Split in the National Front: Mistake Before the Elections?

Jean-Marie Le Pen’s interview with far-right newspaper Rivarol led to the climax of the political fight between him and his daughter, party leader Marine Le Pen. Ms. Le Pen released a condemning statement of his actions following her father’s words defending Philippe Pétain (the Chief of State of Vichy France), calling the gas chambers “a mere detail of history,” and referring to Spanish-born French prime minister Manuel Valls as an immigrant. She called her father’s strategy a political suicide, damaging the whole party and declared that National Front will not support his candidacy at this year’s regional elections in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur. The current feud highlights the ambition of the FN to distance itself from its neo-fascist heritage and the conflict of this agenda with the older generations within the party. The main question is how a direct split with Mr. Le Pen will affect his daughter’s 2017 presidential campaign.

Image courtesy of Global Panorama, © 2012, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Global Panorama, © 2012, some rights reserved

It was not the first time Ms. Le Pen got into a difficult situation because of her father’s views. Last year, just two weeks after the National Front’s victory in the European Parliament elections, he published anti-Semitic comments about French singer Patrick Bruel in his online blog, invoking the gas chambers of concentration camps. Ms. Le Pen’s reaction at the time was more moderate, stating that her father was misinterpreted, but also acknowledging the political damage he caused. With the leaders of UKIP and the Dutch Freedom Party condemning Mr. Le Pen, Marine recognised the danger of her party’s isolation within the European far right. Her father’s anti-Semitic and racist comments also go against her agenda of transforming the image of National Front: acquiring more voters by abandoning neo-fascist slogans. Ever since she took over the party leadership in 2011, she has been aiming to reach a more mainstream audience with a process of detoxification, or, as she calls it, de-demonization. It worked remarkably well in the 2012 general elections, where the party achieved its highest score to date of 17.9% and in 2014, when it came first in the European elections. From the reactions after this latest scandal, it is clear that her previous successes earned her the support of party members. The FN mayor of Cogolin claimed that it is difficult to defend Jean-Marie Le Pen’s candidacy at the regional elections and expressed embarrassment because of his anti-Semitic statements.

After his daughter’s statement, Jean-Marie Le Pen fought back. He denied his retirement from politics and said that Marine “may want him dead”, but he will not assist to his own murder. Concerning his exclusion from the party, he claimed that Ms. Le Pen is unable to measure the consequences of her decision, which would eventually explode the party.

According to FN experts, such a schism has become possible. Despite the findings of an opinion poll carried our last year, which shows that more than half of FN supporters wanted Mr. Le Pen to leave the party, his achievements in making the organisation the political force it is today earned him the respect and loyalty of the older generations within the party. Two years after its foundation in 1974, the new formation got a mere 0.74 percent of the vote in the presidential election; in 2002, it made it to the second round against former French president Jacques Chirac, a success that shocked the French political elite. “We wouldn’t be here without him, we owe him everything”, FN member Aymeric Chauprade told France 24; and his view is shared by many others in the party, who strongly identify with its founder. Furthermore, the Le Pen war will possibly have financial consequences to the party, given Jean-Marie’s contributions through fundraising. It gives him a power that may easily convince FN members to take his side in a political battle against Ms. Le Pen.

However, other factors play in favour of Marine’s success in the 2017 elections. While she made the party more moderate on questions of anti-Semitism, FN is clearly still an extremist establishment. It is staunchly anti-immigrant and anti-Islamist in its discourse. Its ambition to leave the Euro zone in favour of the Franc further proves its extremism; but FN supporters are likely to vote for the party precisely for these elements of their programme. With national unemployment rates at 10.4% and president François Hollande being the least popular holder of the post in history, FN’s radicalism becomes more and more appealing to the French. Another factor contributing to the party’s success is the National Front’s support among young people: 25 year old Marion Maréchal Le Pen is the country’s youngest MP. However, despite her young age, she is closer to her grandfather’s voters than to her aunt’s fans. The youngest member of the Le Pen clan has not overtly taken Mr. Le Pen’s side in the scandal, but, as she gains more power within the party, she may replace him as an opponent to Marine within the party. At the moment, however, her aunt’s chances as a contender in the 2017 presidential elections remain strong, and this final split with her father is likely to ensure continued support for the FN in France’s current economic and political climate.