Could the Le Pen family feud be a cunning political ploy?

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child! EPA

In France, the media has declared a “war” within Le Pen clan and the dispute seems to be escalating by the minute. The founder of the far-right Front National Jean-Marie Le Pen’s recent interviews on radio station RMC and in the extreme-right magazine Rivarol have caused consternation both within his party, the Front National, and outside it.

Besides his infamous revisionist comments about the Holocaust, Le Pen has recently reiterated – among other things – his belief that Marshal Pétain, the leader of the collaborationist Vichy regime in World War II, was unjustly treated.

More than the comments themselves, which have become par for the course with Le Pen, the medium he chose led to an unforeseen crisis. Le Pen declared that “one is only ever betrayed by their own” in a magazine as famous for its virulent opposition to his daughter Marine Le Pen, who is now leader of the Front National, as for its anti-semitism and petainsim.

Marine Le Pen has since denounced her father’s words and revealed that she will oppose any attempt on his part to stand as a candidate in regional elections this year. He has since said his daughter “may want me dead”.

The feud may be unseemly, but it could in fact be perfect timing for the process of normalisation being pursued by the Front National and Marine Le Pen’s ultimate hope to run for president. More than a war, this could well turn out to be a cleverly orchestrated move.

In the short term, the family crisis has allowed the party to shift attention away from the corruption scandals in which it is currently embroiled. A group of twenty MEPs stand accused of drawing staff salaries from both the European Parliament and the national party at the same time.

Such allegations could be extremely damaging for a party which has based much of its discourse on the denunciation of its mainstream opponents and their own corruption and elitism.

Better off alone

More importantly though, it might be better for both Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen if they were to part company.

Jean-Marie Le Pen would be allowed to finish his political career in the way he feels he has spent most of it – as an uncompromising rebel, a radical, an outsider true to his ideals and ideology. His legacy need not be tainted by the new-look Front National and its quest to become part of the mainstream. He would be able to blame all that on his daughter and her allies – even though the party started on this path under his leadership in the 1990s.

Marine Le Pen, for her part, would be free from her father’s embarrassing legacy. A split now would allow the party to move further towards normalisation. And it would be much more meaningful if it were to happen now, while Jean-Marie Le Pen is still politically active. If Marine Le Pen was to wait until her father stepped out of politics, his shadow would always hang over the presidency of the party.

Cutting ties would be a strong statement in her pursuit of credibility. It would show that the new leader of the party will not compromise on the normalisation process. It would also send a clear message to the more radical fringe of the party – and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen in particular, whose popularity could be considered a threat by Marine’s supporters.

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. EPA

The impending regional elections would also play a part in her decision. Replacing Jean-Marie could greatly enhance the Front National’s prospects as it would enable the party to broaden its support beyond the traditional extreme-right electorate.

Keep it family-friendly

At the moment, the situation remains unclear and Marine Le Pen has been careful not to give a strong indication of the kind of sanctions she might impose on her father. While many of her supporters have made their feelings clear, Marine Le Pen has made sure to keep her options open. She is well aware that Jean-Marie is unlikely to quietly leave the party he created and led for more than three decades.

Marine Le Pen also faces pressure from the more radical elements of her party. Although she was re-elected unopposed as president at the party’s annual congress in November 2014, her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen received strong support in the poll for the central committee. The youngest member of parliament won the contest in what was a clear defeat for the more moderate side of the party, with Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen’s main strategist, finishing fourth.

While Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has so far toed the line imposed by her leader, the hard core of the Front National supporters could prove less amenable if their historic leader was pushed aside.

Marine Le Pen is an undisputed and popular leader and Jean-Marie is no longer in his prime but this situation is reminiscent of an earlier incident in 1998, which caused a split in the Front National. After a spat, the electorate followed Le Pen, while the elite of the party sided with Bruno Mégret and his Mouvement National Républicain. Mégret soon found that a party like his cannot survive without a strong base.

While history is unlikely to repeat itself in this case, an acrimonious split would place Marine Le Pen in a difficult situation. The careful balance she has managed so far between a traditional extreme face and a more modern and moderate one, could become much less tenable.

On the other hand, if the crisis is settled in a more consensual manner, the Front National could well come out stronger in the short to mid-term.