Patricide Politics

The Winning Strategy Behind the Le Pen Family Feud

Marine Le Pen may have forced her father out of the party he founded after his latest outrages, but that will just make her own pursuit of the French presidency easier.

04.13.15 7:25 PM ET

Last October, Marine Le Pen, 46, leader of the French far-right party the National Front, finally moved out of her father’s house. Her cat had been devoured by her father’s Doberman. An almost too-good metaphor for the dramatic family rift that had been brewing for months and abruptly escalated last week. After a series of provocative declarations about Nazi gas chambers (“a detail of history”) and the origins of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, whose family hails from Spain (“Valls has been French for 30 years, I have for a 1000”), Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s honorary president, stands accused of being pretty much what people always thought he was.

National Front party leaders, including and especially his daughter, vocally denounced his latest statements and denied him the party’s endorsement to run for the coming regional elections.

Worse, it would seem, Marine stated during an interview on Thursday night that her father was slip-sliding in a dangerous direction and should “have the wisdom to leave the party by himself,” or face a disciplinary committee to decide on his future within the F.N.. The elder Le Pen predicted, for his part, that the party he founded in 1972 would “die” if he were to be expelled.

The result, in fact, is likely to be quite the contrary. By figuratively killing off her father, Marine Le Pen would clear away a significant obstacle in a path that could lead her to the French presidency in the 2017 elections.

On Monday the elder Le Pen accepted to withdraw from the race in the Southeast region of Provence Alpes Côtes d’Azur, ceding his place to his granddaughter, Marine’s niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen. At 25 she is the youngest member of the National Assembly, one of two F.N. deputies.

The move underscores the extent to which the party is a family business. It was founded as a fringe refuge for Vichy and French Algeria nostalgics and other such right-wing crackpots. It rose to prominence in the 1980s, feeding on the emergence of mass unemployment and rising insecurity. When the party’s anti-immigration platform started getting attention, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a loud and eloquent speaker who lost an eye in a fist-fight during the 1950s, was perfectly suited to embody these concerns. “Three million unemployed, 3 million immigrants: there’s the solution,” an ominous campaign poster proclaimed in the 1990s.

In 2002, Le Pen’s ascension to the second round of the presidential election came as a shock to many. People protested en masse and voted against what they saw as a threat to democracy. In the run-off the incumbent Jacques Chirac defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen with a 64-point margin.

Le Pen’s ephemeral triumph in the first round of those elections also showed the limits of his message: he was happy to be a spoiler but stood no serious chance of getting near the Elysée Palace or controlling a sizable number of seats at the National Assembly. The F.N. would never gain the absolute majority of votes necessary to ascend to office. While denouncing the “UMPS system” which favors the two main parties, the conservative UMP and the Socialist PS), the F.N. came up against a tradition called the “republican front” where mainstream parties refused any alliance with the F.N., and generally supported one another in case the F.N. candidate stood a chance of winning.

Something had to change if the F.N. was to rule France one day.

Since inheriting the party leadership in 2011, Marine Le Pen has embarked on a strategy of “de-demonization” to make the party more appealing, even glamorous, to voters.

The intellectual architect of this rebranding is Florian Philippot, a 33-year-old technocrat who came from the ranks of the anti-European-Union left, and the current vice president. It’s said the octogenarian Jean-Marie despises him. But Philippot has helped make Marine’s party attractive to a much less geriatric generation: it attracts young voters and endorses a large number of young candidates. Despite its few elected MPs, it can boast the youngest member of the National Assembly and the Senate. (And a poll last week shows a majority of the French think the electoral system is rigged against the Front, since it garners so many more votes than it does deputies.) It is also relatively gay friendly: it was less vocal than the UMP in its opposition to gay marriage and has even attracted defections from the leader of a gay movement within the center-right party.

Le Pen Sr. has been the main obstacle to this strategy. Not only has he incessantly criticized it, his very looming presence, and his history of anti-Semitic and racist provocations is a turn-off for mainstream voters who may have been tempted to rally behind Marine. Jean-Marie Le Pen is taboo; Marine tries to be cool.

Make no mistake. Despite the embarrassment, this latest controversy is an incredible opportunity for Marine Le Pen, a shrewd politician who has, so far, managed a flawless communications operation: make her party increasingly respectable without changing its fundamentals ideas. She has undoubtedly refrained from anti-Semitic comments, has gotten rid of the skinheads marching alongside the F.N. parades and expelled candidates showing openly fascist or racist sympathies. Her speeches are filled with allusions to republican ideals such as secularism and she claims to be the true heir to Charles De Gaulle, the very leader despised by the party’s founders for granting independence to Algeria.

But scratch the surface and the party has not changed: it is anti-liberal, Europhobic and focused on immigration and Islam. Her 2012 presidential run placed great emphasis on the question of halal food that French families supposedly consume without their knowledge. Besides, F.N. voters still share the party’s historic anti-Semitism: 48 percent of Le Pen’s voters in 2012 consider “Jews have too much power in the media,” according to a recent Ifop study.

“The words and references have changed, the ideology remains,” says Raphael Glucksmann, a human rights activist who just published a book to denounce the rise of the F.N.’s ideas in the public discourse.  “In Italy, Gianfranco Fini had distanced himself from the core principles of European neo-fascism. She never did.”

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The party’s economic program is a mix of anti-free-market ideas and demagogic propositions like, for example, leaving the euro or decreasing retirement ages. Unsurprisingly, the F.N. has welcomed the victory of Greece’s far-left anti-austerity party Syriza. But its own sulphurous reputation scares off some other far-right European leaders who have taken care to distance themselves. Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, thus turned down an offer to establish a common group at the European Parliament last year.

The F.N. has also become a mouthpiece for Putinism in Western Europe. This latest controversy is a useful distraction from revelations from Russian hackers that Kremlin officials exchanged texts over how to “thank” the F.N. for its support for the annexation of Crimea. Coincidentally, a few months later, First Czech Russian Bank (FCRB) granted a €9 million loan to the F.N..

Not surprisingly, the party is pathologically anti-American. Aymeric Chauprade, who led the party’s victorious campaign during the 2014 E.U. elections and is considered Marine Le Pen’s main foreign policy adviser, was fired in 2011 from a teaching position at the French Ecole Militaire, or war college, for expressing doubts about the “official” version of 9/11. His blog delivers such stirring messages as: “Putin constitutes a model for all those who want a multipolar world, in which universal imperialist projects (like American or Islamist imperialisms) are contained, where Europeans are liberated from American domination and consequently of the European Union which is itself the product of this imperialism.”

Of course, a presidential victory in 2017 still appears an unlikely prospect at this point. However, numerous polls make Marine Le Pen the leader of the first round with close to an impressive 30 percent, even though she is still a far cry from gathering an absolute majority in the runoff. But her ideas are prospering in a country racked with self-doubt and obsessions about decline. In 2014, her party came out first at the European elections with 25 percent, the first time in its history it led a national election. It lost some steam this year, but this may be just a bump in the progress that has been steady over the last years.

Le Pen’s success is also a testament to the failure of the French mainstream political establishment to respond to her rise. Too content to use the F.N. as a scarecrow, shooing away any real discussion of controversial issues, French leaders have successively been unable to tackle the country’s pressing challenges from rampant unemployment (10.3 percent overall, 23.4 people under 25), stagnant growth (0.4 percent in 2014) and an integration mechanism that is broken.

Furthermore, the mainstream politicans often have looked for external culprits, like E.U. rules or globalization, to justify this inaction, largely playing into the F.N.’s discourse. This is partly a consequence of lack of real diversity among the current political elite. The current president, economics minister, finance minister, foreign minister and environment minister all graduated from the same school, three of them the same year. Only the 37-year-old economics minister, Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild partner, has any serious private sector experience. His timid attempts earlier this year to unshackle overregulated economic sectors have been blasted by his party’s parliamentary base.

Time is running out for mainstream leaders to address the country’s challenges and reclaim the defense of republican principles that have been hijacked by the F.N. to promote its divisive and intolerant agenda. Otherwise, the prospect of a Le Pen at the Elysée will no longer seem remote at all. Marine’s old man may have a vicious Doberman, but she has very sharp teeth of her own.