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Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Memoir Reminds Us That France’s Populist Right Has Fascist Roots

In recent years, Marine Le Pen has sought to detoxify her party's brand and distance herself from her father Jean-Marie's crankish outbursts. But his latest volume of memoir is a reminder that her so-called populist right is rooted in fascism and a National Front that united Vichyites and antisemites with radicalized conservatives.

Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen at a National Front rally in 2012. (Blandine Le Cain / Wikimedia Commons)

What happens to a “Man of Destiny” when he fails to fulfil his destiny? This second volume of former National Front (FN) leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s autobiography provides a curious portrait of a fallen demagogue in his dotage. Following his expulsion from the FN in 2015, Le Pen has become an increasingly marginal and eccentric figure, his political role essentially reduced to trolling his daughter Marine, the new leader of the party, which she renamed the Rassemblement national in 2018.

This book, which might well be titled “Oedipus Wrecks,” deals with the period spanning the formation of the FN, its emergence as a national political force, and Le Pen’s subsequent expulsion by his daughter. Much of the rambling, poorly edited text is devoted to this rift, but Le Pen also addresses accusations that he is a fascist, an antisemite, a liar, and a racist.

Volume One presented the author as a Boys’ Own–style hero destined for glory, a Breton Huckleberry Finn with an ambiguous relationship to the wartime Vichy regime and the resistance. The second volume opens with a hubristic comparison between the author and Charles de Gaulle: Le Pen claims to have spent his life pursuing the national unity that evaded De Gaulle. It soon becomes clear, then, that we are dealing with a man who has almost no self-awareness, a would-be national savior who cannot even achieve unity with his own daughters.

I’m Not a Fascist, But . . .

Dealing with the formative years of the FN in the 1970s, Le Pen acknowledges that there were fascists involved in the party — but claims that fascism was too “left wing” for him. His apparent aversion to both fascism and Nazism (too racist) does not prevent him from acquiring a huge number of friends and acquaintances who happen to be fascists and Nazis. Not all of them are monsters, he protests, “any more than all Muslims or Communists.”

Léon Degrelle, for example, was the figurehead of Belgian fascism and a fanatical Nazi. Hitler awarded him the Third Reich’s highest accolade, the Knight’s Cross, for his services as a high-ranking SS officer. Yet when Le Pen made his acquaintance he found “nothing dishonorable” about him, just a very nice, warm man with a gift for telling anecdotes. In the same vein, Le Pen reminisces about meeting Françoise Dior, niece of the fashion designer (and wife of British fascist Colin Jordan), an “admirer of Hitler who wore a swastika between her two magnificent breasts.” He also remembers Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, offering to produce a sculpture of him, only for the FN’s political bureau to decide against it.

Veteran fascists with closer ties to Le Pen include Victor Barthélemy, a former Communist who became a leading member of Jacques Doriot’s pro-Nazi Parti Populaire Français (PPF) before working as an advisor to Benito Mussolini. Le Pen appointed him national secretary of the FN. Another former PPF member who found himself in the FN leadership was André Dufraisse. Le Pen blithely recalls that his role in the “war in Russia” (fighting for the Waffen SS) meant that Dufraisse was “affectionately nicknamed ‘Uncle Panzer’ by his friends.”

François Duprat, a leading member of the far-right organization Ordre Nouveau in the early 1970s, had a lifelong commitment to fascism. The FN project was initially driven by the desire of people like Duprat to see Ordre Nouveau’s street-fighting fascists escape from the ghetto of small-scale activity. Le Pen feigns a lack of interest in what Duprat and his devotees of “revolutionary nationalism” were up to — “nobody really understood what it meant.” Experience had taught him to be wary of a milieu that had plenty of plans but lacked the discipline of the Left. More importantly, he

couldn’t see the political opportunity: the transformation of our society marked by the exodus from the land and the death of small businesses had taken place, decolonization was done, this was a time of growth and industrialization, not revolution.

At age forty, Le Pen notes, fascist activists saw him as an old fart obsessed with World War II, decolonization, and republican legality. In the aftermath of May 1968, Le Pen thought of Ordre Nouveau militants as the ultra-lefts of the right. “But we needed each other. The revolutionary nationalists were looking for a presentable façade and I, the presentable façade, was looking for foot soldiers: we ended up finding an agreement.” The result was the National Front.

As for Duprat, he was blown up by a bomb placed under his car in 1978. He had been finishing work on a translation of British fascist Richard Verral’s negationist tract, Did Six Million Really Die? According to Le Pen, Duprat played an important role in the FN’s “doctrinal reflection.” He understood the importance of history in political combat and theorized it, notably in his quarterly publication, the Review of the History of Fascism. “I must admit,” Le Pen muses, “that I feel closer to Duprat now than I did at the time.”

We can infer from his account that Le Pen did not really believe Ordre Nouveau to be a serious force. His own views, rooted in a French far-right tradition heavily influenced by antisemitic conspiratorialism, racism, and authoritarianism, clearly overlap with a fascist outlook. He describes, for example, the Front’s 1978 economic program as “a little manual of counterrevolution” and contrasts the FN’s defense of property based around businesses and land with the excess profit and speculation of “anonymous and vagabond money.”

The book is stuffed with reminders of Le Pen’s unapologetic antisemitism, from endless reiterations of his reference to the Holocaust as a “detail” of history, to his complaints about the influence of the “Jewish lobby” and his contemptible claim that the notoriety associated with the label “extreme right” has functioned like a yellow star by turning him into a pariah.

In terms of strategic orientation, Le Pen’s sense of his own role and purpose is clear: to act as an uncompromising pole of attraction for both the far right and radicalizing conservatives. Power, he repeats, cannot be won alone, and there is no point in winning power if it is to be based on accommodation with “the system.” He acknowledges that victory in 2002, when he came second to Jacques Chirac in the presidential election, would have provoked “almost insurmountable difficulties,” since the organization lacked the networks of allies required to take on the system in “the media, finance, army, police, and administration.”

Interestingly, he takes a similar view of his daughter’s much-derided performance in the televised debate with Emmanuel Macron between the two rounds of the 2017 election:

With a good debate and a terrorist catastrophe the week before the vote, she might well have won, but to do what? With what staff? What team? What relations with the administration? With industry? The banks? The trade unions? The police? The army? The church? One of the great weaknesses of the Front National, the price of its independence, is that it is dramatically alone, it’s not based on any concrete force except, once upon a time, its activists, who are on the wane. Marine’s failure was perhaps a blessing.

His criticism of the FN’s so-called detoxification process is in line with this outlook. After all, he argues, Trump’s success was based on radicalization, “becoming the devil he was accused of being.” His own experience of refusing compromise with the liberal right of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing preserved his chances of “keeping his general’s coat” and “embodying opposition to the system.” Detoxification is therefore based on a fallacy, since it is dependent on those who deem something toxic, not those deemed to be so. Ultimately it is a form of “intellectual capitulation” that involves playing the adversary’s game, giving up on being “the alternative model that France and Europe needs.”

A Family Affair

Le Pen’s rancor about his expulsion from the FN is evident in such remarks, and in numerous petty, vindictive asides about his daughters Marine and Marie-Caroline and his granddaughter Marion. None of them have ever asked Le Pen for political advice or shared “political intimacy” with him. Marine’s “parricide,” expelling her father from his own organization, is described as “a crime against nature” which Le Pen compares to a mafia killing, a test and a trap set by the system: “separate from your father with this ritual challenge of a murder and you will demonstrate your iron character, a Roman virtue, and earn the badge of a good democrat.” Le Pen is left to nurse his narcissistic outrage:

In breaking with her father, she has broken the sacred link of devotion that founded our civilization. In breaking with the founder and leader of the National Front she has broken the bond of love between the French and themselves.

Sadly, for Le Pen, parricide appears to run in the family. Marine’s elder sister, Marie-Caroline, was given 40 percent of shares in her father’s recording company, the SERP. She promptly bought up another 11 percent and kicked him out of the business. Le Pen père, the common denominator here, appears surprised to find that his daughters never listen to him, despite owing him “so much,” and puzzled that they viewed his suggestion that they take elocution lessons as an unwelcome interference, “as if I took them for losers.”

Jean-Marie Le Pen between Marine Le Pen and Bruno Gollnisch at European Parliament in 2013. (Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons)

His granddaughter Marion Maréchal is subjected to the same love-hate routine. Formerly Maréchal-Le Pen, she dropped her grandfather’s name — another betrayal — after deciding to take time out from politics. This decision, by the leading representative of the FN’s hardline Catholic wing, was denounced by Le Pen as a “desertion” at the time. Praising her as “the most talented of all,” he notes that it is “a shame that she is calculating, sometimes distant, cold.” “It’s a great advantage to have done nothing,” he observes, “but one shouldn’t take it too far.”

The book reveals this profoundly racist, sexist, homophobic bully to be an even more unpleasant character than his public persona has managed to convey. His scheming and ruthless attitude toward personal and political relationships helped him to a fortune after he inherited a mansion from a vulnerable and suggestible alcoholic acquaintance. It also saw him lead a poisonous political organization for nearly four decades and develop a patriarchal network of control whose ramifications are still being played out.

But Le Pen also comes across as a rather lazy and stupid creature, full of cod-aristocratic affectation. Throughout the book he indulges in a rather infantile compulsion to name-drop, indicating that despite his self-appointed status as a Man of Destiny, he remains a resolutely small-town bigot at heart, overawed by fame, fortune, and big city lights. Any encounter with fame, however fleeting, feeds his sense of leading some kind of magical existence. As the book progresses, this gives way to a more maudlin and self-pitying tendency to list the celebrities who have passed away each year, culminating in the reflection that “my address book is a cemetery where I don’t know what has become of various graves.”

Politically, his problem with Marine’s leadership is that she, and her former advisor Florian Philippot, neglected party education, publishing, and research, suffocating the organization’s once thriving internal life and leaving an empty shell. Since the 1998 split with former party chairman Bruno Mégret, he complains, “we no longer have an abundance of reliable, competent, and sufficiently experienced cadres who come across well on screen.” Worse still,

Not long ago the FN was a national and international reference, that’s finished. . . . Thanks to its contortions, Marine’s Rassemblement National is viewed by a large section of the people as a party like the others, part of the elite, privileged. With me, the gilets jaunes would have rushed into our arms. To be completely clear, wanting to detoxify means conforming to the enemy’s codes of communication and thought.

What is his alternative? Borders should be closed and appropriate selection methods employed to render the army and police “secure.” The network of associations working for the “immigrant invasion” should be stifled. Those entering France illegally should have no rights, to housing, education, work or anything else:

Will we be firm enough to resort to cruelty if it becomes necessary? If southern countries carry on dumping their “peaceful migrants” on us, what will we do? When they get here, are we going to sink their boats? If we don’t, we’re screwed.

Le Pen has spent his political career waiting for an extreme situation that would provide him a sufficient electoral base to make alliances. Now insurrection is coming, he argues, but not from the far right: “We used to have a good pool of veterans. There’s nobody left. People of good French stock don’t have the organization or the mentality to rise up. They’re not armed, they don’t train.”

So where is this insurrection going to come from?

People of non-French stock. Mostly from Africa. . . . Paris used to have a red belt [of left-wing suburbs], today it’s green. The capital is surrounded and penetrated by the Islamist scum. Homogenous and hostile and armed housing estates have formed. There’s a threat of confrontation, or worse, secession. This will be a civil war, it will pit the French against the foreigners present on French soil. Whether it’s that or something else, the threat of popular insurrection won’t come from us. Who among us would rise up? We no longer have a working class, a peasantry, or a middle class. No strong, organized political or religious group represents us.

The two volumes of Le Pen’s autobiography run to over one thousand pages. As might be expected, their author is anything but a reliable narrator. This second volume, however, does provide a window onto some of the individuals and groupings to have shaped the development of fascism in postwar France. Some polls have indicated that Marine Le Pen may run Macron close in next year’s presidential election. At a time when studies of populism tend to substitute glib analysis for an understanding of the politics of such figures, this book offers a reminder of where the contemporary far right has come from — and where it might yet go.