The right-wing populist parties currently gaining momentum in Europe count three weapons in their ideological armoury: the internet, charismatic leadership, and tactical use of the media. Now, with prominent figures including Marion Maréchal and Steve Bannon opening their own universities, the populists can add a fourth: education programmes to school the next generation of right-wing leaders.
Maréchal, niece of Marine Le Pen, opened her Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences (ISSEP) in June 2018, although it was only recognised as a university in January of this year by the Rectorat (the local education authority) in Lyon, France.
Though Maréchal, a former member of France’s national assembly, is technically retired from politics, the creation of ISSEP marks a new chapter in her political life. Her school will allow her to shape the political agenda from outside parliament as ISSEP’s general director.
Indeed, she hasn’t shied away from the school’s political intentions. In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, Maréchal said: “My process is by definition political. Wanting to form an elite to put to the service of the city, is by definition political.”
In an interview with the Economist, Maréchal unambiguously stated that she plans on returning to politics. She has pledged to commit a minimum of three years to her school – a timeline that coincides with the 2022 French election, where she has been tipped an early favourite.
For €5,500 a year, students at Maréchal’s university can take classes on “the art of disinformation,” “history and military strategy,” and “Islam and Islamic civilisation: analysis of a global trend.” ISSEP also offers weekend classes for an annual fee of €900.
Maréchal’s political leanings have sparked concern among some that the school will become a haven for young populists. And hers is not the only right-wing influence that may be exerted on the curriculum. The young politician is also in contact with Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News (though she refused his presence at ISSEP’s inauguration), while Raheem Kassam, the former London editor for Breitbart, sits on ISSEP’s board.
In neighbouring Italy, meanwhile, Bannon is heavily involved in the creation of a “Gladiator School” in a former Carthusian monastery near Trisulti. The Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), a catholic-fundamentalist think-tank lead by Benjamin Harnwell and his one-time boss Nirj Deva, a British Conservative MEP, is the school’s primary backer.
Harnwell has previously spoken at the World Congress of Families, a coalition that promotes Christian values and opposes abortions and gay marriage. Cardinal Burke who blamed “the homosexual agenda” for sexual abuse in the Church is the president of the DHI’s advisory board. (Marion Maréchal herself, incidentally, is against gay marriages as they “open the door to polygamy,” as she stated in an interview with the Telegraph.)
It’s difficult not to see these schools as a way to propagate the ideologies of the far right. Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent and associate fellow at Chatham House, says: “Ideas such as the ‘long march through the institutions’, which saw left-wing activists deliberately target public sector institutions and universities were never really taken as seriously on the right. I see [these universities], partly, as an attempt by some national populists to try and remedy that weakness, to establish institutions that can pass their ideology down to more recent generations.”
“The long march through the institutions,” a term coined by German activist Rudi Dutschke in the 1960s, was inspired by the Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s philosophy of cultural hegemony. Dutschke wanted to bring about radical political change by infiltrating establishment institutions such as universities, government and the media.
Maréchal herself is no stranger to Gramsci’s philosophy. During an interview with Le Figaro, she stated that the “cultural war had been won by the left 70 years ago via the media, schools and publishing”. She went on to add that “[this cultural war] build[s] an intellectual prison where young French are taken hostage. We are ready to take on this prison.”
Jean-Yves Camus, the director of the Observatory for Radical Politics (ORAP) and a specialist in nationalism and extremism in Europe, believes that the aim of ISSEP is to educate people “who in their respective jobs will share, effectively a number of ideas. The aim is to form an elite, but an elite with ideas strictly opposed to what the higher education system delivers.”
But while Maréchal’s project is ambitious, its degrees still aren’t recognised by the state, which makes recruiting students a tough affair. “In the French system, you need a diploma recognised by the government to do something in life. So this question is absolutely central,” says Camus. So until the diplomas are recognised, this project will struggle to take off.”
Andy Gorman is a freelance journalist who contributes to Agence France Presse, Business Insider and The Sunday Times Travel Magazine.