THE REVAMPED Confluence neighbourhood of Lyon is a laboratory for modern eco-living. A self-driving electric bus runs along the river Rhône, and green architecture overlooks converted docks. Waterfront cafés serve health food, and arts centres rise on former industrial land. The new influx of metropolitan types into the district helped Emmanuel Macron win fully 82% of the vote in the second round of the French presidential election in 2017 against the nationalist Marine Le Pen.
Yet today this neighbourhood is also the improbable new home to a rather different sort of experiment, run by the youngest member of the Le Pen political dynasty. In a side street a private graduate school, the Institute of Social, Economic and Political Science, opened its doors last autumn. It is the brainchild of Marion Maréchal, niece of Marine, and granddaughter of Jean-Marie, founder of the National Front (now the National Rally). In theory the 29-year-old Ms Maréchal has given up politics, having been elected to the National Assembly for a term in 2012 while still a law student. In reality the third-generation Le Pen has ambitious plans to shape the agenda on the right—from outside electoral politics.
France may cherish conceptual thinking, but its aspirant politicians usually tread a route to electoral office via jobs as party hacks or on ministerial staff. Time spent in think-tanks or academia, American-style, is uncommon. What makes Ms Maréchal’s choice arresting is not that it reflects her political retirement: sitting in an empty classroom at the Lyon site, she states unambiguously that “I will certainly go back into politics.” It is, rather, that she sees the spread of ideas, and honing of a right-wing ideology, as a means of “continuing to be in politics, but in a different way”.
Dismissed by French educationalists as a gimmick, the school is a centre of training, not research. It offers two-year diplomas—not yet approved by the French state—to just 90 students in social sciences and business. Class topics, pinned to the wall in the entrance hall, range from media training and leadership to “France, Christianity and secularism” and “world Islamist organisations”. This push to break the “ideological conformity” of French thinking is part of what Ms Maréchal calls “cultural politics” or “meta-politics”. “Our fight cannot only take place in elections,” she told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last year.
Ms Maréchal calls her brand of politics “conservative”. Which is telling, not least because the word is rarely used in France to define politics, and carries American echoes. Indeed, Benjamin Haddad, of the Atlantic Council in Washington, sees a parallel between the youngest Le Pen’s plans and the way American conservatives built institutions to mount a takeover of the Republican Party ahead of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. She is in contact, if irregularly, with Steve Bannon; and the former editor of the London edition of Breitbart News is on her school’s advisory board. The conservative label also reflects Ms Maréchal’s obsession with preserving French Catholic identity, in an attempt to put an acceptable face on what is often a toxic nativist discourse. If Ms Maréchal rails against French secularists, who chase nativity scenes from town halls at Christmas, her main gripe is mass Muslim immigration. “I don’t want France to become a land of Islam,” she says. The “great replacement” theory popularised by Renaud Camus, an essayist who warns that Europe will be demographically swamped, is “not absurd”, she adds, quoting a study suggesting that the “indigenous French” will be a minority by 2040. “Just like you,” she told her Washington audience, “we want our country back.”
Perhaps most striking, Ms Maréchal’s embrace of the word “conservative” reflects a political strategy that sets her apart from her aunt. Marine Le Pen is more exercised by unfettered capitalism and “savage globalisation” than by family values, in line with her courtship of the working-class former Communist vote in France’s rustbelt. Hers is a classic anti-elite populism—her slogan for elections to the European Parliament in May is “Let’s give power to the people”—and she wears the populist tag as a badge of pride.
Ms Maréchal, like her grandfather, is more attuned to the economic worries of small businesses and artisans. And her core project is the defence of a France of church spires, rural roots and family values, which taps into a seam of Catholic nationalism. Unlike her aunt, she marched against gay marriage. Naturally, she does this with a modern French twist: Ms Maréchal is separated from the father of her young daughter, and photos of her with a member of Italy’s Northern League have made the celebrity press. But Ms Maréchal’s aim is not, Italian-style, to unite the populist right and left; “I don’t call myself a populist,” she says. It is, rather, to merge the right and the far right, by allying the working-class vote with that of the “bourgeoisie enracinée” (rooted bourgeoisie).
A new Maréchal plan
Plenty of obstacles stand in the way, among them historical baggage and wide differences between the far right and the French Republicans over Europe, not to mention Ms Le Pen’s tight grip on her own party. Ms Maréchal will not challenge her aunt any time soon. Yet party politics in France, and in Europe, are unusually fluid. The Republicans have bled moderates to Mr Macron, shifting the party’s centre of gravity to the right. One ex-deputy, Thierry Mariani, recently defected to Ms Le Pen. Italy shows how unlikely political bedfellows can nonetheless end up together, and in power.
Above all, Ms Maréchal is in no rush. She stands to benefit from the broader success of reactionary books (by authors such as Eric Zemmour) and journals. Valeurs Actuelles, a right-wing magazine, sells more copies each week than Libération, a leftish paper, does each day. The editor of L’Incorrect, a monthly, sits on Ms Maréchal’s advisory board. It was in 1992 that the youngest Le Pen made her debut, as the blonde infant on a campaign poster in her grandfather’s arms. Today, confessing “admiration” for “his struggles”, she is playing the long game. It would be rash to ignore her.