France's populist party just had its best electoral night ever. In the first round of regional elections on Sunday, the National Front (FN) came in first in six out of 14 regions, topping 40 percent of the score in two. Marine Le Pen, the FN's president, is riding high. But many are looking at her niece. And not just because she is young and, let's face it, beautiful. She may be the most interesting politician in France.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who heads the FN's list in the South of France's Provence-Alpes Côte d'Azur, where the FN had its best score, is the niece of Marine Le Pen and granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the longtime party leader. If she looks barely out of school, it's because she is. At 22, she was the youngest person ever elected to Parliament in the country's history; she even dropped out of a graduate program to fulfill her duties. Now 25, she is poised to be president of one of France's most significant regions.
But it would be a mistake to attribute her rise merely to her last name and good looks. She is a fierce debater and talented campaigner. And she has shown very strong political sense.
At this point, it is worth rehearsing the FN's history. The anti-semitic and racist outbursts, and general extremism, of its founder and president Jean-Marie Le Pen had put a ceiling on the party's support. Marine Le Pen sought to break that ceiling by moving away from racist rhetoric and social issues (except immigration and crime, of course) and embracing a populist, anti-globalization, pro-government message on economics. This strategy came to a Shakespearean height when Le Pen père gave interviews to fringe far-right magazines with outspokenly racist comments, and Le Pen fille decided to not only remove him from his honorary chairmanship, but have him expelled outright from the party he founded. ("It is never pleasant to be murdered by one's own daughter," Jean-Marie dryly commented at one point.)
This strategy, combined with Marine's own political and rhetorical skill, has produced clear gains in the polls, and last night's results certainly ought to silence her critics. But she does have critics — many in the FN's old guard who resent her new direction for the party.
Enter Marion. Unlike her aunt, she is unashamed to be on good terms with her grandfather (although she disavows his racist comments). She has focused on the issues that the FN's old guard emphasize. But it goes beyond that.
Marion is outspoken about her Catholic worldview, in a country where that is strange for any politician; even the FN's official line is that it is a defender not of Christian values, but of French laïcité against Muslim influence. Marion is unapologetic about her stance on social issues: She opposes abortion, even as the FN has softened its (never very hard) stance on the issue, and has stated forthrightly that if elected to head her region, she would cut off funding to Planned Parenthood (Marine disavowed those comments).
She has also bucked her party on economics. She is unashamed of being pro-business and pro-free markets, again a tremendous oddity in France. She founded a group called Cardinal to solicit policy proposals from business owners.
She is, in other words, the closest thing to a U.S.-style conservative in France.
Which is exactly the sort of politics that has never worked in France, going as it does against nearly every sacred cow of contemporary French politics — religion in public life, moralism on social issues, the role of the market. And yet Marion keeps winning.
Politically, this strategy is very deft. If Marine's strategy succeeds, Marion is no longer just a last name and a pretty face, but the head of a constituency that must be appeased. And if it fails, Marion looks like a leader-in-waiting.
But the implications may be much broader. France had the stirrings of a "free market populist" movement with the Pigeon uprising of business owners and independent contractors revolting against high taxes. More importantly, France is a fiercely secular and libertine country — but nonetheless one where more than a million people marched against a same-sex marriage bill, and one where an assertive Catholicism is slowly but surely surging.
It's still an open question how this will impact French politics, if at all. Will France's Catholic revival produce a revanchist, identity politics-driven Christian right? Will it just provide fuel for France's main right-wing parties, which care nothing for the issues dear to Catholics ? Will it provide a template for a new engagement in politics? Or will this revival of social conservatism, combined with outrage at high taxes, debts, and deficits, produce a kind of French version of the Tea Party?
(Full disclosure: I'm a French Catholic who is conservative on social issues and supports the free markets, but fears the politicization of the Church and disagrees with the FN's positions on immigration and dislikes its rhetoric. I have, obviously, very mixed feelings about all this.)
In such fluid circumstances, savvy and charismatic politicians can make a difference, and turn an inchoate constituency into a movement. Perhaps that is Marion's bet. If so, for good or for ill, she's the most interesting politician in France.