Dynasties in politics have a way of going awry. From Papa and Baby Doc to John F Kennedy and Teddy, from George Sr and George Jr to Saddam and Uday, there is a common thread: things go downhill. Now France is at it. By paternal fiat, that old roughneck Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose far-right Front National (FN) keeps rocking the French republic, has lined up his daughter Marine as his future successor. Can Marine break the downhill trend?
The first thing I'm wondering as I board the "Paquebot" (Liner), Le Pen's two-decked headquarters beside the Seine in Paris, is whether Marine herself finds her sudden promotion to being a vice-president of the FN justified. At 34, she becomes heir apparent to perhaps the most potent extremist party in the western world and party regulars, alas, seem less than happy about it. Political dynasties, however, are by nature a little shy on democracy.
"My father has seen the interest I arouse among young people," she explains. This is good. In observing things inside the "Liner", I notice that the crew is on the elderly side, as Front National voters tend to be. "Also," Marine says, "he has seen women turning away from the party and he wants to stop it."
The weapons Marine possesses to halt feminine flight from France's diehard nationalist ranks are at once obvious and strangely disturbing. The youngest of Le Pen's three blonde daughters is a working mother of three, divorced, remarried, a trained lawyer, big-boned and good-humoured, with long fair tresses topped by sunglasses for a dash of style. But as we talk, the disturbing bit gains focus. I am trying not to think ungracious thoughts, but Marine is her hulking father's lookalike. The exact same combative Le Pen jawline with the plump underchin. A Le Pen clone then? The description is current in the French media, but Marine's side probably won't be comfortable with that. All right, what of Joan of Arc? Joan is the Le Pen icon. Marine says she named her first daughter after her, using the medieval form "Jehanne" for good measure. She enthuses about France's saintly heroine: "Joan had an exceptional destiny. It shows where love of country can take you."
Although the surname Le Pen can rush you to the top of a political movement, it is a tough name to carry. From early childhood, Marine and her two sisters have sensed people reflexively backing away from them when they realise they are Le Pens. "It's getting better now, but it hurt," Marine says. "My father has been in politics for 50 years and it's hard to break the idea people have of him. Fascist! Racist! Xenophobe! It's pure caricature. You don't know him. His views are more moderate than you think."
In his last major electoral outing a year ago, stage-managed by Marine, Le Pen Sr shocked the political world by eliminating the left's Lionel Jospin from the French presidential race and setting up a totally unforeseen showdown with President Jacques Chirac of the mainstream right. Le Pen won millions of votes. France's conscience reacted swiftly; Chirac won the run-off hands down. But who would have thought that old Satan could cause such damage? With his anti-immigration, anti-Europe, France-for-the-French tirades, he has been written off so many times that further repudiation seems merely to add girth to his chest.
Everyone, then, misunderstands the FN. That is clear from meeting Marine. "Your National Front in Britain has nothing to do with ours," she argues. "It's openly racist. We are the conservative right, not the extreme right."
Ah, Iain Duncan Smith will be pleased to hear of such Continental rapport. The point is, Marine continues, that France's Arab Muslim population (close in size to Britain's Asian and black population) has no cause to hate her party for its stand against immigration, or even for its desire to throw out people who cling to an alien culture. "French immigrants are the first victims of immigration. They live in ghettos. They don't have a good life. Our frontiers are wide open to immigration. When there's anarchy on immigration the conditions for immigrants can't be good. They're led to believe it's El Dorado, and it isn't."
At first sight, Le Pen's opposition to the war on Iraq would appear to support this back-handed notion of sympathy for misled Arabs. In fact, however, something much closer to FN hearts inspires the opposition to the Anglo-American invasion. "We don't want America as gendarme of the world," Marine says. Naturally not. It could further stifle French nationalism.
Britain, on the other hand, is in Marine's good books. Our part in the war was a stinging blow to the united Europe that Le Pen rejects. "Everyone knows Britain's link with America is stronger than all other links. Britain proves that Europe is pure utopia. It is increasingly obvious, thanks to Britain, that a federal Europe can't exist. The French now realise things they had not realised before."
Papa Le Pen's standard lines are coming out so nicely wrapped that I wonder at what age his girls learned them. The image takes form of Le Pen hammering his gospel into a cowed family at supper. It must have been an agitated political household. Jean-Marie Le Pen was France's youngest deputy when first elected to parliament in a previous far-right surge back in 1956. He hasn't much served in parliament since, but his political career has always been hectic and controversial, marked by clumsy anti-Semitic outbursts and by the occasional boost for Nazi Germany. He founded the Front National in 1972 when Marine was four; her sisters, Marie-Caroline and Yann, were 12 and nine.
"My father never talked politics at table," Marine assures me. I look for raised eyes or a teasing smile, but they're not there. "He didn't condition us or lay things down bang, bang, bang. There was no political education. It's more like the children of a musician. Your ear grows tuned to the music without you knowing it. My father provided the sound."
It seems the sound grew hard on the ear as time went on. The girls' mother, Pierrette, left him, and posed nude except for a skimpy maid's apron in Playboy to shame Le Pen during a bitter divorce (this in response to Le Pen's remark to newspapers that she should turn to housework if she needed money). Humiliated, the three girls took their father's side. Marie-Caroline, the eldest sister, rose in the party and seemed to be her father's favourite until she heard alternative music. When the scheming Bruno Megret, Le Pen's one-time second-in-command, formed a splinter party five years ago because he judged Le Pen to be past it, Marie-Caroline disavowed her father and went with the "traitor". Why?
Marine is still chagrined by the desertion. "My sister was pregnant, and the father of her child was Megret's right-hand man," she shrugs. Le Pen and his eldest daughter haven't seen each other since. Yann, the middle sister, works for the party but lacks political passion. She puts up marquees and flags for FN fetes.
By now I have grasped, at Marine's insistence, that her labelling of the party as "conservative right" in lieu of more disagreeable descriptions fulfils her chief task as heir apparent to the leadership. Le Pen does not seem to give a damn what people call him. She is Madame Moderate. Her mission is to make standard FN fare more digestible while not changing the menu. She won't quarrel with her father's views - indeed, she defends them all along the line - but she lists "enormous" differences between father and daughter, not always in her favour. There is her youth and her tested womanhood. But there is also his astounding knowledge of history and a touch-button memory that he employs in his off-the-cuff tirades and which she can't match.
"He has a depth of culture I don't have. He's an old-style orator, I'm a child of TV." Her spunky but gentler style in front of the cameras indeed offends fewer people than the violent outbursts her father is famous for. But TV talk-show chiefs who like blood on the studio floor may still prefer Papa.
Marine has the "right stuff" to head the FN and - why not? - to stand for president of France. That is what her father said in appointing her a vice-president of the party. For this proud father, however, putting France first usually amounts to putting himself first. Now 74, he intends to stand again for president of France in 2007, to see whether he can once again turn regular politics on its head. FN regulars who baulk at Marine's advancement suspect Le Pen Sr is merely using his daughter as a shield against more serious party rivals. Before going downhill, political dynasties need a timely death to get properly under way. The odds are that when Papa does go, the FN, so much his personal creation, will depart life with him.