The Le Pen family saga – aka “Le Downton Abbey français” or the Gallic Dallas — has a new plot twist.
There have been many rounds of “father vs daughter” battles — culminating in Jean-Marie’s expulsion from his far-right political party, and family business, five years ago.
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There is a personal and political rivalry, still unresolved, between Marine Le Pen and her niece Marion.
Now the clan that has dominated the far-right of French politics for the past half-century has developed a potential, new split — between Marine, the party president, and her vice-president and former romantic partner, Louis Aliot.
Aliot, 50, was the twice-divorced Marine’s lover for a decade until they separated last year. Last month, he scored an impressive victory in the French local elections.
Already a member of parliament for the Rassemblement National (né Front National), he became mayor of Perpignan in the southwest, the biggest French town to fall to the far right in 25 years.
“This was a great victory, a game changer,” Marine, the RN president, said. Her party had defeated, she pointed out, a second-round “Republican alliance” of all the local parties, both left and right.
Well, not quite.
Aliot, the party’s number two, did not run as a Rassemblement National candidate. He ran as the leader of a hard-right alliance, including the RN.
Although he remains officially a fervent “Mariniste” he refused to invite her to a single campaign meeting. He ran on a different message — avowedly right-wing, rather than the RN’s official mantra of “neither left nor right”.
His campaign was heavily influenced by Robert Menard, the hard-right but not RN, mayor of a nearby town, Béziers, who has split publicly with Marine Le Pen in the past three years. Menard joined Aliot at campaign meetings. Marine was kept away.
Some party insiders insist that Aliot is politically loyal, and suggest that he lacks the energy, skills or inclination to become a political rival. “He is not a very active man. As vice president of the party, he has been almost invisible. Being mayor of Perpignan will be more than enough to keep him busy,” one senior party member said.
Other RN insiders worry all the same about the informal alliance between Aliot and Menard, which threatens to widen an ideological split in the Rassemblement National between its southern and northern tribes.
Menard is a left-wing journalist turned far-right politician who has built a power base in Béziers in the past six years. Since 2017, he has been campaigning openly for a new post-Le Pen leadership of the French nationalist-populist, anti-muslim, anti-European right.
He told French TV viewers recently that there was no prospect of Marine Le Pen winning the 2022 presidential election — despite the unpopularity of President Emmanuel Macron; despite the deep post-Covid economic recession which threatens France this year and next.
Menard, re-elected easily in the first round of this year’s local elections, said that a repeat Macron vs Le Pen second round in May 2022 was “Macron’s insurance policy that he will win a second term”.
“That statement confronts the Rassemblement National with two problems”, says a senior party official. “First, Menard has been campaigning with Louis Aliot in Perpignan. Secondly, Menard is saying publicly what many people inside the party think privately. Marine can’t win in 2022.”
Outside France, commentators often assume — with fear or with fond hope — that Macron’s troubles may bring the far right to power in France in two years’ time. The opinion polls — though long-range and unreliable — suggest that Menard is right. Marine Le Pen has made up some ground since 2017 but is still a long way off.
She lost in the second round three years ago by 66% to 34%. A recent IFOP poll suggested that Macron and Le Pen would once again reach the two candidate run-off in 2022 and that the President would be re-elected comfortably but less crushingly than last time – by 55% to 45%. Another put the gap even wider, at 61-39.
The results of last month’s local elections — three town halls won, two lost — were also disappointing for the RN. They had originally targeted 50 towns.
Why, Marine’s critics inside the party ask, has she failed to draw significant dividends from the gilets jaunes rural and outer suburban rebellion in 2018-9? Why has she failed to gain political advantage from the Covid-19 crisis (when she made a series of strident, self-contradictory statements)?
The party’s chaotic finances — undermined by two prosecutions for alleged fraud, a failure to repay a Russian loan and the dethroned patriarch Jean-Marie’s demand for repayment of several million euros — are a partial explanation. So is the increasing divide between the RN tribes of North (blue collar, ex-left-voting, anti-immigrant, pro-big state) and South (ex-centre-right, anti-state and anti-muslim).
There is a section of the RN membership — and a large part of the wider French hard right and ultra-right — that would like to see the back of the Le Pens. The family name and family control of the party is, they believe, a barrier to the kind of success that the nationalist-populist anti-European right has enjoyed in Italy or Austria.
There is no prospect of such a change before the next presidential election. The family’s financial and emotional stranglehold on the RN is too great. If Marine fails for a third time, that will change but no obvious successor is yet apparent.
Marine’s niece Marion Maréchal was once spoken of as a possible future leader but she has now left the party and dropped the “Le Pen” from her name.
Are there any real ideological differences between father, daughter and niece? Yes, but there are also differences of ambition and political strategy.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, 92, is a sincere anti-semite and racist, descended from an extreme nationalist tradition in France which goes back well before fascism. Arguably, he never had an interest in power or government only in the “purity” of his ideas and the force of his own personality and rhetoric.
Marine, 51, is a second generation manager of a family enterprise. It’s not clear that she believes in anything very much. She is convinced that “Le Pen PLC” can only be truly successful if re-branded as patriotic, not racist (while constantly exploiting fears of an alleged Islamisation of France).
She is likeable but limited, especially in her grasp of economics. She does not want to ally with the centre-right but to replace its shaky hold on the conservative middle class — just as the RN has already become the most popular single party with the white, working class. Hence, her slogan “neither left nor right”.
Influenced by her own constituency in the ex-mining and industrial north of France, she has moved the party away from its Poujadiste, anti-state, anti-Communist, racist origins to something much more statist and interventionist — in other words both nationalist and socialist. She has stamped out all overt signs of anti-semitism or racism (but not hostility to Islam).
Marion, 30, is an old fashioned Catholic conservative (despite her own divorce). She is fiercely intelligent but lacks her grandfather and her aunt’s charisma. She has taken a break from active politics to found a nationalist-Catholic political science university in Lyon.
She believes that the French Right — both far right and centre-right — should be merged and refounded as a nationalist movement based on traditional Catholic and free market values.
These tensions within the party — and the family — were laid bare last month by the 80th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s BBC radio appeal from London for French resistance against the Nazis.
Marine Le Pen likes to use De Gaulle as a symbol of her efforts — partially successful — to detoxify the Le Pen brand since she became party president in 2011. When I interviewed her the previous year, she told me that she would have been pro-De Gaulle in 1940, not pro-Vichy (the |Nazi-sympathising regime which ran part of France for four years until 1944).
For the 80th anniversary of De Gaulle’s London appeal on 18 June she went much further. She wrote an article lionising De Gaulle as a “great man”. She said that le général foreshadowed the same nationalist, “neither left nor right values” that she did.
She attempted to gate-crash celebrations on the Ile de Sein off Brittany — a Gaullist shrine because all of its men sailed away to join the general in London in 1940. She was booed and jeered by the islanders.
Marine’s failed takeover bid for Gaullism was widely mocked in the French media. It also did her enormous harm within a traditionalist section of the party — especially in the South.
Her father, Jean-Marie, detests De Gaulle and Gaullism. In the first volume of his memoirs published two years ago, he wrote that De Gaulle “will always for me be a horrible source of suffering for France”.
Few RN members would now claim to be the spiritual descendants of Vichy. Many still support or remember nostalgically the cause of French Algeria, betrayed, they believe, by De Gaulle in 1962.
Almost all of them — “pieds noirs”, French north African colonists or their descendant or sympathisers — live in one of the RN heartlands in the lower Rhone valley and the coastal plain of the Mediterranean from Toulon to the Spanish border.
“The whole De Gaulle anniversary episode was ill-conceived. It illustrates the poor quality of the young and ignorant people who now surround her,” a senior party insider said.
To Marine, being a latter-day Gaullist is just clever politics — a way of breaking down the walls which still divide the right and far right in France. It is a way of identifying herself and her rebranded party with official French identity and history (however simplified).
To others in the party — and the harder and further right outside the party — it confirms their view that Marine is lightweight and not a sincere nationalist. She misunderstands, and even disapproves of, the core identity of a movement which is all about identity.
Marine is already disliked by the ultra-Catholic tribe within the RN for being twice divorced, for being a female politician, for being pro-abortion and for having gay men in her entourage. She has now angered another, mostly southern, anti-Gaullist tribe by insulting their alternative view of French history.
A former senior party official said: “The De Gaulle escapade may have helped her with some new RN voters or members who don’t know about, or prefer not to known about, the party’s origins. It was very damaging to her in the south.”
The campaign that Louis Aliot ran this year in the struggling French-Catalan city of Perpignan (over 20% unemployment) ignored some of Marine’s favourite themes and arguments. It was based on the strategy of Robert Menard (who is himself a pied noir) in Béziers, 50 miles to the north.
Aliot attacked the clientelism and corruption of mainstream parties. He promised to be tough on crime. So far so normal for the RN.
But he also stressed “southern” and local identity and values. He promised to bring religious and ethnic communities together. He avoided most — not all — of the normal RN Muslim-baiting themes.
Above all, he kept Marine away and kept the RN name and logo off his campaign posters and literature.
Parts of the far-right electorate in the French south have long ago split from Lepennism and thrown in their lot with the alternative, regional movement, the Ligue du Sud, started by the ex-Lepennist mayor of Orange, Jacques Bompard, 10 years ago. Bompard also stresses the “authenticity” of “warm” southern French values compared to the alleged arrogance and elitism of Paris and the north.
Marion Maréchal (then Maréchal-Le Pen) was seen as a possible future southern queen for the RN (then FN) when she was elected member of parliament for Carpentras in the Rhône valley, aged 22, in 2012. Her political ambitions now seem to be outside her grandfather and her aunt’s movement.
Menard — never a Lepennist but once part of the wider “Bleu Marine” coalition — has hinted in a TV interview in recent weeks that he will consider running for president himself in 2022. He will then be 69; he is a successful mayor but poor orator and uncharismatic TV performer.
Some within the RN fear — others maybe hope — that his alliance with Aliot in Perpignan is not just temporary or local. They think that he wants to groom Marine’s former boyfriend as her successor — not for 2022 but for 2027.
The soap opera continues…