Erna Paris is the author of Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair.
Are you there Sigmund Freud? Your famous couch has fallen into disuse in recent years, but the need is urgent. In France, a public dispute has erupted between Jean-Marie Le Pen, 85, the retired leader of the far-right National Front party, and his daughter, Marine, whom he hand-picked to succeed him in 2011. On the surface it’s as elevated as a food fight. Papa made another of his notorious anti-Semitic remarks, suggesting he’d like to send a Jewish critic of his party to the crematory. Breaking with the past, Marine openly rebuked him, then cancelled his blog on the party’s website. The next day Papa addressed an open letter to his daughter, in which he claimed to be the victim of an injustice, spoke of the support he had received, and demanded the reinstatement of his blog. Then he posted the offending comments on his personal website. “I will not submit to totalitarian censorship,” he railed.
What to do about a wayward parent who is honorary president of your party for life?
Marine Le Pen’s attempts to move the National Front into the mainstream by soft-pedalling its xenophobic policies and speaking moderately, rather than histrionically, have shifted the French political landscape. Her party came third in the 2012 national elections, polling higher than Jean-Marie Le Pen at his highest level of popularity. Recently, the National Front won a historic victory in the French European parliament elections, sending 24 extreme-nationalists to Strasbourg to preside over the EU, like wolves guarding the sheep.
Like her father, she wants France to leave the euro zone and withdraw from NATO. Like her father, she is opposed to globalized institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Like him, she fulminates against both legal and illegal immigration – especially Arabs and blacks. The differences lie largely in tone. In the past she has played “good cop” to Jean-Marie’s outrageous public persona – to apparent good effect. Just prior to the EU elections, Papa suggested the deadly Ebola virus could solve the global “population explosion” and thus Europe’s “immigration problem.” Marine responded mildly and the disreputable remark did not affect the party’s massive electoral mandate. But this time he may have gone too far.
The rise of the National Front must be understood within the context of French ideology and politics. Jean-Marie Le Pen has a background of extreme right-wing activity. In the 1950s, he supported the anti-Semitic, anti-establishment Poujadist movement that appealed to the same group of small shopkeepers, low-paid workers, Catholic fundamentalists, and cultural nostalgics who later gravitated to the National Front. After serving as an intelligence officer in Algeria during that colonial war, he was accused of having participated in torture. In the 1960s, he spearheaded a campaign to rehabilitate Nazi collaborators associated with the wartime Vichy regime.
Created in 1972, the National Front languished until the 1980s when economic slowdown and unemployment stoked its ranks, and since the country has never recovered economically, the fortunes of the party have continued to rise.
Yes, Sigmund Freud, this couple needs your help. As a child, Marine heard her father called a fascist. When she was eight, someone lobbed a bomb into their home, narrowly missing killing the entire family. She has loved and admired her father. He made her into a politician in his image, or so he thought. Now she must repudiate him if the party identified with his name is to survive in a new era.
Le Pen, himself, is a Lear figure, without the nobility. Like King Lear, he abandoned power to his daughter too soon and is reduced to flailing about.
Their public battle is as sad as it is seminal. And the old man will lose.