The freshest face in French politics is no awestruck ingénue. At 25, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen could still pass for a chic teenager turning heads on the Champs-Élysées. Yet three years into her term as France’s youngest parliamentarian, she’s earning her stripes in the family business: the far-right National Front. And her pretty smile does little to assuage the critics who consider her party an ugly threat to French values.
To see French Prime Minister Manuel Valls shouting her down in Paris earlier this month in a withering four-minute diatribe on the floor of the lower-house National Assembly confirmed that France’s youngest far-right sensation yet is already a weapon of mass distraction.
“Keep your cretinous contempt,” Maréchal-Le Pen had advised Valls, prompting his outburst. She vilified his “obsessive” fixation on “insulting” her party and its voters. Valls replied that the National Front’s high poll numbers are “a veritable danger for my country’s image, for our democracy.” Slamming National Front candidates standing in local elections for their “anti-Semitic,” “racist,” “homophobic,” and “sexist” remarks, he declared “Madame, until the end, I will lead a campaign to stigmatize you and say that you are neither the Republic, nor France!” Cue Socialist Party deputies leaping to their feet in applause.
Maréchal-Le Pen was weaned on such political blood sport, with more familial role models than Jeb Bush. Her mother, Yann, is involved in party business, while her adoptive father, Samuel Maréchal, headed its youth wing in the 1990s. And her rabble-rousing grandfather, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who co-founded the National Front in 1972, is more than accustomed to taking and dishing out tongue-lashings.
The blustery former paratrooper who long sported a pirate-style eye patch led the party for 40 years. He notoriously dismissed Nazi gas chambers as “a detail of WWII history,” just one in his career’s worth of incendiary pronouncements. His shock runner-up performance in France’s 2002 presidential election famously sent protesters into the streets en masse.
In 2011, the hoary patriarch finally handed off leadership to his youngest daughter, Marine, setting in motion the party’s winningest era. More telegenic and relatable than he, Marine Le Pen, a twice-divorced mother of three, quickly shepherded the pariah National Front to a semblance of respectability. The 46-year-old has made a show of “de-demonising” the party, dismissing the shaved-head-and-bomber-jacket brutes associated with her father’s version. Aided by her right-hand-man, Florian Philippot, a technocrat former leftist recently outed as gay by a French tabloid, she has recast her party’s anti-immigration stance, instead emphasizing economic gripes.
“Today in France, unlike ten years ago, you can say at a dinner with friends, ‘I vote National Front,'” says French political analyst Thomas Guénolé. “The discussion might not be calm, but discussion is possible. Ten years ago, if you said ‘I vote National Front’ at the dinner table, you’d lose friends, fall out with family members.” Indeed, Marine’s new-look party has made remarkable gains in lower-house, senate, and local elections. Every new mid-term ballot—France has plenty, including departmental elections this month—sees opponents quaking over the National Front’s potential showing. The party finished first in France in last year’s European elections, winning a quarter of the French vote and 23 seats in the European Parliament, giving Marine claim to the slogan “France’s top party,” and feeding her presidential ambitions (though her winning it all in 2017 still seems unlikely).
When he passed the torch, Le Pen père giddily proclaimed his scion “the second stage of the rocket,” poised to build on his own grunt work. But Stage Three may well have launched his true protégée. Maréchal-Le Pen topped an internal ballot at November’s National Front party convention with 80 percent (the vote was essentially a popularity contest that didn’t include Marine). And the youngest Le Pen in office is far from progressive. A conservative Catholic, she’s more free market economically and takes a harder line on many social issues than her party-leader aunt.
In remaking the party, Marine somewhat sanitized its traditional rhetoric and played to her core voters in northern France’s erstwhile industrial heartland, blasting the state’s failure to protect constituents against the perils of globalization in those old Communist Party bastions. But Marion’s electorate in the more affluent, more conservative south is her grandfather’s bread and butter. While Marine opposed gay marriage relatively quietly, Marion was an unapologetic fixture in France’s 2013 mass protest rallies against same-sex marriage. When Marine applauded as progress a prominent gay-rights activist joining the party, Marion wrote an op-ed slamming the lobbyist. When Marine censured a party executive for whipping up fears that French Muslims could turn on the nation in a sudden swarm, Marion defiantly retweeted his nativist alarm.
“Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is the continuation of her grandfather’s political line,” says Guénolé. “A reactionary line on values and social subjects: gay marriage, bioethics, Islam, Arabs, immigration from a cultural viewpoint. You truly find in her reasoning, and even her vocabulary, her grandfather’s reasoning and rhetoric.”
Observers are torn about whether the ideological distance between Marine and Marion is merely tactical or signals a future dynastic showdown. In public, the two express only praise for each other. Marion has brushed off party differences as mere “nuances,” and so far declined an influential post in the leadership. Still, as Guénolé points out, “Why should she hurry? She’s the heiress.”
And, of course, she had a generous head start in public life. Marion was still a student when she was encouraged by her grandfather to run for office. She led a whirlwind campaign in the south of France between law-school exams. The incumbent, a 69-year-old right-winger seeking his seventh lower-house term, made the mistake of underestimating her. Jean-Marie Le Pen, too, was once a brash young National Assembly rep, elected at 27 in 1956.
Today, at 86, he’s planning a new bid in December for the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region. Should he win, a full term would take him well into his nineties. And, if his granddaughter can match his stamina, she could be shaping French politics until the year 2083.