The French chattering classes registered surprise a couple of weeks ago at a very political speech that Marion Maréchal Le Pen delivered to the American Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland. Marion is the youngest of the Le Pen political dynasty, the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the Front National party and the niece of Marine Le Pen, the party’s current leader. Surprise, because after having served one term as France’s youngest ever MP, Marion announced that she would not seek re-election to parliament following Emmanuel Macron’s victory in May of last year. Instead she said that she was leaving politics altogether. How – and why - she was on the bill at CPAC has not been revealed. But her presence there served as a reminder that when her aunt, Marine, was running for the presidency of France, she singularly failed to get a photo-op with Donald Trump despite making a trip to New York for that very purpose.
For somebody who has decided to leave politics and devote the next years of her career to setting up an academy for young leaders in France, Marion’s political instincts are clearly as sharp as ever. During a ten minute presentation in highly accented and sometimes incomprehensible English, she borrowed largely from the ideology and vocabulary of Brexit and Donald Trump with well-rehearsed lines like “make France great again”, “we want our country back”, “never underestimate the people” and “France used to be the eldest daughter of the Catholic church and is now the little niece of Islam”. Her audience applauded loudly when they recognised a familiar point and obviously warmed to a young woman who must fit every American male’s fantasy about French girls. Interviewed on French TV, shortly afterwards, her aunt Marine looked distinctly dowdy and ill-at-ease, saying only that Marion was in America to pursue her business ventures.
However fresh and attractive Marion may have looked to the CPAC audience however, the ideas she expressed were neither fresh nor particularly attractive. They seem to come straight out of what Sudhir Hazareesingh refers to in his book “How the French think” (Penguin Random House, 2015) as “the demonology of French conservative nationalism”: the decay of the nation, an elite that is out of touch and the malevolent influence of Islam. That did not prevent her admirers in France from loving it. “Macron is the not the only one who can speak English”, commented one clearly adoring supporter in the comments section of the YouTube video of her presentation. Others made it clear that they wanted her back in politics and running the Front National. Facing a party conference in a week or so, Marine Le Pen is still fighting the headwinds of her lacklustre presidential campaign. She conceded magnanimously a couple of days later however that if Marion wanted to take on responsibilities within the Front National again, she would be welcome to do so.
All this being said, Marion is certainly more popular in her party than is the abrasive Laurent Wauquiez, new leader of the right-wing Républicains in his. Braving no serious opposition, he was predictably elected to the leadership a few weeks ago. Despite his impeccable educational background and considerable political experience though, Wauquiez is not everyone’s cup of tea. Centrist leaning party worthies like Alain Juppé, Xavier Bertrand or Valerie Pécresse have publicly criticised him and some have left the party altogether. No sooner had he been elected than he was embroiled in controversy when a speech he gave to business school students in Lyon was recorded, against his will we are assured, and widely broadcast on social media and the radio. The speech was full of derogatory and largely unfounded remarks not only about his political opponents like Emmanuel Macron but also, and more significantly, about his supposed political allies like Nicolas Sarkozy. Wauquiez subsequently apologised to Sarkozy and sought to justify his comments by claiming that he was only indulging in plain speaking, something he said that politicians should do more of. Most observers heard only gratuitous insults.
All in all therefore, very little has happened in the past few months to advance the cause of the right-wing opposition in France. Marion Maréchal le Pen has ruled out returning to politics any time soon and Laurent Wauquiez is struggling to define a political line that does sound fresh and attractive, within a party that appears to be losing an increasing number of activists and sympathisers. In a fund-raising mail shot that I received the other day, he refers to the values his party wishes to uphold, like work, merit and authority but also calls for a “reaction” to the government’s “passivity” in the face of a “massive” increase in crime and immigration. As his former colleague, Xavier Bertrand, pointed out perfidiously, if people didn’t know that such language had been cooked up by the Républicains, they could be forgiven for thinking that it was describing the policies of the Front National.
The biggest issue before the party therefore is how porous the border will turn out to be between its traditional voters and those of the Front National. Or as Jean-Marie Le Pen has put it on many occasions, whether they will they vote for the real thing or only for the copy. Elections to the European Parliament next year and municipal elections in 2020 will be the first opportunities to find out. But to make a mark once again, Républicains leaders will have to work out quickly how to mount a credible opposition to Emmanuel Macron’s reforms, which, in their heart of hearts, they approve of and would have liked to undertake during Sarkozy’s presidency - but didn’t. From his safe new vantage point as senior advisor to a venture capital firm, the once presidential hopeful, François Fillon, must be looking on wistfully as, one by one, the planks of what most people would consider a right-wing political platform are being torn up and put to use elsewhere.