By Mascha P. Davis
on September 8, 2020
Last updated: September 13, 2020

The Le Pen Clan and the Future of the French Far Right

[This article was originally published on March 6, 2020, by CovertAction Magazine, and is republished here with kind permission by the editor.]

[This is the first in a series of dispatches from our correspondents located around the world. These short updates provide succinct summaries on developments of the far right and relevant intelligence activities. In this first Paris dispatch, Masha P. Davis reports on the Le Pen Clan and the Future of the French far right.Editors]

The head of Rassemblement National (RN)—formerly known as Front National—Marine Le Pen (MLP) announced during her New Year’s greetings to the press on January 16, 2020, that she would be a candidate in the 2022 presidential election.1  “One can’t improvise oneself as president, one prepares for it” explained Marine Le Pen, in her incessant search for credibility since her calamitous debate with Emmanuel Macron during the presidential campaign on May 3, 2017.2

One can wonder why this announcement came this early, two and a half years before the actual election. Moreover, MLP’s candidacy can’t be considered surprising: After the departure from the party of her former chief of staff, Florian Philippot,3 and the leave of absence taken by her rival niece, Marion Maréchal,4 in 2017, who can really claim to compete with Marine Le Pen within the RN?

The mystery unraveled quickly, as the next day, January 17, 2020, Marine’s father and founder of Front National (the RN’s former name), Jean Marie Le Pen, publicly endorsed his daughter and her upcoming candidacy.5 This endorsement came as a surprise to everyone, as the father and daughter had been estranged since August 20, 2015, the day Jean-Marie Le Pen (JMLP) was expelled from the party he founded by his own daughter. That this long-awaited reunion happened in the context of MLP’s presidential candidacy announcement bears an important symbolical meaning: The 2022 presidential election will be fought by MLP and her father side by side.

Since she was elected as the new head of the Front National on January 15, 2011,6 MLP has embarked body and soul in an enterprise of “dédiabolisation” (de-demonization) of the party. The objective was to tone down the anti-Semitic and racist image associated with the FN, and especially with JMLP,7 in order to allow the redesigned RN to enter the mainstream debate and appeal to a larger number of voters. Part of this effort included renaming the Front National as the Rassemblement National in 2018.8 This strategy was implemented by promoting to the top of the party fresh faces with politically credible profiles that could open the RN to new demographics. Florian Philippot, who very quickly became the party’s new no. 29 after MLP took the lead, was one example of this strategy: a young openly gay man who graduated from the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration,10 that was utilized not so much for his ideas but merely for his double LGBT-friendly and senior official profile.

While this collaboration did indeed give a facelift to the party, this new identity was no longer representative of the “old guard” within the party, which in turn highlighted Jean-Marie Le Pen’s obsolescence. The inevitable outcome of this dissonance was the exclusion of JMLP from the party on August 20, 2015. This dismissal came as a particularly hard blow to JMLP, first because even though officially the decision to exclude him was ratified by the party’s executive bureau, it actually was the last step of a disciplinary hearing that was initiated by his own daughter.

Second, because this parricide actually holds more irony when we consider the party’s history. The Front National, as its name indicates, was meant as a “front” under which would rally different antagonistic far-right movements, ranging from the former Pujadists to the most extreme Pétainist or neo-Nazi fringes.11 It was created under the impulse of the neo-fascist group Ordre Nouveau, whose goal was to create a respectable façade for themselves to enter the electoral arena in the run-up to the 1973 legislative elections. Jean-Marie Le Pen was chosen to give credibility to the enterprise, as he had a more moderate profile than that of the leaders of ON. To this extent, his participation in the FN was a question of taking advantage of his assets as “electoral stooge” without entrusting him with the leadership of the movement’s apparatus.12 But that was without counting on JMLP’s own ambitions: At the first chance he got—which came not even a year after the foundation of the party, in 1973—he removed ON’s leaders from the shadow presidency and took over the party. Finally, history came back to bite him forty-two years later, as he was himself forced out of the very party he created, in 2015, and for similar reasons.

After this episode the father and daughter drifted apart. It was only in 2018, at the occasion of JMLP’s 90th birthday, that they reunited.13 But if we know the dialogue between JMLP and MLP was renewed that day,14 there had been no step towards an actual cooperation until now. And if the daughter and father are going to fight the 2022 presidential election side by side, this means JMLP needs to rally his people to his daughter’s cause. And for that, the upcoming March 2020 municipal elections will act as a dry run: JMLP has already called on the “right-wing nationalist forces” to unite behind MLP.15 Having her father’s followers on her side could mean a lot to MLP, who never managed to convince them to join her club, and in turn lost quite a few voters when he left in 2015. The JMLP fan club is something that Marine could never poach: When JMLP was kicked out of the FN, his followers did not transfer to MLP, they just stopped voting. If anything, they followed JMLP in the new movement he set up after his dismissal16 which never really got off the ground. And this pool of untapped votes could be just what she needs.

Indeed, MLP has known a few electoral successes (winner of the European elections both in 2014 and 2019, and runner-up in the 2017 presidential elections, not to mention strong scores in regional and municipal elections since 201417), but one thing she doesn’t have is a strong foothold in the far-right electorate itself. The rhetoric of de-demonization has indeed had an effect on the party’s recruitment, with the image of a “new FN” drawing supporters who previously would not have made the commitment. But conquering new audiences created tensions within the organization, increasing the social heterogeneity of its base and undermining the older forms of militancy within the party.18 By trying to maintain a respectable image to remain relatable for the mainstream voters, she lost touch with the Front National’s original fanbase.

(Left to right) Marion Maréchal, JMLP’s wife Janny Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen and JMLP’s former no. 2 Bruno Gollnisch at the funeral of Front National co-founder Roger Holeindre on February 6, 2020.

This slack was quickly picked up by another member of the Le Pen clan, Marion Maréchal (MM), Marine’s niece and Jean-Marie’s favorite granddaughter, who will be the main focus of our next dispatch. She joined the FN at age 19 and quickly proved herself by becoming the youngest French MP in history in 2012 and reaching the best scores the FN had ever had in the 2015 regional elections. However, out of the blue after such a flying start, she decided to withdraw herself from the political life after the presidential election of 2017, and the following year launched her far-right school, the Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences (ISSEP). When trying to make sense of this rather early retirement, it is surmised that the unspoken rivalry between MM and her aunt had something to do with it. Indeed, if MM never challenged MLP’s authority within the party, she is hands down winning the popularity contest within the far-right electorate.

MM keeps in touch with the far-right world by attending the local gatherings—e.g., the funeral of Front National co-founder Roger Holeindre earlier this month—when her aunt would prefer not to expose herself to these circles that might bring her bad press. But more than local popularity, the unspoken rivalry between MM and MLP also extends to their international profiles: If MLP is building alliances with right-wing giants like Salvini and Orbán, MM is also working to create partnerships with lesser-known but also if not more important actors of the far-right world, like Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev,19 Aleksandr Dugin’s daughter Darya Dugina20 or Steve Bannon and his CPAC friends.21 Marion Maréchal, who Bannon once described as being “one of the most impressive people in the entire world,” will clearly be the one leading the next generation of the French far-right, with or without her aunt by her side.22


Masha P. Davis is a Ph.D. student working on the French and European Far Right in Paris, France.