Marine Le Pen may be trying to set herself up as the only candidate capable of taking on Emmanuel Macron in the 2022 presidential election, but the leader of the French far-right has to face down another challenge first — from within her own family.
Marion Maréchal, Ms Le Pen’s niece, who ditched her famous surname in 2018, has been highly visible in the French media in recent weeks, questioning her aunt’s electoral strategy.
“It seems obvious today that you can’t win alone,” Ms Maréchal told BFM TV last week.
Ms Maréchal’s argument that Ms Le Pen cannot win “without a coalition” and “without being more open” towards the centre-right Les Républicains party exposes a significant problem for Ms Le Pen — in the two-round French presidential system, winning without allies is extremely difficult.
The French far-right has been edging closer to the Elysée Palace ever since Ms Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, won through to the second round of the presidential election in 2002 (he eventually lost by a wide margin to the incumbent, Jacques Chirac). In 2017, Marine Le Pen repeated the trick only to lose to Mr Macron following a disastrous television debate performance.
And while Ms Le Pen has gone some way to detoxifying her Rassemblement National (RN) party since she took over — changing its name from the tainted Front National and distancing herself from the extreme views of her father — it remains unclear if she has done enough to win over new voters.
Recent showings in local elections, which saw the RN win in Perpignan but make little ground elsewhere, did not instil confidence, even if local results do not tend to be reliable predictors of the national vote.
The anti-immigration RN faces myriad issues, but its fundamental problem, said Sylvain Crepon, senior lecturer at the University of Tours, was that “it’s a party without major allies . . . it doesn’t have the reserve of votes to win the second round”.
Once the RN’s youngest National Assembly member until she stood down in 2017, Ms Maréchal now runs a small school for the far-right in Lyon. While remaining coy about her own future in politics, the ideologically driven Ms Maréchal had become focused on reshaping politics by building a “grand coalition” of the right.
Mr Macron, who faces the prospect of a pandemic-hit economy worsening as the election approaches, is also leaning further to the right in an effort to win over conservative voters. His newly appointed interior minister Gérald Darmanin has staked out a particularly aggressive position on security.
The president’s shift to the right is driven in part by a fear that the so-called front républicain, which sees other party voters line up to elect anyone facing the far-right, will weaken as left and green voters refuse to lend their support.
The deeper problem for Ms Le Pen, however, is that more mainstream parties still fear that an alliance with the far-right would leave an indelible mark, not quickly forgotten by potential future voters.
The RN leader is caught, therefore, between competing visions of the future for her party.
In one, she breaks through a glass ceiling by continuing to moderate her message — presenting herself as a “profoundly reasonable and pragmatic” option — but in doing so risks alienating her base. In the other, she remains loyal to that base, betting that the future of politics is populist, but cannot then sell herself to more traditional conservative voters.
“I think Marine Le Pen is trying to navigate between these two lines. And her hesitation is creating a fragility . . . And it’s that fragility that Marion Maréchal is trying to take advantage of,” said Chloé Morin, an analyst at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès think-tank.
In a recent interview with newspaper Le Parisien, Ms Maréchal said: “The problem for the RN is its difficulty in talking to the orphans of the right wing.”
“I think Maréchal is planning for what comes next, after her aunt loses the presidential election or, if her aunt does manage to win, after the defeat of the Rassemblement National in the legislative elections,” said Mr Crepon.
People close to Ms Maréchal warn that instead of shooting for the head of the RN, she could instead choose to remain outside the party in the hope of creating a new political pole on the right.
Ms Maréchal, meanwhile, sticks to her usual line that, aged just 30, she is not about to make “life-long commitments” one way or another.
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