National Front's Marion Maréchal-Le Pen steps away from politics, for now
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When Marion Maréchal-Le Pen announced she was withdrawing from politics, the National Front prodigy was not slamming the door on a brilliant future. She was just leaving the door ajar. All the better to come back with a bang when the time is right.
Maréchal-Le Pen – presidential runner-up Marine Le Pen’s niece – officially announced on Wednesday that she will not seek re-election to the lower-house National Assembly, just as the National Front (FN) is seeking to make good on its record performance last Sunday with a strong showing in June’s legislative elections. The 27-year-old granddaughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen also plans to step down from the regional council office she holds in Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur.
In a long open letter to constituents, Maréchal-Le Pen apologised for earlier denying rumours she was poised to make this move – so as not to “interfere with” the presidential campaign, she explained – and cited “reasons at once personal and professional” for stepping down from politics. The mother-of-one, who is reported to be divorcing, said she wants to spend more time with her toddler daughter. She also said she wants private sector experience. “You know my history; you know that the political world has always been my own,” she wrote. “At 27, there is still time for me to leave it for a while. I am intimately persuaded that if I don’t step away from it now, I never will.”
France’s youngest National Assembly deputy, Maréchal-Le Pen shot to political stardom in 2012 when she was elected at age 22. She grew up on her grandfather’s mansion compound in Saint-Cloud, west of Paris. Her mother Yann, Marine’s sister, has played more discreet roles in the family (political) business, while her adoptive father, Samuel Maréchal, once ran the party’s youth wing. Long seen as a potential successor to her aunt, the third-generation Le Pen is in many ways her grandfather’s truer political heir.
Marine Le Pen, 48, sunk political roots in the old Communist Party bastions of France’s northern industrial belt, blending the party’s traditional anti-immigration, anti-European Union rhetoric with an economic update, staunchly defending the welfare state (at least for French nationals). She also made a mission of “de-demonising” the pariah party she took over from her father in 2011.
Maréchal-Le Pen, meanwhile, was still a law student when her grandfather pushed her to seek election in the South of France and earn her political stripes there, like her grandfather did. More traditionally right-wing than her aunt, Maréchal-Le Pen stumps for Catholic conservative views on abortion and homosexuality – stances far from her aunt’s priorities, but that play better with FN voters in the south. The FN’s headline women have regularly laboured to deny their relations are strained, but the insinuation has persisted.
Jean-Marie Le Pen – who is perhaps, at age 88, the only far-right heavyweight who needs not worry about Maréchal-Le Pen’s future in relation to his own – thrashed his longtime protégé’s decision, likening it to a dereliction of duty.
“If there isn’t an extremely grave reason for this decision, I consider it a desertion,” the party patriarch told Le Figaro.fr. He said his granddaughter’s withdrawal from political life “will create great disappointment”, saying she represents the future of the party for “quite a few” FN supporters and voters.
“I think Marion should have made this decision earlier, or waited a bit, because we are in an electoral campaign,” Le Pen père said. “That in the thick of the legislative battle, one of the movement’s most beloved and admired stars should waver, it could have terrible consequences,” he said. Asked whether Maréchal-Le Pen could one day run for president herself, the five-time presidential candidate exclaimed, “Not if she withdraws from the fight! Because one must gather momentum.”
For her part, Marine Le Pen’s reaction was less dramatic. “As a political leader, I profoundly lament Marion’s decision, but, alas, as a mum, I understand it,” she tweeted on Wednesday morning. It is not yet clear whether Marine Le Pen, who garnered 33.9 percent of the vote in Sunday’s run-off with 10.6 million votes, will run for a legislative seat herself.
Eyeing the future?
Maréchal-Le Pen’s letter on Wednesday closed no doors on a political future. Indeed, it reads like a draft CV for a future political play -- even though National Front talking points obtained on Wednesday by AFP entreated party officials to insist otherwise.
“I was elected very young. I was preserved from a lot of your difficulties and your worries, even though I never stopped being attentive to them in the field,” she wrote. “My idea of a good political leader dictates that I benefit from experiences other than electoral or political success. Having acquired that experience and that legitimacy, I hope to one day again put them at your service.”
In fact, Maréchal-Le Pen’s withdrawal may be a clever political move at just the right time.
“She is stepping aside, not stepping down,” far-right specialist, and author of 'Far-Right Politics in Europe', Jean-Yves Camus told FRANCE 24 by e-mail. “She clearly stated her intention to come back into politics, back to the forefront.”
“She understands that it is almost impossible to impose her views on the party leadership from within the party apparatus,” Camus posits. “She wants her freedom of speech and action. This she can only get if she is not dependent on the party, as is the case when you belong to a parliamentary faction. So if she wants to topple Marine Le Pen later on, she needs to build her networks from [the] outside.”
What about the timing? “It is smart if the FN [does] badly in the June legislative election. She will not bear part of the responsibility and will be able to voice her criticism. Besides, not standing in the June election means avoiding being defeated in her constituency,” says Camus. “The only problem is, in politics, you cannot stay out of the picture for a very long time, or else you fall into oblivion.”
This blow to the National Front in the short term comes as yet another element of instability in a shape-shifting French political landscape. On April 23, the two mainstream political forces that governed France for decades, the conservative Les Républicains and the Socialist Party, both failed to advance to the presidential run-off. The whirlwind success of President-elect Emmanuel Macron, who founded his upstart En Marche! Movement just last year, has sent those parties into a sort of existential crisis.
Maréchal-Le Pen’s withdrawal may well give some hope to Les Républicains hardliners. The National Front in this election had effectively challenged that party’s ill-fated presidential candidate François Fillon, a practising Catholic like Maréchal-Le Pen, in seeking to coax Catholic conservative voters onside. Fillon ultimately finished third to Macron and Marine Le Pen after his run was crippled by scandal.