July 14, 2021

Pity, if you can, Marine Le Pen, beleaguered leader of the right-wing French National Rally. Her party, which she has led over the past decade, from the extremist fringe to a believable shot at the Presidency, performed dismally in the recent regional elections. Her grudge-bearing 93-year-old father, Jean-Marie, whom she kicked out in 2015 from the movement he founded half a century ago, now crows that her “normalisation” policies are backfiring, making her “wishy-washy” and “boring” and losing her crucial votes. Her 31-year old niece, Marion Maréchal, a former MP officially on a break from national politics, has kept silent, but let her entourage work on the maverick presidential campaign of Eric Zemmour, a fiery TV polemicist and best-selling author, who is planning to reclaim the hard-right vote. And that’s just the reaction of her immediate family.

There is no political movement in France where the personal is more political than the former National Front. When Marine Le Pen renamed it “National Rally” in 2018, she had just achieved her (and the party’s) best performance ever — reaching the second round of the Presidential election, the year before, and scoring 34% of the vote against Emmanuel Macron. She was certain that tomorrow belonged to her. The way to success against the man who had managed to break up traditional parties Left and Right, she believed, was to offer a respectable alternative to the Macron revolution. The key to this was — symbolically — killing her transgressive father once and for all. The problem, as it always has been, is that Le Pen père, like a Breton Freddy Kruger, won’t stay dead.

The National Front had always been a family concern. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s two wives, his three daughters, most of their various husbands or boyfriends, his niece, have all held positions at one time or another in the movement. Non-Le Pen family members, however talented, can always be (and almost invariably are) expelled. Talent is actually a drawback: there’s every likelihood that if you start getting good media coverage, or try to lead an ideological faction — like, only six months ago, the Cairo-born 50-year-old ENA graduate Jean Messiha, a Copt who’s a top mandarin at the Ministère de la Défense — you will be out in the cold. Not so with family and loved ones. Marine’s mother, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s estranged first wife Pierrette, fallen on hard times after a remarkably acrimonious divorce, now lives again in a small house on her ex-husband’s estate in West Paris. Le Pen not so long ago gave a party job to a former boyfriend of Marine’s who’d at one stage run against him, and had written a vitriolic exposé on the Front.

Marine herself told me that her political consciousness was born “when I was eight, with the help of 20kgs of plastique”. In 1976, a bomb wrecked the building where the Le Pens rented two flats, one for the parents, the other above for their three girls, then 16, 12 and 8. The police never found out who’d laid it or why. What the Le Pen daughters also remember was the complete lack of support: not a single declaration from any politician condemning their attempted murder. Their clan mentality also originates with this implacable early manifestation of cancel culture.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former paratrooper who fought in the Indochina and Algerian wars in between-times as a Poujadiste populist MP in the National Assembly in the Fifties, never lacked enemies. At the time he famously was friends with another MP, the youngish François Mitterrand, with whom he shared a taste for good food and pretty women (as well as a similar outlook on keeping Algeria French). The advent of Charles de Gaulle in 1958 solidified the divide between Right and Left, with Le Général as incarnation of a very different Right from Le Pen’s. Le Pen founded the hard-right Front National in 1972, but its scores remained tiny until he was rescued 10 years later by none other than his old mate Mitterrand, now the Socialist president of France.

Aware that his 1981 election had been narrow, Mitterrand decided early on that he needed to split the opposition vote. For the 1982 local elections campaign, Mitterrand ordered State-run television to stop blackballing Le Pen in political programmes, where his gift of the gab and vast historical knowledge instantly gained him followers. In 1985, aiming to minimise his projected losses to Jacques Chirac’s Gaullists the following year, Mitterrand passed a Constitutional reform to establish PR for the 1986 General election. Chirac won nonetheless, but the National Front gained big: 35 MPs in the National Assembly, a figure they’ve never reached since. PR did not last in the French system, but the Front had been transmogrified from a specialist concern into a genuine political force, and a useful foil.

Jean-Marie Le Pen enjoyed it vastly; his daughters, less. Never expecting to come to power, he became “le monstre”, the national provocateur, the man who said outrageous things where other politicians hedged: on immigration, on Europe, on “American-style capitalism” (which a whole swathe of the French Right has always loathed: long-Catholic France has a quasi-Marxist view of the evils of money and finance). When this seemed to become less edgy, he dropped anti-Semitic bombs, calling in an infamous 1987 radio interview the use of gas chambers “a mere detail” of the history of WWII, which sparked national outrage. He pointedly repeated the phrase in 1997, 2008, 2009 and finally 2015 — the moment Marine seized to oust him definitively from the party.

By that time she’d been President of the Front National for four years. Her father had pushed her 2011 candidacy, to fight off a rival bid by Bruno Gollnisch, a university professor and Euro MP, a long-time Front senior figure with an eye on the 2012 presidential candidacy. She had legitimacy — as a Front regional councillor since 1998 in France’s northern Rust Belt; as her father’s 2007 presidential bid campaign manager; and, increasingly, as the Front’s new, more acceptable face. But mostly, old Front hands tell me, “She was the Chief’s daughter. The Front is really a monarchy. It comforts the old militants. You need to be of the blood.”

No wonder that the old patriarch feels betrayed. Marine wants to win, and believes she can. She’s looked at the rest of Europe, at Donald Trump’s rise and fall, at the divisions and lacklustre performance of the post-Sarkozy Républicains. Born in 1968, she genuinely has no interest in stirring old French ideological quarrels dating back to the Dreyfus Affair and the Occupation. She believes, especially since 2015, that mass immigration is rejected by a majority of the French — and has the polls to prove her point. She’d rather be Ivanka Kushner than The Donald. She’s not too worried about her niece Marion Maréchal, whose traditional Catholicism will gain her votes among the old style French conservative right, but not within Marine’s large Rust Belt constituencies, the northerners who 25 years ago still voted for the Communist Party.

Her real worry is Eric Zemmour, 62, a reviled but talented polemicist whose weekday evening debate, at 7:00pm, on the cable news channel CNEWS, gives him an unparalleled platform. Zemmour, who is Jewish but defends the idea that France is at heart a Catholic country, has Jean-Marie Le Pen’s debating agility (and way of stretching the occasional fact in his sweeping historical tirades) coupled with ideas matching Marion Maréchal’s. He’s come into his own by zapping woke culture and fashionable national self-abasement.

If Zemmour splits the right-wing vote, he may pave the way for the moderate Républicain Xavier Bertrand to come second in the first round of next year’s presidential election, which would probably amuse the old Jean-Marie Le Pen no end. But this is by no means certain: another scenario, comforted by early polls, shows him stealing more votes from Bertrand than Marine. His potential voters are more urban, older, better-educated: a good chunk of them want the Républicains to start running what they call “actual right-wing candidates” instead of “centrists”.

Zemmour himself has considerably evolved in the past 10 years or so. A Le Figaro journalist since 1996, he wrote classic biographies of Edouard Balladur and Jacques Chirac that sank without trace, before specialising in sweeping essays with a provocative bent (one, called “Le Premier Sexe” as a riff off Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic “Le Deuxième Sexe”, bemoans the disappearance of virile man in our civilisation). His style is sort of belligerent Jordan Peterson. He believes that the French nation, inspired by the May 68 generation, is committing suicide: his 2014 book Le Suicide Français sold half a million copies.

An exciting television and radio debater, Zemmour has nonetheless been fired from a series of programmes, mostly for saying “unpalatable” things that range from the obvious (that French prisons hold mostly Muslim criminals) to the weird (a strange defence of Philippe Pétain, the Collaboration Vichy leader). It may well be that his right-wing radicalisation has been exacerbated by his opponents’ intolerance — again and again, he was kicked out from programmes where he’d multiplied audience ratings. When, two years ago, the media billionaire Vincent Bolloré decided to recreate his lagging CNEWS cable news channel into the French Fox news, Zemmour became one of the channel’s main assets.

He remains coy about his possible candidacy; but when a group linked to the National Rally Orange mayor Jacques Bompard pays for tens of thousands of “Zemmour Président” posters, it’s obvious that he has found concrete support, especially among hard-right voters who’ve lost hope in Marine Le Pen’s capacity to win. Catholic intellectuals such as Jacques de Guillebon, an adviser to Marion Maréchal, and his review L’Incorrect, are now churning out position papers for him. A group of about a thousand students and young professionals have created committees to push “Le Z”, as they call him, across France. Zemmour also works with France’s most successful hard-right mayor, the popular Robert Ménard of Béziers, a former Reporters without Borders president, and his clever MP wife Emmanuelle. An old Mariniste who has switched to this new group tells me “It’s really exciting to work with intelligent people for a change”. All of which may yet go nowhere, but underlines Marine Le Pen’s weaknesses.

“Zemmour doesn’t have the weight to carry this off”, Jean-Marie Le Pen recently answered Elisabeth Lévy, the charismatic editor of Causeur magazine, who had come to interview him in his lair on his Saint Cloud estate overlooking the city of Paris. The old patriarch could have been dismissing Zemmour in uncharacteristic defence of his own daughter. Or, equally likely, venting his sharp jealousy of a man who was closing in on what his entire clan had failed to achieve in half a century.