Family, fascism and respectability

Everyone loves a family feud. Gina Rinehart gets more coverage for fighting with her children than for the things that actually make her an important public figure. And so with the Le Pens, founding family of France’s National Front, and the mesmerising battle between patriarch Jean-Marie and the current party president, his daughter Marine.

When we last took note of the story, Jean-Marie Le Pen had been frustrated in his plans to contest the south-eastern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur for the party in next year’s regional elections. Faced with resistance from Marine and the party establishment, he withdrew in favor of his granddaughter (Marine’s niece), Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.

But his public statements remained a major embarrassment – among other things, he seemed to relish repeating his notorious remark that the Holocaust was “a detail” of the Second World War. So his daughter pressed on, and on Monday the executive committee of the party suspended Le Pen père for three months until an extraordinary general assembly can be convened to consider abolishing his position of honorary president.

Jean-Marie’s reaction was extreme, even for him. He described the executive committee as a “firing squad” that had committed a “felony”, said he would “fight with all means to restore justice” and, most damagingly, threatened to oppose Marine’s candidature in the 2017 presidential election, saying that she would be worse than the Socialists or the centre-right UMP. He even suggested he might set up a new party, to embody “the values I have defended for 40 years.”

Marine, not unreasonably, pointed to his comments as further evidence for why it had been necessary to move against him. But the media loved the story, with Le Parisien describing Marine’s conduct as “Oedipal” and the BBC suggesting that one factor in the conflict was an occasion last year when Jean-Marie’s “Doberman dog reportedly killed one of her Bengal cats.”

But leaving the personal aspects of the drama aside, there’s an important political story here. With all his talk of the “white world” and his distaste for immigrants and democracy, Jean-Marie represents the traditional soul of the National Front. It has always been a neo-fascist party; Marine is the one pushing change. So far she has had a remarkable degree of success, but the jury is still out on what is possible.

It’s not impossible for a far-right party to move into the mainstream. The Italian Social Movement, established as the direct successor to Mussolini’s Fascists in the 1940s, gradually achieved respectability. In the 1990s, transforming itself into the National Alliance, it became a partner in Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition. But such examples are rare; for the far left to reinvent itself into respectability seems somehow much easier. (The difference probably has something to do with that “detail” mentioned earlier.)

So Marine Le Pen is attempting something very unusual and potentially very significant. For decades now, France has had quite a stable two-party system, helped no end by an electoral system much like Australia’s. Marine’s father famously reached the second round of the presidential election in 2002, but that was with just 16.9% of the vote (a figure that he improved on only slightly in the second round); it was a sign of division on the left rather than any exceptional strength on the far right.

Three years ago, although she was well short of making the second round, Marine actually surpassed that score with 17.9%. Since then, the National Front under her leadership has achieved a series of record or near-record results: 13.6% in legislative elections (2012), 24.9% last year for the European parliament and 25.2% in this year’s departmental elections. Presidential polls consistently put her at something around 30%, although there is still no serious suggestion that she could win a runoff against the UMP.

Respectability is a tricky thing. It’s indisputable that Le Pen fille is more moderate and responsible than her father, but it can be argued that that also makes her more dangerous. The reduction in the harm that she would do in power may be more than counterbalanced by the increase in the chance of that happening. And clearly the majority of the French public still sees the National Front as an alien force: Le Monde today reports an opinion poll in which 60% describe it as “dangerous for democracy” and 69% as not capable of governing. (Even while, as the paper points out, its policies have increased in popularity.)

The coming months should give some sign of what the Le Pen family fracas will do to the National Front’s position. If Jean-Marie is shown to have strong support within the party, damage from the split could ruin Marine’s prospects. But if she is seen to have successfully if ruthlessly dealt with a representative of the old racist past, she may yet go on to bigger things.

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