Joan of Dark

Meet Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the 26-year-old scion of France’s far-right dynasty. Can she lead her party away from its darkest impulses?

AVIGNON, FRANCE - DECEMBER 06: Marion Marechal Le Pen, vice-president of the French far-right Front National (FN) party and candidate for the regional elections in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (PACA) region, speaks to supporters after the annoucement of the results on December 6, 2015 in Avignon, France. Marion Marechal Le Pen has won the first round of the regional election with a reported 40,2 percent of the vote. (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)
AVIGNON, FRANCE - DECEMBER 06: Marion Marechal Le Pen, vice-president of the French far-right Front National (FN) party and candidate for the regional elections in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (PACA) region, speaks to supporters after the annoucement of the results on December 6, 2015 in Avignon, France. Marion Marechal Le Pen has won the first round of the regional election with a reported 40,2 percent of the vote. (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)

When a star is born, the media will let you know it, though not always in the most accurate terms. And so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the most common account of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen’s rapid rise to political fame is also among the least generous. It centers on the titillating prospect that someone so young and beautiful could possess beliefs so old and ugly.

For the uninitiated, yes, she’s one of those Le Pens — in this case, the niece of France’s far-right insurgent Marine Le Pen, which makes Marion the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who led the National Front for longer than anyone cares to remember. Back in the patriarch’s prime, the party was widely seen as a haven or lair for the worst kind of fascistic troglodytes.

But things have changed in granddad’s party, and to the delight and revulsion of the press, blonde Marion, all of 26 years old, is busy changing them again. Already, under Marine’s leadership, the National Front has swiftly morphed from a reactionary footnote to a weirdly forward-facing cosmopolitan mash-up of old-style nationalisms left and right. Over the past several years, Marine has clawed away at the far-left vote with a brusque, uncompromising stance against the corporatist crony state emanating out of Brussels.

But the results from the first round of this year’s nationwide elections, in which the National Front earned a first-place showing in regional elections against Les Républicains (Team Nicolas Sarkozy) and sitting President François Hollande’s enervated, shellshocked Socialists, demanded some further explanation. It’s not just that the far-right party came in first place but the broad demographics of its victory. The Harris Poll, a subsidiary of Nielsen, revealed that most first-round voters between 18 and 30 supported the National Front. (Observe the contrast with, say, the Polish far right, which rode in on a tide of elderly who haven’t seen the inside of a university in decades, if ever.) The party even reportedly attracted the votes of some French Muslims (in reaction, as one such voter bad-mouthed to the Spectator, against ultra-reactionary Salafi “provocateurs”).

In processing such surprises, the media spotlight swiveled firmly and deservedly toward Marion, who has been vying to govern the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region that spreads from Marseille’s rough streets to the Italianate fringes of Cannes and Nice. But France’s bien-pensants are still struggling to grasp just how profoundly she has muddied the country’s ideological waters.

The details of her young political career have too often been viewed through an Oedipal, rather than societal, lens. Where Marine sidelined Jean-Marie earlier this year when she judged the old man’s indifferent-at-best remarks about the Holocaust to be an electoral albatross, Marion refused to agree that the comments made his political expulsion a necessity. Marine put her foot down against a pungent anti-Islamist video circulated by a National Front politico; Marion gave it a retweet.

There was more at work here than ambition and rebellion. Marion was intent on doing more than establishing herself as the newest face of the French far right. She aimed for a role entirely new on France’s contemporary political stage — a pious revenant bent both on cultural glamour and cultural restoration.

It’s a reputation cemented by Marion’s adherence to the hoariest, most nerve-wracking principle of French conservatism: Catholic privilege. On matters concerning the authority of the church, the onetime convent schoolgirl is positively immodest: As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry observed in the Week, “Marion is outspoken about her Catholic worldview, in a country where that is strange for any politician; even the [National Front’s] official line is that it is a defender not of Christian values, but of French laïcité against Muslim influence.” In an interview with French radio network RTL, Marion flatly declared that Muslims “can’t have exactly the same rank” as the flock of the Roman Catholic Church.

These are bold deeds and fiery words from a woman young enough and salvific enough, in the eyes of her faithful, to have summoned emotions reserved for France’s top tier of heroines. MP François-Michel Lambert — of the Green party, admittedly — grumbled to the Guardian as early as April that Marion, treated like a mystical figure, “seems to have this disdain towards the rest of us as if she belongs to a superior race.” Perhaps you saw the following dig coming: “I see her in restaurants around Parliament, and she’s surrounded by a team of young advisors who treat her as if she’s a kind of Joan of Arc figure, the chosen one.”

To be sure, Marion is walking a tightrope. Since well before the 1848 Revolution, anxious French liberals of a conservative bent have supposed that the most an officeholder should do to strengthen the people’s religious fiber is provide an example and get out of the way. “I do not know what could restore the Christian church of Europe to the energy of its earlier days,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. “That power belongs to God alone; but it may be for human policy to leave to faith the full exercise of the strength which it still retains.” Tocqueville was concerned that Catholicism tends to grow despised the closer it grows to political power. Such constraints surely cast a long shadow over Marion and her diligent Catholic advisors.

Yet Marion’s future is hardly shrouded in darkness. She has been too disciplined so far to suffer the temptations of arrogance. And there’s reason to believe that France’s rising generation finds much to identify with in Marion’s firmness, intelligence, and initiative. “Her youth motivates us; she represents us,” one “banner-wielding student with pierced ears” told the Christian Science Monitor. “The rest of the political class has forgotten us.” Young Americans “feeling the Bern” would be so lucky to have such a vital role model.

After all, Marion’s (relative) youth is doubly, even triply, symbolic: She is not only a mother herself, but a law school graduate with strong sympathies toward businesspeople (including her husband). American women know well that a profile like this does not end the conversation about whether they could or should “have it all.” But Marion’s achievement of a successful adult life has stirred inspiration, rather than resentment, among the under-30 set in France, where about one in four people between 18 and 24 have no job. Read between Marion’s lines in word and deed, and the message is clear: She has been able not only to rank preferences well but to execute on them precisely because of her cultural and political convictions — convictions that are available to most anyone.

Marion will retain her power even if she goes down in defeat on Sunday — now, evidently, the likely outcome. Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi (this is the city we’re talking about) choked in the first round against her, “but the latest poll suggests Mr. Estrosi will win by taking 54 percent of the vote compared to his [National Front] rival’s 46 percent,” the Telegraph explained. What made the difference was not a sudden change of hearts and minds along the Riviera. It was, instead, a colossal act of bogus solidarity by the Socialist candidate, who pulled out of the race on party orders. Estrosi himself, noted the Telegraph, has not been beneath warning against a “fifth column” of Islamists nor beneath recommending their internment in camps.

Even in a defeat of this sort, Marion would be winning. The Socialists, already broadly perceived as borderline defunct when it comes to doing anything more than espousing happy thoughts, are in real danger of becoming living symbols of sclerotic entitlement at every level of established French society. Whatever Marion or the National Front may be, they aren’t that. And young voters who have good reason to feel they have been screwed out of victory by geriatric collusion are likely to rally all the more around their chosen exemplar.

That, of course, is a wager, not proof. If Marion’s significance extends deeper into French (and European) culture than the press or politicians might comprehend, its endurance could well hinge on her ability to win the peace — that is, to keep the National Front from going off the rails in the likely event that it, and she, racks up serious victories in the years to come. Although the party’s sometimes-canny, sometimes-schizoid positioning on cultural matters dominates the coverage today, its real challenge comes in ironing out just what it will fight for on the central political question facing the country’s younger generations: Is France to be an exceptional nation only or the indispensable leader of something much bigger? Under Marine, the National Front has come down clearly on the side of more nationalism, staying largely silent on what might happen to Europe if France becomes more of a fortress than a fountainhead. But only a fool would imagine that Marion, if she is serious about her Catholicism, can abide true xenophobia and parochialism.

Retrograde nationalism may soothe the troubled spirit of the aged and aging, who feel, not without reason, betrayed and abandoned by the European Union. But for the young of France and Europe, it is hard to see it as more than a trade of one fatalistic cul-de-sac for another. Two specters haunt Europe — the failure of both transnationalism and nationalism to generate and regenerate an adequate, civilized lust for life. If Marion and those she inspires cannot offer an alternative on those grounds, it is only a matter of time before she slips out of the spotlight as well as the history books.


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