There was a time when 87-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen’s appeal to the French public was not so different from Donald Trump’s in the United States today. He said outrageous things some of which rang at least partly true to his unthinking far-right-wing fans. He called the Holocaust a “detail of history.” He suggested that the Ebola virus might take care of the African immigrant problem “in three months.” And so on. He was such a magnet for protest votes that in 2002 he made it into the runoff for the French presidency, only to have a vast majority of the electorate regain their senses and hand him a crushing defeat.
But since Jean-Marie’s daughter Marine Le Pen took over his party and started her own drive to be president by moving the party a few centimeters toward the center, the old man’s bons mots have been an embarrassment—and he just wouldn’t shut up.
So, after months of internal battles and bitter drama, the executive bureau of the National Front, France’s far right movement, finally decided this week to kick out its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Marine called this conclusion “inevitable” because her father had “multiplied his faults.” Le Pen initially was suspended in May from his title as Honorary Chairman but contested his suspension, which led to protracted court battles.
Don’t expect him to retire gracefully: he has already multiplied statements to say how “indignant” he was and promises to continue fighting for a party that is his “home.”
Initially somewhat entertaining, the Le Pen drama has turned into ugly nastiness. After his suspension in May, Le Pen senior went on a violent rant on the radio claiming he was “ashamed” by this “betrayal.” Always the gentleman, he “disowned” his daughter, suggesting she drop his last name by marrying her deputy, Florian Philippot, whose homosexuality had been revealed a few months before by a tabloid magazine.
At this point, the Le Pen family feud is embarrassing to watch and serves as tedious distraction to the party’s dangerous populist message.
There is no heroic literary quality to it. One might think of Brutus, Oedipus or Karamazov, such are the parricidal overtones, but the drama was subsumed in months of internal party bureaucratic procedure. Even Voldemort came out better offing his dad. Party insiders insist that Marine Le Pen has not suffered in the polls from this fighting, but it does shed light on the bizarre intermingling of family feud and partisan politics inside the National Front.
How are Jean-Marie Le Pen’s recent declarations news? He first stirred controversy in for his comments on gas chambers in 1987. A one-eyed firebrand, a charismatic speaker, he has been prone to racist comments throughout his career, sharing his enlightened views on the inequality of races, the high representation of minorities in the French soccer team or judging that the Nazi occupation of France was “not particularly inhumane.”
Marine Le Pen herself long defended her father for his comments. At 47, she actually lived with him, in his mansion in a Paris suburb, until last October when his Dobermans dramatically devoured her cat.
The arrangement spoke to the strange functioning of the Le Pens, a family business where politics is never far. (Marine is not alone, her mother, Jean-Marie’s ex-wife still lives in an adjunct house of the property. Most French know her for posing naked in Playboy after divorcing Jean-Marie, to embarrass him.)
Some political opponents have gone as far as speculating this whole feud might just be for show. But the level of violence attained would suggest otherwise, and Le Pen’s ouster does rid the current Front National (FN) leader of her main hurdle in the communication strategy of “de-demonization” she has been pursuing since she took the party helm in 2011.
An Algerian war veteran, Jean-Marie Le Pen started his political career in 1956 as the youngest elected Member of Parliament, at 27, with populist leader Pierre Poujade. In 1972, he co-founded the National Front to unify various right-wing movements. The FN started its life as a rather marginal movement, home to Vichy apologists, French Algeria nostalgics and Catholic ultra-conservatives.
In the 1974 presidential election, Le Pen garnered only 0.75 percent of the vote. But the party’s anti-immigration message struck a chord among the French public as unemployment rose in the 1980s all the way to the 2002 election where Le Pen stunned the establishment by making it to the second round. But after getting only 18 percent of the vote in the run-off, Le Pen showed the limits of his strategy.
His anti-EU and anti-immigration message would never touch the mainstream as long as most voters associated the party with fascist nostalgia. At the same time, his daughter rose through the ranks, largely aided by her father, offering a fresh new face to the movement. Quickly, she adopted a different tone.
As a member of the executive bureau who voted in favor of Le Pen’s ouster told me: “Marine wants political responsibilities, her father was just too happy being a provocateur, a spoiler. There is a moment you have to let go.”
Marine Le Pen wants to rebrand her movement as a modern eurosceptic and populist party, appealing to disaffected youth and lower class voters with little interest in refighting WWII or the Algerian war. She calibrates her message, along the likes of the UK’s Nigel Farage or the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, mixing economic protectionism and calls for national sovereignty against Brussels bureaucrats.
Meanwhile the FN advocates social measures such as raising the minimum wage or lowering the retirement age that would embarrass the socialist party.
Marine Le Pen chose to run in the Region Nord Pas-de-Calais in legislative elections, and the coming regional election, to make this point. Nord Pas-de-Calais is struck with deindustrialization, high unemployment and is home to the Calais migrants crisis.
Does that bring respectability?
Scratch beyond the surface, not much has changed within the party: it is still a refuge for conspiracy theory types, divisive rhetoric, minority baiting and populist grandstanding. For sure, the message now focuses on Europe and economic measures, as strategized by Florian Philippot, a convert from the eurosceptic left. But the party still rides a sense of national decline and lost identity.
As shown by an IFOP study, a considerable chunk of the FN electorate still shares the party’s historic antisemitism. Islam is a constant theme, especially when running for office.
Just this week, Marion-Marechal Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s grand-daughter and, at 25, one of the only two FN members of the National Assembly equated Muslims to Islamists while campaigning in the south.
In her 2012 presidential campaign, Marine Le Pen rode on a largely unsubstantiated claim that all the meat consumed by Parisians went, unbeknownst to them, through hallal slaughtering methods. The party platform still defends “national preference” measures that would require employers to favor nationals over foreigners when considering hiring. It also advocates dropping the “right of soil,” which grants citizenship to people born in the country, to focus exclusively on “right of blood.”
As has been reported, Marine Le Pen and her people are some of Putin’s most enthusiastic spokespersons in Europe. And the party was rewarded with a $9 million dollar loan from a Russian bank. Marine Le Pen praised the results of the Crimean referendum while her main diplomatic adviser, Aymeric Chauprade, who led the successful European parliamentary campaign, enthusiastically embraces Putin as “a model for all those who want a multipolar world … where Europeans are liberated from American domination and consequently of the European Union which is itself the product of this imperialism.” In 2011, Chauprade was fired from teaching at the French war college for questioning the official version of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The Le Pen family feud should not distract attention from these basic facts about the National Front. It should not be taken as evidence that Marine Le Pen is moving in a different direction, “not so far from the traditional right in the 1980s,” as claimed by my FN interlocutor. But voters are responsive. The coming regional elections will serve as a test to see if Marine Le Pen can repeat her success in the 2014 European elections where, for the first time in its history, the FN grabbed the first place in a national election. Many polls show her arriving first in the 2017 presidential election’s first round with a record 30 percent projection while she would still be roundly defeated in a second round. But she is moving ahead in her strategy to make the party more appealing. Lazy political opponent, unable to confront her message and her ideological appeal, had gotten used to confronting her with with the record of dad. Now, one might say, he’s just a detail of history.