Marion Marechal Le Pen, whose mother was Jean Marie le Pen’s second daughter Yann, was the youngest member of the French parliament and one of only two National Front supported MPs elected. Following her election Marion Marechal Le Pen came to be identified as the leader of a southern traditionalist stream of opinion within the party. She advocated policies which were socially conservative and economically liberal. Marion Marechal Le Pen also sought to develop links and speak at meetings of traditionalist groups such as the Catholic and royalist Action Francaise. All this was in contrast with Marine Le Pen’s promotion of social liberalism and statist economics. There was an additional family element to this division between aunt and niece over policy and strategy. While Marine Le Pen had split from her father Marion professed herself to by loyal to the traditions established by Jean Marie Le Pen when he founded the National Front.

Marion Marechal Le Pen also sought to cultivate international contacts with socially conservative organisations. In May 2016 Marion Marechal Le Pen was one of the speakers at the World Congress of Families conference in Tbilisi, Georgia. The World Congress of Families is a US organisation based in Rockford, Illinois, and is known for its opposition to LGBT and abortion rights. The local organisers of the conference were Levan Vasadze and Tinatri Khombaradze from the Georgian Demographic Society. The World Council of Families is also reportedly backed by the pro-Putin Russian oligarchs, Konstantin Malofeyev and Vladimir Yakunin.

This development of socially traditionalist links, both nationally and internationally, reflected Marion Marechal le Pen’s belief that strategically the National Front needed to maintain its right-wing identity so that it would. In the longer term, be able to do deals with the established centre-right parties, and in that way enter the political mainstream. This was in direct contradiction to Marine Le Pen’s belief that the National Front could build a populist constituency not defined by the existing left/right political spectrum.

Tensions between Marine and Marion Marechal Le Pen grew during the course of the 2017 presidential election campaign. Marion Marechal le Pen played an important role in the campaign, and was popular with the National Front’s supporters, but was increasingly seen as a rival by her aunt. In an interview given in the later stages of the election campaign Marine Le Pen stated that if she won she would she would not necessarily be appointing Marion to her government as she was both too ‘hard line’ and too ‘inexperienced’.

On 9 May, two days after the second round election result, Marion Marechal Le Pen announced that she was withdrawing from politics. This took many observers, who had expected her to play a leading role in the party’s post-election politics, by surprise. Marion Marechal Le Pen stated that she wanted to spend more time with her young daughter, and that she was also considering a future career in business.

Marine Le Pen may have been glad of her niece’s departure as she struggled to control the party in the immediate aftermath of the elections. It soon became clear, however, that Marion Marechal Le Pen had not ceased to engage in politics. She continued to develop her international political contacts. Marion Marechal Le Pen was invited to address, on 22 February 2018, the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) at its annual gathering of US Republican activists in Washington DC. The other speakers at the CPAC conference included Donald Trump, President of the United States, Mike Pence, Vice-President of the United States. This was a major breakthrough for Marion Marechal Le Pen who, along with other National Front leaders had previously been confined to the far-right margins of international politics. Some Republican commentators expressed disquiet over her presence at CPAC. They saw this as indicative of the shift away from the centre-right of the Republican Party under Donald Trump. Marion Marechal Le Pen began her speech by assuring her ‘fellow conservatives’ that she was not offended to ‘hear President Donald Trump say – America First’ as she similarly wanted to put France First. She went on to state that forty years of uncontrolled immigration had transformed France ‘from the oldest daughter of the Catholic church to the niece of Islam.’ Addressing other issues she declared that in France there now existed a youth movement ready to ‘protect their children from eugenics, the elderly from euthanasia, and humanity from transhumanism.’ The speech was well received by the conference audience.

Marine Le Pen had also sought to develop links with Donald Trump, but with notably less success. The National Front had greeted Trump’s election victory, which they saw as the triumph of a fellow populist, with enthusiasm. On the night of Trump’s election victory Florian Philippot, at that time a close advisor to Marine Le Pen, tweeted ‘Their world is collapsing, ours is being built.’ This admiration does not, however, appear to have been reciprocated. In January 2017 Marine Le Pen was seen drinking coffee at Trump Tower with Louis Alliot, National Front Vice-President and her partner, and Guido Lombardi, a New York based property investor known for his far-right European links. There were, however, no meetings arranged with Donald Trump’s team during Marine Le Pen’s visit to the US. In March 2018 Steve Bannon addressed the National Front conference in Lille shortly after he had lost his job as White House advisor and subsequently also as Executive Chairman of Breitbart News. Steve Bannon’s participation in the conference provided the National Front with a high level of international news coverage. Some National Front members, however, questioned whether Steven Bannon’s presence at the conference, so soon after he had been cast out of Donald Trump’s inner circle reflected well on the party. Steve Bannon’s call in his conference speech for the National Front activists to wear accusations of racism as a ‘badge of honour’ also seemed to be out of line with Marine Le Pen’s continued aim of rebranding the party. Marine Le Pen may also have been irritated by the fact that Bannon used their joint press conference to heap praise upon her niece. Bannon stated that Marin Marechal Le Pen’s CPAC speech was ‘electrifying’ and ‘she is not simply a rising star on the right in France. She’s one of the most impressive people in the entire world.’ In response to Bannon’s enthusiastic comments Marion Marechal Le Pen tweeted ‘I answer yes to the invitation to Stephen Bannon CEO of Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign to work together.’

Within France Marion Marchal Le Pen’s activities have also continued to have a strong political focus, even though she has withdrawn from the National Front. She has announced plans to establish an Academy of Political Sciences. The academy is set to open in Lyon, in southern France, in September 2018. The stated objective of the academy is to educate a new generation of right-wing French leaders. This educational project may also be intended to allow Marion Marechal Le Pen to establish herself as an independent figure on the French right unencumbered by associations with the National Front. Marion Marechal Le Pen already has an opinion poll rating which exceeds that of her aunt even though she has, at least in theory, withdrawn from public life. It has, significantly, also been stated that the academy will be ‘open to all the political currents of the right.’ This may reflect an aim on the part of Marion Marechal Le Pen to use the academy to help, in the mid/long term, break down barriers between the radical and mainstream right. More immediately, however, Marion Marechal Le Pen has reportedly been encountering problems recruiting academic staff for her new educational institution. The association with the Le Pen family name was widely seen as constituting a barrier to participation in this project. Her decision in May 2018 to change her name to Marion Marechal should be seen in this context. While Marine Le Pen is engaged in renaming the National Front her niece has performed a more personal act of rebranding. It is interesting to note that this has taken place even though Marion Marechal has previously sought to declare her loyalty to her grandfather’s political legacy.

It remains to be seen whether Marion Marechal’s long-range strategy will achieve any degree of success. With the centre ground currently occupied by Emmanuel Macron’s En March the French Republicans under the leadership of Laurent Wauquiez have shifted to the right. They currently, however, appear to be focussed on taking National Front votes rather than making alliances or doing deals with them or other groups on the radical right. Marion Marechal would, however, appear to believe that the future will produce a more favourable environment for her, and the right-wing activists she intends to educate.

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