Marine Le Pen’s National Front Might Be Starting to Crack

For years, the party leader has held her party together with promises of electoral victory that she might not be able to deliver.

By Emily Schultheis, a freelance journalist based in Berlin.

MARSEILLE and HÉNIN-BEAUMONT, France — The election is not even over, yet this week, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the notorious former leader of the far-right National Front party, made news in France for appearing to offer an early post-mortem of his daughter’s presidential campaign.

“If I’d been in her place, I would have had a Trump-like campaign,” he told France Inter radio. “A more open one, very aggressive against those responsible for the decadence of our country, whether left or right.”

It was a bold critique from a politician who, despite multiple runs at the presidency, never managed to come as close as his daughter Marine Le Pen: She is potentially expected to receive as much as 40 percent of the vote in the next round of the election, scheduled for May 7. The elder Le Pen’s comments may, however, be a preview of what’s to come.

For members of the National Front, there is seemingly ample reason to celebrate the results of this campaign, come what may this Sunday, and to applaud the woman who made them possible. Le Pen, who took over leadership of the party in 2011 with an aim to “de-demonize” what had previously been a fringe party known for its anti-Semitism and xenophobia, has already secured the National Front its biggest vote share ever in a presidential election and, though still widely predicted to lose in the second round, remains likely to make a strong showing.

Yet there are signs that trouble could be on the horizon. Marine Le Pen has spent six years walking a fine line between appealing to a broader swath of the electorate concerned by immigration and the EU and placating her party’s far-right, hard-line base, which is above all interested in establishing a cultural hierarchy that privileges what it views as traditional French ethnic-national identity. Divisions have so far been papered over for the sake of presenting a united election front, but the disparate coalition that currently makes up the National Front may not hold in the wake of electoral defeat. A loss could even force a shift away from the strategy that has made the party what it is today.

“One of the major questions that Marine Le Pen will face in the aftermath of the second round is exactly this: Why didn’t the party get what was expected?” said Caterina Froio, an expert on the European far-right at Oxford University. “We will see the splits internal to the party occupying a major, major role in the post-electoral debate.”

Were the National Front’s divisions to spill out into the public after May 7, it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened within a far-right party in Europe. Such groups tend to struggle when attempting transition from protest vehicles to parties seeking a role in government; such transitions require expanding the party’s appeal in ways that tend to alienate its base. The leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), Frauke Petry, for instance, recently announced that she would not be her party’s leading candidate in national elections this fall, following months of party infighting over her proposals for relatively pragmatic policies.

Nor would it even be the first time internal splits have roiled the National Front itself. The party has faced more than one such split in its more than 40-year history, the most famous of which was when Bruno Mégret, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s No. 2, left the National Front in 1998 over similar disagreements about the direction of the party. (Mégret found Le Pen’s extremist positions too alienating.)

Should she lose, it’s unlikely that Le Pen’s role as leader of the National Front would be in immediate danger: Unlike the AfD, the National Front has historically been a family dynasty, and there are currently no real challengers who could take her place. “I don’t see a leadership contest in the cards,” said Dorit Geva, an expert on gender and the National Front at Central European University. “She is firmly in charge of the party, with enormous support and legitimacy.” Should she make a strong enough showing, she could emerge from the election more firmly in charge than ever. But should the loss be brutal, it could empower elements within the National Front that had previously been quieted on the promise of electoral victory.

The National Front has existed since the 1970s, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, together with others, brought together supporters from several smaller neo-fascist and anti-Semitic groups. Although it did see some electoral victories over the years — primarily in local or parliamentary races, especially in the more conservative and Catholic south of France — under the elder Le Pen, the National Front was a party that seemed more interested in making noise than getting into government.

Since taking control of the National Front, the younger Le Pen, who unlike her father has been clear that she wants to govern, has gone to great lengths to distance herself from her father and his brand of politics. She has kept her focus on immigration, security, and an exit from the European Union while steering clear of traditional hot-button social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. This strategy has helped her take the National Front to new heights, drawing in new voters who are disaffected by the current system and no longer consider it taboo to vote for the National Front.

This reimagining of the party’s central message — away from conservative, anti-Semitic, hard-line Catholicism and toward security, immigration, and French identity — was spearheaded by Florian Philippot, one of Le Pen’s top confidants and a vice president of the party. The rebranding has also entailed reaching out to certain groups that had previously considered the National Front anathema: Le Pen has tried to appeal to Jews as their primary defender against radical Islam, for example, while Philippot, who is gay, has helped steer the party away from emphasizing its opposition to same-sex marriage in an effort to bring in gay voters.

But this transition has at times met with resistance. The original base of the party has not gone away — nor are these voters necessarily happy with what’s being billed as a kinder, gentler National Front. One faction prefers the more socially conservative policies of Le Pen’s father, particularly in the south of France where the National Front first formed a power base in the 1980s and 1990s. And this faction has a champion in Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who, at 22, was elected as the youngest member of parliament in a generation. Today, at 27, she is a darling of the U.S. far-right news site Breitbart, a major force within the party, and the self-proclaimed guardian of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s legacy.

“I am the political heir of Jean-Marie Le Pen,” Maréchal-Le Pen told the Washington Post this month. “At the Front National, we all are his heirs. He was a visionary.”

Maréchal-Le Pen is a staunch Catholic who vehemently opposes same-sex marriage and government funding for abortion. She has never explicitly made the kinds of anti-Semitic comments that her grandfather has — but stood up for him when Marine Le Pen threw him out of the party in 2015 for such comments.

Thus far, Maréchal-Le Pen has largely proved a political asset to her aunt: It was Maréchal-Le Pen who warmed up the crowd last week at a rally in Marseille, a city on the Mediterranean coast near Maréchal-Le Pen’s parliamentary district and a traditional stronghold for the National Front. She has been a frequent and valuable surrogate in southern France, where National Front voters tend to be more socially conservative, and, as one of just two National Front members of parliament, has real standing within the party.

But there have been disagreements, too — including some very public ones, many of which have provided ample fodder for French media to report on the split between aunt and niece. In December, Maréchal-Le Pen advocated for reducing abortion coverage under the French health care system, a move that forced her aunt to take a position on the issue. Marine Le Pen responded with a flat-out rejection of her niece’s proposal, saying it is “not part of my program.”

At times, Marine Le Pen has publicly criticized her niece. In a late March interview with the women’s weekly magazine Femme Actuelle, Marine Le Pen said, if elected president, there would be no place in her cabinet for Maréchal-Le Pen: “My niece is an MP. I don’t owe her anything. I don’t owe anyone anything. I have no favors to return.” She took it even further, criticizing Maréchal-Le Pen as “rather stiff, it’s true — a bit like today’s youth.”

However Maréchal-Le Pen felt about that comment privately, she shook it off publicly: Days later, she tweeted a photo of her smiling and embracing her aunt, writing, “Onward to victory!”

Online, however, where the National Front has a strong presence, the Philippot-Maréchal-Le Pen divisions have played out among supporters of both factions. After the December spat over abortion funding, supporters of Maréchal-Le Pen began tweeting with the hashtag #MarionEtMoi (“Marion and me”), many of them trashing Philippot. One user described Philippot as “slimy and disloyal”; another said he advocates for a “leftist line.”

Though Maréchal-Le Pen is likely too young to pose a real leadership challenge to her aunt, she could, in the face of a loss, use her clout with the party’s conservative wing to put pressure on Marine Le Pen to shift her political and electoral strategy.

With the focus in this final stretch on presenting a united front and winning the presidency, few National Front voters at Le Pen’s Marseille rally were interested in discussing the party’s various factions — and those who would said they were the same kinds of squabbles any party has from time to time.

“No, no — it’s like in a family,” said Daniel Peju-Guillot, a 62-year-old National Front supporter from Pertuis, a small town in the nearby Vaucluse department, adding that “not everyone can be in agreement” all the time.

Jacques Villa, a resident of nearby Montpellier who has supported the National Front for 20 years, said he believes Jean-Marie Le Pen was “too hard” and that Marine Le Pen has made the party “respectable.” But he also noted that he believes both Philippot and Maréchal-Le Pen are important for the party.

“I like Marion, I like Florian — a party needs different currents,” said Villa, 68. “It’s normal, and everybody works for a party in different ways, but that’s that.”

It could be that the internal conversations about the future of the party — and whether Le Pen will be at the helm — will be put off until after France’s legislative elections, which will be held in early June. Though a presidential victory seems unlikely, the National Front is still expected to make significant gains in the National Assembly, which would introduce a new class of National Front politicians with independent power and influence on the national political stage; how they would fit into what has until now been mostly a family affair remains to be seen.

“This is completely new territory for the National Front, because it has been a party run by a family dynasty,” Geva said. “And even though on one hand it looks like a big success that they have all these new members of parliament, the party’s not used to functioning outside of that family dynasty.”

“I don’t think it’s clear where the National Front is going next,” she added.

Photo credit: PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism.