The spat began last week when Marion Maréchal-Le Pen went against the party line by saying she opposed full public reimbursement for abortions. It was far from the first time the 26-year-old MP, who is beloved by Catholic conservatives, had struck out on her own.
In the past month, she spelled out independent positions on the 35-hour work week (she is against it), the role of her grandfather Jean-Marie Le Pen (she thinks he can play a role in the National Front’s campaign despite being kicked out of the party) and her aunt’s choice of a blue rose as her campaign logo (she does not see it, like Marine does, as a mix of the socialist and nationalist symbols).
But the abortion fight is different.
Maréchal-Le Pen challenged National Front Vice President Florian Philippot more directly than ever before and criticized her aunt’s flip-flopping on the abortion issue. It was the first time she had asserted herself so clearly, and on Sunday, Marine Le Pen was forced to step in to address the conflict, siding with Philippot.
Beyond Maréchal-Le Pen’s growing independence, the spat highlighted radically diverging views within the Front on a strategic question: How the party should deal with conservative presidential candidate François Fillon, who according to polls would crush Le Pen in the election’s final round.
“There are two totally different views on how to deal with Fillon,” said Joel Gombin, a political scientist who specializes in the Front. Maréchal-Le Pen “sees Fillon as a strategic threat for the National Front because he is hunting on their grounds, which creates a need to reassert several questions — notably those having to do with moral conservatism.
“Philippot is of the opposite view: that this is a great chance to underscore the divide between globalizers and patriots, as he defines it … Clearly, Marion now sees a chance to impose her vision more forcefully.”
For the National Front, Fillon’s landslide victory in a conservative primary election created a dilemma: He is a staunch conservative, campaigning on Catholic values, who often sounds more right-wing than Le Pen, especially on the economy.
Should the National Front attack him from the Right or the Left? Philippot, a statist anti-European, chose the latter option and accused Fillon of being a cold-hearted capitalist, dispatched by the European Commission to destroy the French welfare state.
Maréchal-Le Pen and her followers took the opposite tack. The difference in opinion might have remained internal, had Maréchal-Le Pen not decided to make it public by speaking out on abortions. (Abortion has been legal in France since 1981 and 100 percent reimbursed by the state since 2013.)
Philippot, who backs the party line that the abortion law should not be changed, reacted quickly. Questioned about Maréchal-Le Pen’s position, he referred to her as “that person” and said she was “alone,” “isolated” and out of step with the party’s president.
Maréchal-Le Pen retaliated, telling a Sunday newspaper that Philippot lacked respect, accused him of trying to set party policy on his own and criticized her aunt for having changed her position on abortion.
“I would have liked a bit more respect from Florian Philippot,” she told the JDD newspaper. “There is a minimum of respect and goodwill to have. Nothing can justify such aggression.”
Caught in the crossfire, Le Pen tried to reassert authority in an interview of her own. As the Front’s elected president, she said, she was free to defend any position. While in 2012 she opposed full reimbursement of what she called “comfort abortions,” Le Pen said that position had been taken as a concession to a hard-line faction in the party that no longer existed.
“There are millions of French patriots who … will not forgive us for getting lost in these sorts of petty squabbles,” she told BFMTV.
Big clash looms
Le Pen’s intervention is unlikely to be the last word in an ideological and strategic conflict that has divided the National Front for years.
Convinced that Fillon’s rise shows a desire for frank conservatism in France, Maréchal-Le Pen’s camp is growing more assertive. On Monday, an elected official in southern France told POLITICO it was only a matter of time before her team demanded a full-blown reckoning with Philippot’s followers.
“After 2017, we will no longer be able to continue with this sort of incoherence inside the party,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “There will have to be a vote and we will see who wins.”
His assessment chimed with the view put forward last week by Guillaume Laroze, a gay law student who left the party after receiving homophobic insults online.
Laroze told POLITICO that some “80 percent” of the party’s rank-and-file members sided with Maréchal-Le Pen and wanted the National Front to adopt a clearer conservative agenda. The strain of trying to be “Neither Right, nor Left, but the National Front” — to borrow an expression from Samuel Maréchal, the man who raised Marion — would ultimately prove too great, and the party would formally split into two, Laroze said.
So far, Le Pen has sided with Philippot. In addition to stating that she had no intention of changing her position on abortion, she has echoed her vice president by attacking Fillon as an “ultra-liberal” candidate.
In a sign that Le Pen does not want to leave Fillon unchallenged on the Right, she chose to make one of her first major policy announcements a hard-line one: arguing that undocumented children should no longer be eligible for social benefits or free schooling.
Author: NICHOLAS VINOCUR