Le Pen game of unhappy families unsettles France’s far-right Front National

Banned from speaking, Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to photo-bomb daughter Marine at the FN’s May Day rally. EPA/Yoan Valat

Following a month of tension between Marine Le Pen and her father, the executive committee of France’s right-wing Front National has voted to suspend Jean-Marie Le Pen and to consult the membership on the question of removing his title as honorary president. Le Pen was co-founder of the party in 1972 and the man whose name become synonymous with it.

One might expect that after taking 25% of the national vote in March’s departmental elections, the Front National (FN) would be a happy place. But nothing is ever straightforward on the far-right of French politics or within the Le Pen family.

Le Pen senior has retaliated by publicly disowning his daughter and calling on her to change her name. He has also threatened legal action.

The roots of the conflict are both short and long-term. Although the overall number of votes cast for the FN in March was impressive, the second round of voting saw Nicolas Sarkozy’s mainstream right-wing party, the Union pour une Majorité Populaire (UMP, soon to become simply Les Républicains) and its allies take the majority of seats on France’s departmental councils.

The FN had hoped to be able to play the role of kingmaker in the election of the chairs of the councils, but when this failed to materialise, JMLP went on the offensive. In an article published on April 9 in the far-right newspaper Rivarol, he repeated a number of controversial comments including barely veiled praise for Marshal Pétain, leader of Vichy France under Germany’s occupation of France during World War II and lambasted his daughter’s policy of “dédiabolisation” – which can be translated in various ways, but refers to her attempt to “detoxify” the FN brand for voters while still sitting outside the French political mainstream.

The FN’s electoral success speaks for itself – however sincere MLP’s change of direction (and plenty of commentators have underlined that dédiabolisation is a cosmetic exercise). But, for his part, Le Pen senior has never hesitated to criticise the departure from the party’s “purer” ideological positions.

Happier days for the le Pen family, 2012. EPA/Ian Langsdon

This is not the first time the father has been forthright in his criticism of the daughter’s detoxification programme. Until now many commentators, this one included, have seen his outbursts as a useful way of keeping the party old-guard – hard-line Catholics, old Vichy supporters and so forth – onside.

Generation game

The departmental elections marked a step change. Not only did the FN gain a quarter of the vote, but it was able to put up more candidates than any other party. This is unprecedented and bears witness to the creation of what the French might call a “génération Marine Le Pen”. Suddenly, she needs neither the support of her father nor the old guard. The party has become hers, although the process has not been smooth.

The controversy caused by the Rivarol article scotched any hope Le Pen senior had of standing in the regional elections at the head of the party’s list in its stronghold of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, though his replacement by his granddaughter, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, whose politics are closer to his than to her aunt’s, is itself a matter of some intrigue and uncertainty.

Then, on May 1, at the party’s annual rally in Paris, timed to coincide with May Day – but also the commemoration of Joan of Arc, underlining the party’s popular but nationalist roots – Le Pen senior was forbidden from speaking, though his supporters made their feelings felt when his daughter stood to make the presidential address.

Nevertheless, the vote to suspend him, by a crushing seven votes of the eight participants, underlines that it is Marine Le Pen who has the full support of her leadership team, one of whom recently commented that the biggest danger to the FN now is the “real” far-right. And she would not be putting the question of the honorary presidency to the membership if she thought she might lose.

‘Sharper than a serpent’s tooth’

This turn of events was utterly foreseeable from the moment in 2011 when Marine Le Pen became leader of the party and not Bruno Gollnisch, the man many saw as Le Pen senior’s natural political and ideological successor. After the announcement of his suspension, Le Pen senior hit back by saying that he would not support his daughter if she stands in 2017 for the French presidency and that he wishes that she would lose the family name of Le Pen.

Setting aside the Lear-esque qualities of this statement, one can only underline the appropriateness of the thought. In many ways it is not Le Pen senior who is the father of Marine Le Pen’s political ideas and strategy, but Bruno Mégret, the former member of the FN and potential future leader of the party. It was Mégret in the late 1990s who urged a change of tack in order to exploit the fragmentation of the republican right accused by Jacques Chirac’s botched dissolution of the National Assembly in 1997. For his pains, Mégret was expelled from the party. But yesterday he had some sort of revenge.