There’s no such thing as bad publicity goes the old adage and in the ongoing saga which currently pits the Le Pen dynasty against one another, it seems that may well be true.
Of course, family feuds and internal fighting within a party are never good for business, but when your business is staying in the news, and most significantly, affirming a distance from a toxic fascist legacy, the National Front could do worse than a summer “coup” to oust the notoriously racist party co-founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. He in turn has accused his daughter Marine – the party’s leader – of ordering his “political execution”, despite her decision not to be present during the deliberations by the FN’s executive office.
The French press has been dominated by the ousting which cements an increasingly public divide within the FN between JM Le Pen’s openly far-right ideas and Marine Le Pen’s attempts to mainstream the FN, by downplaying its racist roots and focusing instead on anti-EU, anti-austerity rhetoric, and emphasising a cultural exclusivism, with wide traction on the left and the right in France. The extent to which the conception of an “Islamicisation of France”, an idea with roots on the far-right, as well as anti-immigrant discourse, have wide traction in current media and political discourse in France today, is testimony to the efficacy of her strategy. But central to this mainstreaming has been the need to resituate her father within the party’s hierarchy, while seeking not to alienate his supporters and risk dividing the party, a move which could see JM Le Pen leave with a non-negligible percentage of the party’s loyal supporters. For all the party’s appeal to a more palatable image, it still draws committed support from the fringes. And the last split within the FN, in 1999, when a disgruntled Bruno Mégret set up a parallel party, the National Republican Movement (MNR), led to the FN’s worst showing in elections since the 1980s, with less than 6 per cent of the vote. Marine Le Pen is very conscious of avoiding any such outcome.
The FN’s leader has the 2017 presidentials firmly in her sight and key to her strategy has been asserting her leadership of the party, despite the hold of her charismatic father, and navigating the delicate task of retaining his core base of support, while distancing the party from some of his more openly racist views. It is no surprise that JM Le Pen’s most vocal opponent within the party has been Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen’s strategic director for her presidential campaign and the man in charge of the party’s communications, who described the move as “logical” despite the shock expressed by other members.
In May, JM Le Pen was suspended by the party after repeated instances in which he made racist remarks, including his description of the Nazi gas chambers as “a detail of history”. In an attempt at damage control, the party announced a vote on a proposal to strip Mr. Le Pen of his honorary title of party president at its upcoming congress. It was during this congress that the patriarch was dismissed from the party, although thanks to a bureaucratic loophole, he does in fact remain the party’s honorary president.
Although the move had angered JM Le Pen and many of his supporters, it means that the firebrand MP – who won 33 per cent of the votes in the region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in the recent European elections– retains a formal association with the party, avoiding the real danger of a party split – for now. What’s more, he’s unlikely to disappear any time before 2019 given his role as an elected member of the European Parliament.
No one can say for certain to what extent the divide between Le Pen senior and his daughter is tactical or ideological. JM Le Pen’s closeness to his great niece, FN golden girl and France’s youngest MP, Marion-Maréchal Le Pen, suggests that although it is possible the appeal of his founding views have skipped a generation, there may still be far more unity within the party’s ideals than is publicly revealed – and indeed, a significant stake for Marine in presenting the divide as starker than it actually is.
In response to his exclusion, Jean Marie Le Pen says he plans to question the competency of the executive office to dismiss him, as well as its partiality, while his lawyer dubbed the decision “suicide” for the party. All the commotion has dominated the French press where the infighting within the FN is often presented as a somewhat bemusing family feud.
In reality, the FN has become a staple figure on the media scene, where it has succeeded in normalising its presence and ideas thanks to a combination of astute rebranding, careful image management and an arid political scene where infighting within the right-wing UMP and utter indolence on the part of the Socialist party has left the way ripe for the mainstreaming of previously marginal oppositional voices. While Le Pen’s accession to the second round of the presidential elections in 2002, where he decisively lost against Jacques Chirac, was met with general dismay, political analysts are already predicting a strong show by the FN in the 2017 presidential elections. In a poll by the French agency Ifop in January this year, Marine Le Pen would have won the first round of the election had it been held then, with its leader gaining around 30 per cent of the public vote, significantly ahead of all hypothetical challengers.
The exclusion of Jean-Marie Le Pen is a fortuitous opportunity for the party to distance itself once again, very publicly, from its xenophobic tendencies, ahead of a presidential campaign Marine believes she has a real chance at winning. But whether Le Pen’s marginalisation reflects a shift away from the founder’s racist views among the party more broadly remains to be seen, with various FN MPs coming out in shows of support for the patriarch. To quote the MP Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, “Le Pen may have been excluded from the FN. Now to banish his ideas.”