French Revolutions – Tony Paulsen reports

Eric Zemmour – has the dynamism of his campaign exploded French political assumptions?

The French presidential election campaign, fought under the shadow of the war in Ukraine, continues to spring surprises, even on long term watchers of the nationalist movement in France, such as your correspondent, whose interest goes back more than forty years to the presidential campaign of 1981, which I watched in Paris and Toulouse as a much younger man!

Given the implosion of Valerie Pécresse, the lacklustre candidate of Les Républicains, the nearest thing France has to a mainstream conservative party, it seems almost certain that President Macron will face a nationalist challenger in the second round, but which one?

First, some background and a little history. Under the Fifth Republic, French presidents are directly elected by the people. There are usually two rounds of voting, two weeks apart. Unless a candidate polls more than 50% of the vote in the first round (this year on 10th April), the first and second placed candidates progress to a second round run-off two weeks later.

Since 2002, the President’s term of office has been five years (previously it was an almost regal seven). A president may only serve two terms in office.

For forty years, the Front National, now the Rassemblement National, has been the only vehicle of the nationalist right at this level. Getting on the presidential ballot is not easy, since a candidate must find five hundred nominations from elected officials.

Jean-Marie Le Pen – founder of the Front National – and his daughter Marine, who succeeded him as leader and renamed the party.

Indeed, the FN only eclipsed its bitter rival of the 1970s, the Parti des Forces Nouvelles, when Jean-Marie Le Pen barely scraped over the line to find the nominations required for the presidential election of 1981, whereas the PFN’s Pascal Gauchon fell just short, giving the FN a decisive boost over its long term competitor. Sometimes the destiny of a political movement can turn on a handful of nominations by mayors of small towns in the provinces.

History has not however repeated itself. When the anti-immigration polemicist and media personality, Eric Zemmour, announced his candidacy for the presidency last autumn, offering the first real challenge in forty years to the RN/ex-FN’s role as the only nationalist party capable of fielding a presidential candidate, many doubted that Zemmour would make it on to the ballot. Some even predicted that both Zemmour and Marine Le Pen would fail to find sufficient elected officials to nominate them. In fact both did, in Zemmour’s case by a surprisingly comfortable margin, so that two candidates from the nationalist right will face one another in the first round on 10th April.

Back to our brief history. After Marine Le Pen succeeded her father as leader of the FN, she contested the presidential election of 2012, polling 17.9% of the vote in the first round, which was a good score, but not good enough to progress to the second, but in 2017 she polled 21.3% in the first round, sufficient to go through to the second, in which she polled an impressive 33.9%, almost doubling her father’s 17.8% when he ran off against Jacques Chirac in the second round of the 2002 election.

It is, however, no secret that Marine Le Pen did not impress in the debates with Emmanuel Macron in the lead up to second round of the 2017 election. She manifestly lacked his grasp of economic issues, but worse still, her policy of leaving the Euro and bringing back the franc alienated a large section of her own base.

By way of explanation, while the bedrock of electoral support for nationalist parties in France is the white working class, such parties nevertheless poll very much better amongst the middle classes and even the wealthy than their counterparts in what the French call the Anglo-Saxon world. A large section of the French bourgeoisie is for cultural and historical reasons much more nationally conscious than its British (let alone American) counterparts and votes in significant numbers for nationalist candidates. Desirable though that is for all kinds of reasons, it does mean that the purely economic interests of different sections of the nationally orientated electorate do on occasion diverge.

Marine Le Pen has ditched any notion of racial nationalism and is very much a ‘civic nationalist’

By 2017 the divergence was highly problematic because the working class voting bloc in the industrial (or deindustrialised) rust-belt of the north and north-east would have welcomed the break up of the Euro and a devaluation to restore the competitiveness of French industry and save or even create many jobs, whereas the older, wealthy bourgeois electorate of the PACA (Provence/Alpes/Côte d’Azur) region in the south east of France did not wish to see their vast savings eroded by devaluation and inflation, to which the franc had historically been very prone (though not, in fairness, so badly in the three decades before it was subsumed into the Euro in 2002 as in the period 1945 to 1971).

The issue was even more divisive because the north had become the personal fiefdom of Marine Le Pen, while her niece, Marion Maréchal, of whom more anon, had been elected to the National Assembly as a deputy for the Third Electoral District of Vaucluse (in the PACA region) in 2012 at the tender age of 22 and was for some years the FN’s only member of the National Assembly.

Marion remains the youngest ever elected deputy in the history of the Fifth Republic and was hugely popular with her party in the PACA region and with the electorate generally, winning a higher share of the vote in her constituency even than her aunt (who cannot have failed to notice that her niece outpolled her) or indeed any other FN candidate.

Marion is the daughter of J-M Le Pen’s second daughter, Yann. The Le Pen family’s psychodramas are notorious and their love lives are to say the least complicated. It would not be appropriate to call them private lives, as they aren’t very private, the most hilarious example being the decision of Pierrette Lalanne, J-M Le Pen’s first wife and mother of his three daughters, to pose naked in the pages of Playboy after their marriage foundered.

As another example of these complications, while Marion took the surname of her mother’s husband, Samuel Maréchal, she is the acknowledged biological daughter of a high-flying French journalist, diplomat and intelligence agent, Roger Auque (who died of cancer some years ago at the young age of 58).

Marion Maréchal is close to her grandfather Jean-Marie Le Pen and will surely be a future presidential candidate

Marion is very close to her grandfather, and was angry and upset when her aunt expelled him from the party that he had founded in 2015 for an ostensibly off the cuff remark suggesting that le menhir, as the grand old man is affectionately known (after the famous standing stones of his native Brittany) is not totally on board with the official version of what is now said to be the most important (if not the only important) event in twentieth century history.

While Marion is too young and too sensible to spend any time debating what her grandfather called a mere detail of history (quelle horreur!), it would be reasonable to infer that she was more shocked by her aunt’s reaction than her grandfather’s characteristically provocative remark, dressed up as a casual indiscretion.

Relations between aunt and niece deteriorated further in 2017 as Marine’s mistaken view that Brexit would find a powerful resonance in France proved baseless and her support for leaving the Euro lost the party millions of votes, a serious political mistake on which Marine has since been compelled to backtrack in public in a very embarrassing way.

To the despair of many once fervent supporters of the RN, Marion left the party after the 2017 presidential election, indeed quitting politics altogether for some years, tactfully declining to criticise her aunt publicly, instead claiming that she wished to spend more time with her baby daughter, Olympe, not to mention sorting out the aftermath of a messy divorce (in best Le Pen family tradition) from Olympe’s father, Matthieu Décosse, after a marriage lasting only two years.

Somewhat oddly for a practising Catholic, Marion has despite her church’s prohibition of remarriage for divorced believers, recently managed to remarry the equally Catholic Vincenzo Sofo, now a MEP for the Fratelli d’Italia after breaking with the Lega following Matteo Salvini’s decision to support the Draghi coalition government of Italy. Your correspondent suspects that a small fortune passed into the ever outstretched hands of the Vatican protonotaries who handle annulments (Catholic divorces under another name) to resolve any difficulties. Marion is now expecting her second child.

Marine Le Pen has proved an effective campaigner among working class voters in northern France

The departure of the RN’s brightest star was both the symbol of and the catalyst (a curiously appropriate word by false etymology: we’ll return to the role of cats in French nationalism shortly!) of the party’s relative decline after 2017, especially outside the northern rust-belt, in which it entrenched itself electorally, while its vote declined in other regions of France, as its electoral base became narrower and deeper.

Since 2017 the RN has haemorrhaged activists and members, for which many roundly blame its leader, who rules the party with an iron fist, brooking no dissent on the basis that if the dissidents up and leave, they have nowhere to go. Well, they do now.

To add to the disquiet of the rank and file, Marine Le Pen, while authoritarian in her leadership style, is surprisingly socially liberal in her acceptance of legal abortion and homosexual rights, surrounding herself (despite being a twice divorced straight woman with three children) with a coterie of rich, gay Parisian men, a cohort not at all to the liking of the typical RN supporter.

The general expectation of most political observers at the beginning of 2021 was that MLP would fight her third and last presidential campaign this year, coast into the second round, poll a smaller percentage of the vote than in 2017, then retire gracefully to the south of France to breed cats. She received a licence to breed pedigree cats last year and has said that after two marriages and a third long relationship that has also ended, she is now a single woman and would be cat mother, and eager to spend more time with her pets and their no doubt numerous offspring, if not elected president. If elected, she engagingly added, she will evict President Macron’s dog (no, not Brigitte, but their pet, Nemo) and move the cats into the Elysée Palace to keep her company, rather than trying to find a new man on an online dating app!

It is of course possible that, as with so many nationalist leaders, she would in practice have felt “reluctantly” compelled to continue as party leader “for want of a suitable successor” (after alienating her niece) whatever the outcome of the 2022 presidential election, but the great difficulty of reinventing herself for a fourth run at the presidency in 2027 might have kept her true to her stated intention, even if events had not developed so dramatically as they have.

Eric Zemmour was already well known as journalist, author and broadcaster long before his presidential campaign

By last summer, the lack of enthusiasm amongst all but a small hard core of MLP loyalists for a third presidential challenge and a repeat of the Macron/MLP second round was very apparent. Meanwhile, rumours began to spread that the well-known media pundit and intellectually upmarket shock jock and provocateur, Eric Zemmour, might throw his hat into the ring.

Zemmour is the son of a North African Jewish family that had supported French rule in Algeria and fled to France when it became apparent that colonial rule was not going to endure. He has long track record as an anti-immigration (and in many ways anti-Muslim) polemicist, including convictions for inciting racial hatred. Zemmour embraces a much harder line on race and immigration than MLP, who has accepted a purely civic nationalist view of what it means to be French. He is now facing a prosecution for Holocaust denial, despite being Jewish and occasionally religiously observant, for suggesting that the alleged sufferings of French homosexuals during the occupation were exaggerated.

The surface ironies of this state of affairs are obvious, though at a deeper level, it might make more sense than at first sight appears: le menhir’s daughter might have calculated that she had little to lose and much to gain by softening her father’s line on race, while Zemmour might have his own psychological as well as strategic reasons for wishing to be more French than the French.

MLP was plainly flustered by the rumours of a Zemmour candidacy. When it materialised, her political position appeared to be unravelling. First, the opinion polls showed Zemmour drawing level with her, then even surpassing her share of stated voting intentions for a short time. Then team Zemmour quickly attracted RN dissidents, including the party’s only senator, and more importantly (since many of the dissidents had already left the party by the summer of 2021) ex-members who had dropped out of politics, but now returned in large numbers, delighted by the appearance of an intellectually gifted hardliner with a talent for debate and public speaking.

Marion Maréchal’s endorsement of Eric Zemmour was the greatest shift in French nationalist politics in the last forty years

Finally, on what must have been the darkest day of MLP’s political life, her niece publicly endorsed Zemmour, appearing with him at a huge rally in Toulon, a body blow for MLP, such as she has never suffered before, though Marion’s friendship with Sarah Knafo, Zemmour’s glamorous young campaign manageress and mistress, was more than a straw in the wind.

Sarah Knafo is herself a colourful character, to say the least, describing herself as Jewish by religion but culturally Christian. Fiercely intelligent, she is in the long line of French intellectuals who are passionately committed to political causes, but in her case, on the right, not the left. One to watch.

Bearing in mind that Marion is the apple of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s eye and the most political of his many grandchildren, it is easy to believe that le menhir has told Marion (who is known to seek his advice) that while he could not publicly support her decision, he wasn’t going to condemn it either. After all, Jean-Marie Le Pen has himself spoken of his esteem for Zemmour.

It is also tolerably obvious that Marion, who is thirty years younger than Zemmour, will have in mind the saying that young cardinals love old popes, but your correspondent does not fault her for that. The Le Pen family are after all nationalist royalty and it is important to plan for the succession.

Naturally MLP’s remaining loyalists have severely criticised Marion for her decision to support Zemmour, while MLP gave a tearful interview, speaking of the pain that her niece’s “defection” to her rival’s camp had caused her.

Marion had however carefully prepared her answer to these criticisms, giving a long interview to the magazine Valeurs Actuelles (available on line on the magazine’s web site if you can read French), refuting the case against her as best she could. Many of her answers seem valid. At the very least, they deserve careful consideration. In particular, she said that the RN has reached a dead end under her aunt’s leadership. It can still get good votes (such as no British nationalist party could presently hope for, I will add) but not progress further than its present support level, partly because it has become a party for the economically disadvantaged that advocates class struggle against the better off, with the consequence that it no longer appeals to the patriotic elements of the bourgeoisie. Its leadership cadre is selected exclusively on the basis of personal loyalty to her aunt and, by another apparent paradox, is drawn from the Parisian elite and is wholly unrepresentative of the RN’s working class electorate or the French provinces, which are not enamoured of the metropolis.

Even during her absence from party politics, Marion Maréchal remained politically active, for example addressing CPAC – the major annual event of American conservatism – in 2018

Marion moreover takes a manifestly harder line on racial issues than her aunt, openly saying that she won’t apologise for being white, but will oppose the great replacement, which, astonishingly, her aunt says does not form part of her political vocabulary. Perhaps Marine needs to get out more.

In yet another apparent paradox, despite the ideological dilution of the RN under MLP, it is, said Marion, incapable of forging alliances with figures in the more mainstream conservative movement, because of its sulphurous heritage, whereas Zemmour, despite being more ideologically radical, is better received in conservative circles. He was after all for many decades a journalist on le Quotidien de Paris and le Figaro, the first a well-respected right leaning daily, the second the most important conservative newspaper in France.

Lastly, Marion retorted that her aunt should not be so tearful about her “defection”. She had, she said, left the RN in 2017, and made it very clear in public then that she has no interest in rejoining the RN, precisely because she does not see it as the fulcrum of a realignment of rightist and conservative forces, which Marion believes is necessary to win an absolute majority of the popular vote, not merely a solid minority. Moreover, she added, her aunt had no hesitation in expelling her grandfather from the party that he had founded and built. It is clear that Marion has never forgiven her aunt for expelling le menhir.

Since Marion’s spectacular appearance at the Toulon rally, her aunt’s campaign appears contrary to the expectations of many, including your correspondent, to have developed considerable and surprising momentum.

All recent polls have suggested that the second round run-off will be a repeat of 2017, with incumbent President Macron facing Marine Le Pen

I had been expecting to report the eclipse of MLP, but while Zemmour continues to attract huge and enthusiastic crowds to his rallies, notably at the Trocadéro in Paris on Sunday last, 28th March, and a far more impressive array of prominent supporters, MLP’s very different campaigning style seems to be working well for her, as her projected share of the vote, though far behind Macron’s, is now well clear of the rest of the pack.

While MLP is not setting the nation on fire, the millions of less well off French people concerned about rising inflation and declining living standards find her empathetic and increasingly likeable, compared to the remote and elitist president. MLP is not slow to point out that Zemmour’s temperament is not so very different from Macron’s, nor are his economic policies, though Zemmour is no advocate of a wholly unrestricted free market, but a protectionist. Ironies abound here, since MLP’s upbringing was middle class and comfortable, Zemmour’s poverty stricken and hard, yet she is seen as a woman of the people, and he is seen as a remote if brilliant intellectual.

Zemmour’s response to the unexpected spring in MLP’s step has been to up the ante on racial issues, promising to create a ministry of remigration that will as its name rather suggests repatriate a million immigrants in his first year in office, but events may have conspired against him here.

At present French cities are fairly calm, with none of the urban rioting that has inflamed racial tensions in recent years. Moreover, just as the first major conventional European war since 1945 has distracted one section of French society from purely domestic issues, so worsening economic hardship preoccupies the less well off more than race relations (which should be a lesson to those in our own ranks who assume without examining the history of their own movement that there is a correlation between support for the radical right and economic crisis, though that is an argument for another day).

On present trends, MLP will again oppose Emmanuel Macron in the second round on 24th April. If that is indeed the contest, it remains to be seen how the Zemmour camp reacts, and whether he will endorse MLP for the second round. Some of MLP’s more vocal critics in movement circles are openly saying what Zemmour and Marion must be thinking, that if MLP improves materially on her 2017 performance, she will be tempted to put retirement on hold, tell her cats to be patient, and have a fourth go in 2027. Meanwhile, elections to the National Assembly will likely follow this summer.

Equally, a cease fire, let alone a negotiated peace in the Ukraine would, if it came soon, deprive Emmanuel Macron of some of the incumbency advantage that every wartime leader enjoys for a while. That might not seem likely now, but in the memorable words of Harold Wilson, a week is a long time in politics!

Expect an update on these pages after 10th April!

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