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Despite party suspension, French far-right leader remains liability

© Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP | Far-right National Front (FN) party honorary president Jean-Marie Le Pen sings during annual May 1 rally in Paris

Text by Guillaume GUGUEN

Latest update : 2015-05-06

France’s National Front has suspended its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen in an effort to distance itself from his divisive views, but people who know the firebrand leader say he remains a liability for the far-right party.

Publicly censured by his daughter, National Front (FN) president Marine Le Pen, and officially suspended by the FN’s executive committee for repeating previous claims Nazi gas chambers were a mere detail of World War II, several French observers have declared Jean-Marie Le Pen politically dead.

The 86-year-old far-right figurehead nevertheless remains the party’s honorary president until members can vote on the matter, and retains his seat at the European Parliament - reasons enough for others to argue that Jean-Marie is alive, and kicking.

"Whatever happens, it’s unlikely he will fade away quietly. As long as his health allows, Jean-Marie will continue to speak out," Lorrain de Saint Affrique, his communications advisor between 1984 and 1994, told FRANCE 24.

Valérie Igounet, a political historian and author of “The National Front from 1972 to present day” agreed. “He is a political monster. He will always be involved in politics, and always on his own terms,” she said.

The monster has been dangerous of late, undoing Marine's careful work of building a respectable party, one that ordinary constituents and the mainstream media will accept. In another recent comment, Jean-Marie defended France’s war-time leader Philippe Pétain, who collaborated with Nazi occupiers as tens-of-thousands of French Jews were shipped off to extermination camps.

But Jean-Marie could be an even bigger nuisance for the FN now that the far-right party has let him loose, according to Saint Affrique.

"Jean-Marie Le Pen is a very sharp political commentator, and if he decides to focus his attacks on the FN, it could really hurt. There is nothing stopping him now from drawing attention to the party’s inner contradictions,” he said.

Shedding daughters

The campaign against the new FN leadership may already be underway. The day after the FN suspension, party heads – Marine in particular – were treated to spiteful tongue-lashing.

Besides declaring he no longer wanted Marine to share the family name, he said his daughter lacked the moral integrity to become France’s president. “If such low moral principles were to preside over the French state it would be scandalous,” he told Europe 1 radio on Tuesday morning.

He has wielded the words “betrayal” and “treachery” like hand grenades. “It’s reminiscent of the words used in the wake of his break with Bruno Mégret in 1998,” noted Igounet.

The split between Jean-Marie and Mégret, then the FN’s second-in-command, also threatened to destroy the far-right camp in the late 90s, and came at a personal cost to its chairman: Marie-Caroline Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s eldest daughter, followed Mégret out the door.

More than 15 years later, father and daughter remain estranged. “If the suspension is upheld, he may do the same with Marine”, Igounet said.

Le Pen 3.0?

In the end, the Mégret divorce did not bring the National Front house crumbling down, and by any assessment Jean-Marie came out on top. That should also give Marine and her entourage some pause as they consider the future of the party with, or without, its founding father.

An open confrontation between Jean-Marie and Marine would undoubtedly provide the public with some colourful and entertaining verbal jousting, but may also damage the party irreparably.

“He remains a popular figure among the party’s rank and file. Just look at the applause he received on May 1,” Igounet said in reference to an FN rally last week, during which Jean-Marie interrupted his daughter’s speech, momentarily stealing the spotlight.

The historian said it was unlikely that the ageing Jean-Marie would launch a new political party, but defections are a possibility, as is a new, Shakespearean twist to the Le Pen family drama.

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine’s niece and a French MP representing the south-eastern Vaucluse department, has proven to be more of a social conservative than her aunt, and more closely aligned ideologically with her grandfather Jean-Marie.

“Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is his protégé, and it’s not impossible that she take up his mantle as the leader of a new party,” Igounet said.

Date created : 2015-05-06

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