Marine Le Pen, the president of France’s far-right National Front party, has publicly accused her father — Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s founder — of attempting to sabotage her and the party ahead of an expected presidential bid in 2017.
But political analysts say the highly publicized family schism will only bolster Marine’s long-standing efforts to rebrand the increasingly popular National Front as a softer, less-virulent iteration of her father’s anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic party.
Marine wrote on the party’s website last week that despite Jean-Marie’s position as the National Front’s honorary president, she would, “with great sadness,” oppose his efforts to run for office in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur during regional elections later this year.
“His status as honorary president does not authorize him to take the National Front hostage,” Marine wrote. "His gross provocations seem to have as a goal to defeat me, but also deal a heavy blow to the movement, its framework, its candidates, its adherents and its members."
Marine is trying to shore up votes from France’s Jewish community after decades of what many consider anti-Jewish comments from her father. She condemned Jean-Marie’s comment earlier this month that the Holocaust-era gas chambers were but a “detail of history.”
Jean-Marie founded the National Front in 1972. Since then, the party has run on an anti-immigrant, nationalist platform. Running for president five times and never swaying a sizable percent of the electorate, Jean-Marie was often quoted saying something incendiary: “Jews have conspired to rule the world” or that a person with HIV is “a kind of leper.”
On Monday, after roughly four decades of seeking office, Jean-Marie announced he would not run in the regional election, and that he would instead be replaced by his 25-year-old granddaughter Marion Marechal-Le Pen, Marine’s niece.
French political analysts say that the dispute reveals a real difference between Marine and Jean-Marie’s visions for the National Front. Marine’s wants to do something her father never could: integrate the party into France's political mainstream, which was impossible given Jean-Marie’s firebrand advocacy against the nation's ethnic and religious minorities.
Still, the party has in recent days called attention to this dispute, highlighting the party’s move away from the founder’s divisive attacks.
And, to a degree, it has worked. The New York Times Magazine wrote a profile of Marine with a headline, spotlighting the new rhetoric: “Marine Le Pen, France’s (Kinder, Gentler) Extremist.”
The National Front published Le Pen’s family drama on its website, featuring an exchange of press statements from both Marine and Jean-Marie that emphasized the distance of Marine from the more blatant anti-immigrant sentiment of its old guard, said Youssef Boussoumah, a commentator on French politics and member of the left-leaning Parti des Indigènes de la République (PIR), which advocates for the interests of French people of color.
“I think she sees this as a great opportunity to underline her efforts to show France and the party that it’s possible to sideline her father,” Boussoumah said.
The National Front did not immediately respond to an interview request from Al Jazeera.
Alain Gresh, commentator on French politics and editor of monthly magazine Le Monde Diplomatique, said it would be politically catastrophic for Marine to totally push out her father, saying that his politics of open, virulent anti-Semitism still speak to a large part of the party’s constituency. But Marine’s dog-whistle anti-immigrant stances — opposing halal lunches and Arabic-language instruction at public schools, for example — maintain what Boussoumah says is a new majority of younger, more pragmatic National Front members.
“In her political entourage, there are people of the very extreme right, not just xenophobes, but they are clever enough not to express that openly. The father is just stupid enough to show it. He’s old, and he doesn’t care,” Boussoumah said, referring to Marine’s confidant, Frédéric Chatillon, who in the 1990s was president of the Groupe Union Defense (GUD), a violent, far-right student group renowned for one member's attempt on former French President Jacques Chirac's life, but has since become a more mild-mannered entrepreneur and taken on communications operations for the National Front.
Gresh agreed with Boussoumah that the National Front family split is real and that, by publicizing it, Marine has distanced herself from her father in the public’s eye.
Jean-Marie “refused political integration. He engaged in political provocation,” said Gresh.
“Marine Le Pen developed a different strategy,” Gresh said, “From a propaganda stance, [the war of words] will help her strategy — help her say, ‘I am not my father.’”