Soap opera

Le Pen vs. Le Pen: Heavyweights of French politics bring family drama to the national stage

Never mind that they’re father and daughter, the two are locked in a political death feud

Marine Le Pen with her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, at National Front headquarters.
Samuel Bollendorff/The New York Times

The byword in France for spectacular family drama, played out in public, needs no translation: Dallas!

Paris pundits have deployed it with relish as members of the Le Pen clan wage an open feud, potentially to the political death. For France’s far-right dynasty — led by hoary National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, 86, and his successor scion Marine, 46 — the Texas soap trope carries just the right blend of bourgeois decadence and Wild West volatility. So who shot JM? The short answer: The man himself. In the foot. But in the end, the dynasty’s sharpshooting women may well have won the day.

Flash back two weeks. Le Pen père, on live television, is asked whether he has ever regretted what is perhaps his bull-in-a-china shop career’s most offensive claim: a 1987 assertion that the Nazi gas chambers were a “detail” of the Second World War. He has been convicted 18 times for professing similar remarks. “I maintain them,” he says. “Because I think that it’s the truth and that it shouldn’t shock anyone.” Cue general condemnation, right to the heart of the National Front.

For Marine Le Pen, who in 2011 took over the party her father founded four decades earlier and set in motion its winningest era, the remarks sunk below bad taste: They were bad timing. Fightin’ words.

The younger Le Pen’s efforts to “de-demonize” the party have includedF purging the odd Nazi saluter to make it more palatable (although, to be clear, immigration still counts as a scourge in Marine’s version and Islam is a handy scapegoat). Her tactics have taken the National Front to new heights, with remarkable gains in lower-house, senate, and local elections. She openly covets the French presidency and, while a win in 2017 is unlikely, her early polling above 30 percent feeds her ambition and rattles the establishment.

Jean-Marie Le Pen’s new holocaust-belittling remarks opened old rifts with Marine. The patriarch, the party’s president emeritus, regularly plays loose cannon on Marine’s ostensibly tight ship. Most recently last summer, he slammed artists who had been critical of the party, including the French pop singer Patrick Bruel. “We’ll send a batch to the oven next time,” Le Pen quipped. Bruel is Jewish.

Marine publicly called that remark a “political error” and is said to have stopped speaking to her father for a time. Instead the pair essentially communicated through the media — a surreal state of affairs since Marine still lived on the posh Le Pen family compound where her father keeps his office. Montretout, in suburban Paris, stands in as these French Ewings’ Southfork Ranch. (Marine did finally move out last fall, reportedly after one of her father’s dobermans killed her cat.) After Jean-Marie’s latest gas-chamber comment, Marine quickly retorted publicly that she was in “profound disagreement.” Touché.

But just days later, Jean-Marie was at it again. In a wide-ranging interview he gave to the extremist newspaper Rivarol last week, the aging rabble-rouser deployed what observers widely described as a sort of “greatest hits package” of Le Pen provocations. He defended his gas chamber remarks. He denied that Philippe Pétain, France’s Nazi-collaborationist WWII leader, was a traitor. He stumped for defending the “White world” against immigration. He questioned the allegiance of Barcelona-born French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who was naturalized in the early 1980s, proclaiming, “Valls has been French for 30 years. I have been French for 1,000 years.” He spoke of his esteem for a one-time National Front candidate who was thrown out of the party and later convicted for likening Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black, to a monkey.

Marine was not pleased. “Jean-Marie Le Pen seems to have entered into a veritable spiral between scorched-earth strategy and political suicide,” she responded quickly in a statement. “His status as honorary president does not authorize him to take the National Front hostage with such rude provocations, the objective of which seem to be to harm me, but which, alas, strike a hard blow against the whole movement, its executives, its candidates, its members, its voters.” She disputed his planned bid for December elections in the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region and launched a party-disciplinary procedure against her father.

Invited to discuss the feud in a 15-minute interview on a national nightly newscast, a solemn Marine said Jean-Marie would be wise to recognize the trouble he’d caused and retire. Naturally, she took the opportunity to politick for the party, saying one man shouldn’t damage “the only tool of hope for millions of French people.” She said she felt “sorrow, as a daughter… sorrow as a party supporter. It’s painful.” But, she declared, “Believe me, it’s less painful than what our fellow citizens are living. It’s less painful than waiting desperately for a job. It’s less painful than not being able to offer your children holidays. It’s less painful than living afraid because you live in an unsafe neighborhood. When those are the people I am fighting for.” (Talk about making lemonade.)

Jean-Marie Le Pen struck back on Friday morning radio, accusing his daughter of “submitting to the system,” an epithet from him. “When she becomes something else, she’ll no longer be anything,” he sniped. He vowed to defend his candidacy in the South of France. And he charged, “She’s the one committing suicide. She’s the one shooting herself in the foot!”

Over the weekend, the other Le Pen woman stepped in to break the stalemate: Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, 25, France’s youngest parliamentarian, Marine’s niece, Jean-Marie’s granddaughter. She is credited with talking the patriarch into backing off his election bid and backing her in his place. Arguably Jean-Marie Le Pen’s truest protégée, closer to his harder line despite her youth, Marion had criticized his initial gas-chamber comments, but local media felt she’d kept conspicuously mum otherwise. The party is due to choose its regional election candidates this Friday. Marion, also favored by Marine, is now the frontrunner for the party’s bid in one of the very few regions the National Front stands a chance of winning.

Some rivals and pundits have deemed these Le Pen family follies awfully convenient, mere stage-play in Marine Le Pen’s drive for power. After all, a poll for the Odoxa firm Saturday showed 91 percent of French people surveyed — including 87 percent of the National Front’s own sympathizers — agree her father should retire. One top Socialist parliamentarian likened the feud to “sad puppet theater.” Another leftist politician wondered aloud if it wasn’t “one of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s last gifts to his daughter.” And a leading conservative chimed in on Twitter, “It’s no longer politics, it’s Dallas.”

What is clear is that Jean-Marie Le Pen is surely pleased with himself. In a little-noticed line in his offend-all-comers Rivarol interview, the veteran provocateur explained, “It makes no difference whether people talk about us in a good or bad light. The main thing is that we’re talked about! One must exist politically. People who don’t realize that have understood nothing.” Touché.

Related:

Weapon of mass distraction: France’s youngest member of Parliament is 25 and she takes no prisoners

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