In the French far right’s civil war, Le Pen is mightier than the sword

Like father, not like daughter.
Like father, not like daughter.
Image: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier
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Front National, the French nationalist and anti-immigration far-right political party, was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972. He ran the party until 2011, when his daughter, Marine, took over and took the party to new heights—recent polls have her on track to win the presidency of France.

But while Marine has sought to lead the party to the center and make it more of a mainstream European political party, Jean-Marie has held on to his traditional views. In an interview published this week, the 86-year-old Le Pen reiterated a view that the Nazi gas chambers were a minor detail of history (he has been convicted of hate speech in the past for such comments), accused the government of being run by immigrants “at every level,” and defended Maréchel Pétain, the collaborationist leader during the Vichy regime (link in French).

His daughter has rebuked him in the past—but this time, his words are getting in the way of the electoral success of the party he founded and Marine Le Pen is having none of it. In an unprecedented statement (link in French), she accused him of embarking on “political suicide” and said she will oppose his candidature for a seat in Provence in the upcoming local elections. “His status as honorary president does not allow him to take the National Front hostage,” she added.

The “open warfare” between the Le Pens, as Le Monde calls it (link in French), comes at a bad time for the current leader of the party. Contrary to expectations, the Front National failed to win any councils (link in French) in recent regional elections. Le Pen’s party and the Socialists were beaten soundly by the UMP, led by the returning Nicolas Sarkozy. President Francois Hollande may not be much of a challenge to Marine Le Pen, but Sarkozy could steal many of her voters.

What might happen next between the Le Pens? No one is quite sure. Quite how he will take his daughter telling him he cannot stand for the party he created is anyone’s guess. If he chooses to fight back publicly, it could alienate some of the moderate voters that have been brought to the party by his daughter. But standing tall could also strengthen Marine’s hand—remember Jeremiah Wright’s “Goddamn America“ and how Barack Obama had to reject his pastor in public on the way to being elected US president in 2008?

Le Pen the elder is still quite popular among older, rural voters—he even made it through to the second round in the 2002 presidential election, shocking the whole of the European establishment. His daughter has a chance of going one better in 2017, if only he wouldn’t keep getting in the way.