About ten years ago, after asking a question at a political meeting organised by our local MP, a very orthodox right-wing member of the party that was called the UMP at the time, now Les Républicains, I was mistaken for a member of the Front National. Why the person who came up to after the meeting thought I was a member, or at least a supporter, of the Front National remains a mystery to this day, but what he said to me was, on reflection, very interesting. “It would be good if our two parties could work together” he said, meaning unmistakably that the mainstream and republican right wing should publicly recognise its affinities with the Front National and form a common majority. At the time Nicholas Sarkozy was the leader of the UMP before standing for, and winning, the presidency in 2007.
That brief conversation came back to me yesterday as news comes thick and fast of the preparations being made by all of France’s political parties for the parliamentary elections in June. As I wrote previously (“Seen on a train” - April 23) the shock waves from the election of Emmanuel Macron to the presidency have fanned out to all parts of the political spectrum. Yesterday, Macron’s new party, renamed La République en Marche published a list of 428 (out of 577) candidates. As always seemed likely, it is France’s left wing parties that have taken the hardest knock so far, with a three or four way split of the Socialist party in the offing, a clear attempt by Mélenchon to establish his own parliamentary party and the breakdown of talks on an electoral alliance with the communists. There will certainly be opportunities to focus on these events as they unfold in the weeks ahead.
But the right wing parties have felt the fallout as well. Marine Le Pen’s extraordinarily aggressive attitude during the televised presidential debate last week is not only felt by many to be responsible for her poor performance of just under 34% in the run-off last Sunday but, more importantly for her, has clearly not gone down well with party activists either, as multiple radio and TV interviews have shown. The plot thickened further yesterday when Marine le Pen’s niece and one of only two Front National MPs, 27 year old Marion Maréchal Le Pen, announced that she would not be seeking re-election in June and was leaving politics, citing a desire to spend more time with her two-year old daughter and work in the private sector.
Behind such boilerplate explanations lie real differences of opinion between what can be described as the “southern” wing of the party, focusing more on issues of immigration and identity and represented by Marion Maréchal Le Pen, and the “northern” wing represented by Marine and her right hand man, Florian Philippot, a graduate of ENA and the man largely responsible for the party’s presidential programme, focusing more on the negative effects of the Euro and globalisation.
Jean Marie le Pen, now 82, the party’s founder and patriarch has fallen out with his daughter, Marine, and is known to have a difficult relationship with Philippot. He blames both, sometimes publicly, for shifting policy away from the party’s traditional platform in an attempt to make it more electable. There are mutterings that it hasn’t worked. Marion’s withdrawl has turned these mutterings into a split and brought it into the open.
Marion Maréchal le Pen is Marine’s niece and Jean-Marie’s granddaughter. Like Obelix in the adventures of Asterix, she fell into the magic potion very early in life when she was pictured on an election poster in the arms of her grandfather at the age of two. After a straight-laced, catholic education in a well-heeled suburb of Paris, at the age of 22 she became the youngest MP of the Fifth Republic when she was elected to represent the town of Carpentras in the South of France in 2012. By all accounts she has worked hard, learnt fast and held her own in an Assembly largely populated by middle-aged men not renowned for their benevolent attitudes and impeccable behaviour towards attractive young women colleagues. Beyond her work as a constituency MP, Marion Maréchal Le Pen has become a standard bearer for the Front National’s traditional policies just as the party has officially shifted away from them. She is apparently very popular with activists and her withdrawl has been widely lamented in party circles. It is difficult to believe that having been inoculated with the virus of politics at such an early age, Marion Maréchal Le Pen will not return to politics in the future. After all, she will still be under 40 at the next presidential election but one in 2027.
Who knows what will have happened to the Front National by then? The founding father’s towering figure of Jean Marie le Pen may well have gone to meet his maker, leading to more serious attempts to shed the party’s fascist and xenophobic image and opening the way for alliances that go beyond the hastily concluded electoral pact with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan for this year’s run-off. If that were to happen, would there really be such a big difference in spirit between the traditional conservative values of a more respectable Front National, and the pretty radical right-wing programme that François Fillon proposed to his electorate in the primary from which he emerged victorious last November? Might not such a political platform appeal once again if President Macron is unable to curb France’s public expenditure, has little success in bringing down employment and restoring a sense of unity to the French people?
For the time being though, Fillon has been quietly forgotten and the new leaders of his party have proposed a much lighter version of his programme for the parliamentary elections. Their hope is clearly to emerge from them as part of a centrist presidential majority. Rumours are swirling that Alain Juppé, the most centrist member of Les Républicans and Fillons’s rival in the primaries, is trying to convince like-minded colleagues to support Emmanuel Macron by agreeing to become a minister or even Prime Minister in his government.
It is surely not too far fetched to imagine that the harder right wing of the party, of which Fillon and Sarkozy are fairly typical representatives, could eventually split from the centrist wing and form an alliance with a newly respectable and probably renamed Front National, representing a socially and fiscally conservative and Eurosceptic electorate in the Bonapartist and Gaullist traditions. The pace and the timing of that shift would depend, among other factors, on what come out of the elections in June, how many Républicain MPs are returned to the Assemblée Nationale and whether they form a part of the presidential majority or not. Sooner or later though, politicians with similar outlooks will want to come together to oppose a socially and economically liberal and Europe-oriented President. Birds of a feather may eventually flock together and the wish of my interlocutor of ten years ago could be fulfilled.
If and when it happens, I would not be at all surprised if Marion Maréchal Le Pen chose that moment to make a return to politics.