A month is a long time in the politics of the French Far Right – last month Marine Le Pen was hailed as a political genius. This month her party’s carapace of plausibility and respectability has split apart, exposing its core contradictions and intolerance.
One of her 89 deputies was suspended from the National Assembly last Friday for shouting a racist remark – “Go back to Africa” – at a colleague of Congolese origin,
The next day her protégé, Jordan Bardella, 27, replaced her – nominally – as President of the Rassemblement National party. He immediately purged from the party’s executive two of Le Pen’s allies in northern France, including the mayor of the town that she represents in parliament.
At one level, that may just be a spat between generations and incompatible personalities. At another level, it could represent the beginning of a civil war between the contradictory forces in Marine Le Pen’s cosmetically respectable version of her father’s far-right movement.
Of the two incidents, the suspension of MP Grégoire de Fournas may be the most damaging in the short term.
You can listen to John Lichfield discuss the changing face of the French far right in the latest episode of Talking France. Download it here or listen below.
After the legislative elections in June, Le Pen leads the biggest far-right group in the French Parliament since the end of the collaborationist Vichy regime in 1944. She has ordered them – with some success – to appear respectable and respectful, engaged and hard-working.
Her strategy is to make her party seem like the only coherent opposition to Macronism and therefore the natural, alternative “party of government”. She brought off a great coup last month when, at the last minute, she switched her party’s votes to support a left-wing censure motion against Macron and his Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne.
By doing so, she embarrassed the centre-right Les Républicains, whose non-votes meant that the government survived. They were, Le Pen crowed, the de facto allies of Emmanuel Macron.
She also embarrassed and split the Left-wing alliance who found themselves in de facto alliance with her.
Enter, stage far right, Grégoire de Fournas, a wine grower and RN deputy for Gironde in the south-west. Last Thursday he shouted at the left-wing deputy Carlos Martens Bilongo while he was asking a question about the Mediterranean boat people.
His words can be interpreted in various ways – an example of how the spoken French language can be very precise but can also be very ambiguous.
Other deputies heard Fournas shout “qu’il retourne en Afrique” (send him back to Africa, referring to Deputy Bilongo, who was born in the north Paris suburbs). Fournas insisted at first that he had spoken in the plural: “qu’ils retournent en Afrique”, meaning the boat people. Then he said that he had spoken in the singular but meant the boat, not Mr Bilongo.
The assembly rejected his version and suspended him for the maximum 15 daily sessions.
Vile racist and anti-semitic social media posts by Fournas have since been uncovered by the French media. Mr Bilongo has been bombarded by racist social media messages.
Overall, the incident is a serious breach in the veneer of respectability which Marine Le Pen has sought for 12 years to apply to the RN. Fournas had been in line to become the new party spokesman, Officially, the party backs his version of events but his name disappeared from the list of RN appointments at the weekend.
The Fournas incident tarnished what was supposed to be a “new start” for the Lepennist movement, a party congress in which members voted (as expected) to install Jordan Bardella as the first party president in 50 years not to be called Le Pen.
Officially, this was the members’ choice, by 85 percent to 15 percent for Louis Aliot, the mayor of Perpignan and ex-romantic partner of Marine Le Pen. It was well understood, however, that Marine favoured Bardella, who becomes, at 27, by far the youngest person ever to lead a major French political party.
It is also well understood that Marine remains the real leader of the party. It is understood that she will run for President for a fourth time in 2027, unless she decides to concentrate on her second career as a cat-breeder.
Bardella’s role is supposed to be a kind of prime minister to Le Pen’s president, taking care of the grunt work of running the party and organising its finances. Marine, it is reliably reported, could rarely be bothered to undertake this work.
Bardella, a handsome face and a plausible performer on TV, is also seen as way of attracting support from younger voters and proving that the RN is more than a family business. In truth, his rapid ascent proves the opposite. One of the reasons that he has been favoured by Marine is that he is part of the Le Pen clan. He is the partner of Marine’s niece, Nolwenn Olivier, the daughter of her older sister, Marie-Caroline.
Bardella’s rise is deeply resented by the older generation of RN barons. Steeve Briois, the mayor of Le Pen’s constituency, Beaumont-Hénin, near Lille, once called him to his face “un petit con” (little idiot).
At one level, therefore, it was no surprise that Bardella purged Briois from the party’s 12-strong executive at the weekend. He also excluded another “northern” baron who had campaigned against him, Bruno Bilde.
These ejections are more significant than a clash of generations or personalities. Marine Le Pen tried to save Briois and Bilde, who have been her important personal allies for 15 years.
Bardella insisted and he got his way. It appears that he will not be the straw man that many expected.
In an unusually harshly-worded press release on Sunday, Briois accused Bardella of trying to “stunt” and “re-radicalise” the party. The new president, he said, was moving away from the social (almost socialist) policies adopted by Le Pen fille since 2010 and returning to the more overtly identitarian, ultra-nationalist, low tax and small government approach of her father.
This complaint may be exaggerated. It is unlikely that Marine Le Pen will allow Bardella completely to jettison her “neither Left nor Right” approach and abandon policies attractive to her many working class voters.
But there has been tension for a long time between the “northern” (socially and economically interventionist) RN, led by Briois and Bilde and the “southern” RN, which worships low taxes and a small state as well as “national identity”.
This tension – as well as Le Pen’s political limitations and intellectual laziness – explain the permanent state of incoherence of the party’s economic platform.
A racist remark by an RN deputy is damaging for Le Pen in the short term. A party civil war between “north” and “south” could be more destructive in the months ahead.