The news that Marion Maréchal-Le Pen will share a stage this week with US conservatives, addressing the annual Conservative Political Action Conference event shortly after vice-president Mike Pence, has caused much excitement within the French right. The 28-year-old Maréchal-Le Pen, niece of Marine, the leader of the National Front, withdrew from political life in June after her party’s disastrous result in the second round of the presidential election. Allegedly disillusioned with the direction the party had taken in the previous months, focusing more on the economy and the EU, than on social conservative issues that are close to her heart, the departure of the golden girl of the National Front dismayed the French right.
Since then Maréchal-Le Pen, who cited a wish to spend more time with her young daughter as the reason for resigning as an MP, has gone to ground and the woman once known for her social media savoir-faire hasn’t tweeted in months. So no one in France is any the wiser as to how she feels about Emmanuel Macron, although considering his step to the right in recent months, she might not be too aghast. France will perhaps get a clearer idea when Maréchal-Le Pen addresses the conference in Washington on Thursday.
It’s certainly a prestigious event in which to launch a political comeback – if that is, indeed, what it is – with Donald Trump scheduled to speak on Friday. Also in attendance will be Britain’s Nigel Farage, who last year lavished praise on Trump during his appearance. The timing of the event couldn’t be better for Marechal-Le Pen. Last week her aunt, with whom relations are still reportedly chilly, admitted that should a better candidate come forward, then she would be ready to step down as National Front leader, evidence that finally Marine Le Pen understands she is not presidential material.
Meanwhile, the former vice-president of the National Front, Florian Philippot, officially launched his new party on Sunday, Les Patriotes, although he really shouldn’t have bothered. It’s National Front-lite, led by a man without a drop of charisma, a party that doomed to oblivion.
More to the centre of the French right, the leader of the Republicans is experiencing a media storm after comments he made in a private audience with business college students were leaked to the press. Laurent Wauquiez alleged that Emmanuel Macron and his cohorts had a hand in wrecking the presidential hopes of François Fillon last year, with the establishment of a ‘demolition cell’ that leaked stories to the press. Wauquiez also made disparaging comments about several other high-profile political figures, reinforcing the opinion of many that he lacks the competency to seriously challenge Macron in the 2022 election.
Maréchal-Le Pen’s silence is in marked contrast and it may be that she is biding her time, scrutinizing Macron and his government, noting their strengths and weaknesses, and formulating the best strategy with which to challenge him in four years’ time. ‘It’s not exactly a comeback but it’s a sign that Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has not completely left politics,’ commented Le Figaro of her trip to Washington.
Macron will be interested to hear what Maréchal-Le Pen has to say. The first nine months of his presidency have gone better than expected, with the economy picking up and unemployment at its lowest for nine years. But immigration, radical Islam and social reform (including the extension of gay rights] remain towering challenges for Macron in a country that remains socially conservative.
For millions Maréchal-Le Pen is the embodiment of this conservatism but she is also economically liberal, currently studying for an MBA at the Lyon business school. That’s why she has always been closer politically to her grandfather, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, than her aunt; when he led the party in the 1980s, he was a fan of Reagan and Thatcher’s economics.
But the biggest threat Maréchal-Le Pen could present to Macron is in her character and image. Macron has always benefited from his youth, from his precocity and his charisma, wowing his seniors in the business and the political world. But Maréchal-Le Pen was an MP at 22 and so has star appeal of her own. Of course, right now she has no party and no political clout, but then nor did Emmanuel Macron this time two years ago.