French far-right leader emerges stronger after facing down her father

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, announced today he would not run in regional elections. Marine Le Pen, his daughter and party leader, took him to task over anti-Semitic comments last week.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters/File
Marine Le Pen (r.), France's National Front political party leader, and her father Jean-Marie Le Pen arrive for a meeting in Cormont in August 2010. French National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen rejected last week a call from his daughter, the party's leader, to leave politics over comments he made that she fears will hurt her push to widen the right-wing party's appeal. But today he said he would withdraw from a regional race to foster FN unity.

Love or hate her politics, Marine Le Pen is a charmer. With a disarming smile and no-nonsense style, she has worked hard to push France's far-right National Front (FN) to the mainstream, as she eyes a presidential run in 2017.

Her father and FN founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, on the other hand is a provoker – most recently last week, when he repeated his claims that the Holocaust is but a “detail” of history.

That led to an unusually public tiff within the party. And the French have watched – some with nervousness, others with glee, depending on whether they are rooting for or against the FN – to see whether family trumps political ambition in the Le Pen dynasty.

Today Jean-Marie seemed to choose the former, by backing out of a race in crucial regional elections in December. “If I must make a sacrifice for the future of the movement, I would not be the one to cause it damage," he said on Monday.

This marks a reversal from his assertion just days before, via Twitter, that he would stand. But he also said at the end of a press statement that he wasn’t going anywhere.

For many analysts, the fight hints at some of the limitations of the FN – about how easily Ms. Le Pen can turn a party that has anti-Semitic roots into a garden-variety political party. And even more broadly, it raises the question of how readily the FN, an “outsider” of mainstream French politics, will be able to govern if and when it makes its way into the chambers of power.

For now, the father’s move could help the FN; some even reckon the spat was a staged political ploy. Real or not, Marine has cemented a reputation as a woman who can take on the most powerful politicians, even when they are in her own family. “She has shown she is a strong leader, strong enough to stand against her father and win,” says Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the FN in Paris.

Jean-Marie's comments about the plight of Jews during World War II are the same words he uttered in 1987. He also said that French wartime leader Marshal Petain, a Nazi collaborator, is not a national traitor. His daughter has long sought to dismiss these as the words of a bygone generation. But when they resurfaced in 2015, she had no choice but to go public to condemn them.

“Jean-Marie Le Pen seems to have descended into a strategy somewhere between scorched earth and political suicide,” she said last week in a statement. “His status as honorary president does not give him the right to hijack the National Front with vulgar provocations seemingly designed to damage me but which unfortunately hit the whole movement.”

Ms. Le Pen's FN could make it to a second round in the 2017 race, according to polls. The party has surged as she has tried to scrub it of some of its darker past, instead appealing to modern anti-immigrant – mostly Muslim – and anti-EU sentiment.

A new survey by the firm Harris Interactive showed that among FN supporters, it is Marine who “embodies” the party’s values, with 99 percent agreeing with that statement, while only 28 percent say the same of her father. The words those respondents most associate with him? “Racist,” “old,” and “trouble-maker.”

But if the math seems to point to a clear answer on how to proceed, the solution isn’t as clear-cut. Among the party faithful Jean-Marie is widely popular, “and not just among the old,” points out Mr. Camus. “He brought the far-right to the forefront of French politics out of nowhere,” he says.

And the familial political saga is likely to continue: Jean-Marie said today that his granddaughter Marion Maréchal-Le Pen should stand in his place.

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