Three Generations Of Le Pens Fight For Party's Future

May 9, 2015
Originally published on May 10, 2015 6:29 am
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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The far-right National Front Party in France has been engaged in a very public feud between its founder and its current president, who also happen to be father and daughter. Marine Le Pen says her father cannot stand the fact that he's no longer in charge. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports the family spat has riveted France.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen usually stand side-by-side at the party's traditional May Day rally around a gilded statue of Joan of Arc in central Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAY DAY RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Jean-Marie, Jean-Marie, Jean-Marie.

BEARDSLEY: But this year as the crowd around him chanted, Jean-Marie, the 86-year-old politician went alone to lay a wreath at the foot of the party's favorite saint, arriving after his daughter had come and gone. When it came time for the speeches, the aging father stood on the stage and shook his fists in defiance to cheers from the crowd. But for the first time, he didn't open his mouth. Jean-Marie Le Pen was given the title of Lifetime Chairman, in 2011 when his daughter succeeded him at the helm of the National Front. Stanford professor Cecile Alduy, author of a book about Marine Le Pen, says the father has now become a thorn in the daughter's side.

CECILE ALDUY: It's a party also based on both sacrifice and violence in its rhetoric. There's this military aspect to the mythology of France that they have, so that Jean-Marie Le Pen is acting as the portrayed general who has to, for the sake of honor, resist till he dies.

BEARDSLEY: Jean-Marie Le Pen is an irascible provocateur who has spent most of his life mired in controversy. He's been convicted more than a dozen times for hate speech. Marine Le Pen has been working to make the National Front more mainstream and break from its racist anti-Semitic roots. But just a month ago, the elder Le Pen dredged-up and defended the head of the Vichy collaborationist government from World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEAN-MARIE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Then during a radio interview, Le Pen said he did not regret his infamous statement from 1987 when he said the Nazi gas chambers were just a detail of the Second World War. Marine Le Pen says her father is sabotaging the party.

MARINE LE PEN: (Through interpreter) The question is, can he keep speaking in the name of the National Front? And I think no - his comments are completely at odds with the party's platform.

BEARDSLEY: This week the National Front suspended Jean-Marie Le Pen. It may now vote on whether to revoke his status as chairman. But author Alduy says Marine Le Pen will have a difficult time disassociating her father from the party he has nurtured since the early 1970s.

ALDUY: Without the name Le Pen, this party would not exist with the kind of success it has. And it's because of all the polemics that Jean-Marie Le Pen has provoked in the press. So as much as Marine Le Pen hates that he does so, this is what brought success and media attention to the National Front.

BEARDSLEY: There's a third Le Pen ready to carry on the dynasty, 25-year-old Marion Marechal Le Pen. Jean-Marie's grand-daughter and Marine's niece became the youngest person ever elected to the French Parliament in 2012. The National Front Party is attracting more young people than any other political party.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

BEARDSLEY: At the May Day rally, most supporters laughingly chalk-up the latest troubles to Jean- Marie Le Pen's age and ornery disposition. They say Marine is clearly the party's future. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.