Though the surprising success of extreme-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen may have made her the most attention-grabbing contestant in France’s recent elections, the 43 year-old National Front (FN) leader may soon find herself eclipsed by her own niece. Indeed, despite her aunt winning nearly one-fifth of all votes casts in first-round presidential polling in April, 22-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is now positioned to shine as the FN’s brightest star in next month’s parliamentary elections. And that’s not likely to spark jealousy or tension in the Le Pen clan. The scenario was created by FN founder (and Marine’s father) Jean-Marie Le Pen, who sacrificed his own legislative aspirations so his granddaughter could run in his place—and advance Marine’s efforts to recast the very face of the French extreme-right.
Her disarming charm and angelic looks aside, there’s a genetic and political logic to Maréchal-Le Pen’s current role assisting her grandfather and aunt in advancing a political agenda reviled by most in France as xenophobic, darkly nationalistic and even racist. The child of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s youngest daughter, Yann, Maréchal-Le Pen is the third generation of her family to enter the political fray. Intelligent, articulate and exceptionally easy to gaze upon, Maréchal-Le Pen was picked to run for a seat representing the Vaucluse department in southern France—an area that has been anchored emphatically to the right for decades and is receptive to FN positions and candidates. As such, the precinct is considered potentially hospitable turf for the newly transplanted Maréchal-Le Pen’s candidacy.
The road for this parliamentary drive was opened April 25, when Jean-Marie Le Pen announced his surprise decision to withdraw his own bid for the seat and defer to his granddaughter. Given Le Pen’s long record of election defeats, his move to bow out of such a promising district—and as the FN seeks to build on the momentum of Marine’s nearly 18% tally in presidential voting—surprised some observers as remarkable selfless with victory apparently so close. However, the act probably reflects Le Pen’s wider calculation that his sacrifice promises to pay bigger future political dividends for his party and family.
Indeed, the area in which Maréchal-Le Pen is seeking election is not just FN-friendly, it gave Marine Le Pen her highest score nationally in the presidential election—a 31.5% chunk of first-round balloting that easily outdistanced incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 27.6% take. That result appeared to convince the elder Le Pen that conditions in both France and Vaucluse were ideal for Maréchal-Le Pen to assume a central role in her aunt’s drive to give the FN a younger, modern and seemingly moderate face—and perhaps provide it a rare taste of electoral victory in a plumb district.
Given the representational rules of the French legislature that have locked the FN out of parliament for nearly three decades, it will take far more victories than Maréchal-Le Pen’s for her party to sit in the Assemblée Nationale again. Still, her win would be vital to the party—and is considered entirely possible. With multiple leftist candidates battling one another for what little support progressives receive in the area, Maréchal-Le Pen’s main task has been wooing Vaucluse voters away from the incumbent representing Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) party. That effort has been made easier by the taint many UMP politicians still suffer from association with the scorned and beaten Sarkozy.
Meantime, Maréchal-Le Pen brings her own strengths to the campaign. Unlike Marine Le Pen—who uses a brawling debate style, piercing intellect and a razor-sharp tongue for maximum political effect—Maréchal-Le Pen opts for more modulated tones, moderate language and the occasional smile as she champions the same anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant, Europe-bashing policies her aunt does.
Her kinder, softer sell is evident elsewhere, too. Maréchal-Le Pen has refused to rise to baiting that her age and thin political experience—limited to an unremarkable and ultimately failed run in 2010 regional elections in the Paris area—leave her unqualified for a seat in parliament. Maréchal-Le Pen has similarly remained sanguine in being nicknamed “Marion-ette” by detractors claiming she’s acting as a proxy in the race for her political and family elders. “I’m not my grandfather’s marionette, contrary to what (some) say,” Maréchal-Le Pen told France Soir last month. “I’ve been a National Front member since I was 17, and active supporter for a long time. I have a certain legitimacy to be a candidate (even if) it’s true that seeking a legislative seat is new, and a huge responsibility.”
Perhaps even more in this case than she’s willing to admit. Jean-Marie Le Pen himself has stressed the invaluable symbolism he attaches to his young, blonde, bright-eyed granddaughter avenging the FN in Vaucluse. In 1990, all of France exploded in outrage when the Jewish cemetery in the Vaucluse city of Carpentras was desecrated—an act long blamed on FN members. Though neo-Nazi skinheads with no links to Le Pen’s party ultimately confessed to the crime, the country continued to associate the FN with the horror of the attack. Now, the elder Le Pen believes his progeny can wipe away the stain of that injustice at long last with electoral victory. “It’s here that the National Front was insulted and falsely accused by a left-wing political conspiracy,” Le Pen said in announcing he’d cede his spot in the Vaucluse legislative race to Maréchal-Le Pen. “The National Front wants to avenge what happened in Carpentras through this young girl who is a symbol of her generation.”
Despite the advantages she enjoys in the race, Maréchal-Le Pen remains an underdog in voting on June 10 and 17. Her main objective now is simply to qualify for the second round of balloting—and in doing so, become one of the 345 FN candidates analysts estimate may make the run-off stage in France’s 577 legislative races. Even if she only manages to be one of the most visible faces in such a swollen crowd of FN candidates, Maréchal-Le Pen may well become symbolic of something even bigger than her grandfather had dared hope for.