Carpentras—a town of 30,000 in southeastern France—is known for its quiet stateliness and its Friday morning black truffle market, but it was once a place of import: a residence for popes. Two years ago, it was visited by a different sort of luminary: Jean-Marie Le Pen, ignoble founder of the immigrant-hating, Muslim-baiting, Holocaust-denying far-right political party, the Front National. In July 2012, then 84 years old and beaming, Jean-Marie showed up to celebrate a victory: his 22-year-old granddaughter, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, had just won the National Front’s first seat in 24 years—and, in turn, became the youngest MP in modern French history.
News reports about the infamous Front National (FN) are usually peppered with cleansing words; the party is purportedly seeking to “detoxify” and “sanitize,” to “purge” itself of nasty elements and “decontaminate” its brand. If the FN is, in fact, in detox, then Marion Maréchal-Le Pen might be its immunity-boosting kale smoothie.
Today, Marion is just one of two NF MPs in the National Assembly. Even her aunt, Marine Le Pen, the party president, failed to win a national seat—and serves instead in the European Parliament in Brussels. Quick of wit, sharp of mind and rather nice to look at, Marion represents the new face of France’s far right: stalwartly conservative in substance, but tempered in tone—and able to marry deeply rooted nationalism with politically potent Euroskepticism. She’s being watched closely, especially as her party prepares for upcoming municipal elections across the country. Will she uphold her tainted family dynasty, or chart a new course?
Back in September 2012, when Marion made her first political speech before a thousand NF members, it was under the watchful gaze of her grandfather and aunt. Both sat in the front row, as Marion rose to proclaim, “I am proud to wear the name Le Pen.”
But her introduction as part of the family political brand occurred much earlier. In 1992, the FN released a new campaign poster, which carried the slogan: “Security?.?.?.?first of liberties.” The poster showed a bespectacled and jolly Jean-Marie Le Pen, holding a stern-faced and unsmiling toddler: a young Marion.
Twenty years earlier, in 1972, Jean-Marie, a lawyer and former French Legion volunteer, founded the FN, which soon became a shelter for reactionary Catholics, neo-fascists and old Vichy collaborators. Le Pen himself became a celebrity: known the country over for his loathing of immigrants and his unabashed anti-Semitism. (He has been convicted several times for inciting racial hatred and Holocaust denial, which is illegal in France.) His notoriety grew steadily (in 2002, Le Pen made it to the second round of presidential elections), but his political influence is now fairly marginal. Jean-Marie has not held national office since the ’80s.
In 2011, Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, took over. Marine dropped her father’s thuggish associates and clumsy racism. And she tweaked the party’s vocabulary. She presented herself as a patriot rather than a xenophobe—and spoke of culture rather than race, so that France was not “waging war against Islam,” but rather fighting “the Islamization of French society.” Marine’s sworn enemy is the European Union, which she argues has made Paris a slave to Brussels. And her avowed mission is to “de-enclave” the FN. In this, she appears to be succeeding. In a recent poll, one in three French citizens said they support the National Front’s ideas; party support has increased 12 per cent under Marine’s leadership.
Enter the granddaughter. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen chose to run in the southern French district of Vaucluse to settle a family score. In 1990, NF members were accused of trashing a Jewish cemetery there: an allegation that Jean-Marie has always denied. “It is symbolic to come back to this constituency [where] my grandfather’s name [was] abjectly and unfairly sullied,” Marion told reporters. She won the election, her anti-immigrant platform evidently appealing in the deeply traditional region. A month later, Marion joined the NF’s executive board. Before long, she was a sitting on France’s commission of foreign affairs.
Marion was born in 1989. Her mother is Yann Le Pen, the second of Jean-Marie’s three daughters and the rebel of the family. (As a young girl, Yann ran away from home to work at a Club Med.) Her father is Samuel Maréchal, former leader of the FN Youth wing, though several newspapers have recently questioned her paternity. Growing up, one of Marion’s favourite historical figures was Joan of Arc, because she fought “to save the country from Anglo-Saxon occupiers.”
In her telling, Marion became interested in politics “around 15 or 16. Contrary to what everyone thinks, in my family we didn’t talk about politics at home.” At the time of her election, she was still a master’s student, studying public law in Paris—and living with her mother, aunt and grandfather in a castle west of Paris. (In the late ’70s, a rich French industrialist bequeathed his fortune and his castle to Jean-Marie.)
Politically, Marion tends to toe the family line. She talks a great deal about preserving “French identity” and the “French family” and fighting the euro and globalism. She seeks to limit abortion rights and has demonstrated on the streets against same-sex marriage. And she advocates for closer relations with Russia; she sits on the France-Russia parliamentary friendship group. Even her Twitter account reads like a what’s-what of reactionary conservatism: with recent tweets about the criminality of foreigners, the undesirability of Romanian immigrants, the laxity of the French justice system, and the fight to ban Muslim headscarves. Unconvinced by talk of her progressive influence on the FN fold, critics call her “Marion-ette”—implying that she is her grandfather’s proxy.
Indeed, argues Jean-Yves Camus, a research fellow at the IRIS think tank in Paris, Marion is often closer to her grandfather than to her modernizing aunt. Marion, Camus explains, is based in southern France, where the population is older and fairly traditional. Her aunt Marine, by contrast, is based in the north: in a largely working-class region that, until recently, voted left. So while Marine must cater to a more centrist fold, Marion gains traction “on a really right-wing agenda.”
Still, Marion is a softer sell than the other Le Pens. While Jean-Marie is known for his sloppy loquaciousness, and Marine for her combativeness, Marion is calm and deliberate in tone. She sometimes smiles lightly while speaking out against immigration and multiculturalism.
The Le Pens’ attempt to mainstream the FN will succeed or fail on their ability to capture younger voters. So far, things are looking good for the family. According to a recent poll, 42 per cent of voters might vote for a far-right candidate in this year’s municipal elections. That number increases to 55 per cent for 18 to 24 year-olds. A staggering 30 per cent of 18- to 24-year-old men said they would “certainly” vote far right. “We’ve seen many young people?.?.?.?who would not have agreed to join the National Front when [Jean-Marie] was in command, because they thought he was too much of an extremist,” says Camus. But now, “it has become less of a social stigma to be in the National Front.”
Marion is helping to hasten this shift. “[Marion] is a woman of character,” gushes 23-year-old Paul-Alexandre Martin, a member of the FN’s youth wing. And “she wants to make the movement more credible and professional.”
For now, Marion is nailing her new role as stalwart protégé of the far right—though occasionally, she slips up and lets her youth shine through. In 2012, shortly after her historic election to the French parliament, she told reporters that she still didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“Politician” now seems like a safe bet—but the jury is out on just how much she is her grandfather’s granddaughter.