PARIS (Reuters) - The daughter accuses the father of political suicide; the father publicly suspects she would like him dead anyway; and the grand-daughter watches in the wings, ready to pick up the pieces.
The feud within the Le Pen dynasty that has ruled France’s National Front (FN) for four decades is teetering between high drama and a low farce that could emerge as the biggest threat yet to the far-right party’s quest for mainstream power.
Party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen’s defense this week of his view that Nazi gas chambers were a mere “detail” of war has prompted Marine Le Pen, FN leader since 2011, to demand his role in the party be discussed at a meeting of FN executives on Friday.
The blood line linking the two, plus the family talent for invective, make this no ordinary political row - to the glee of rivals who have seen the FN gain from the rise in support for populist parties in a Europe just emerging from recession.
“A father and daughter are ripping each other to shreds in public - the masters of Greek tragedy couldn’t have staged it better,” veteran leftist Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now a political pundit, said this week.
“Let’s hope this runs and runs.”
Marine Le Pen has sought to rid the FN of its anti-Semitic image and position it as an anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic force offering protectionist economic policies to shelter ordinary French from the vagaries of globalization.
At some point she was always going to have to find a way of silencing her maverick father, who at 86 uses his title of honorary president of the party to lob regular stink bombs into the French political debate.
The tougher is question is: How?
The trained lawyer, unanimously re-confirmed as FN leader at a congress last November, has a firm grip on the party as she prepares for a 2017 presidential election in which she is tipped to make the second-round run-off if not win outright.
A survey by pollster Harris Interactive found 99 percent of FN supporters believe she “embodies” party values against 28 percent for her father. Harris found the French most associate him with the words “racist”, “old” and “trouble-maker”.
Moreover a separate study by Odoxa found nearly nine out of 10 of FN supporters think it is time for him to quit politics.
Yet ejecting him against his will would be another matter: As a shrewd strategist Marine Le Pen will recall the brief but sharp decline in the party’s fortunes after the messy 1998 split with its former number 2, Bruno Megret.
In a brief telephone call with Reuters on Tuesday, Jean-Marie Le Pen warned: “In times like these you should expect everything”. In other words, he will not go quietly.
“It’s possible that Marine Le Pen wants me dead and gone - but she shouldn’t bank on me going along with that,” he told French radio two days later, warning the party would “implode” if she kicked him out.
While such an implosion is unlikely given the declining personal support for Le Pen within the party he created in 1972, far-right watchers believe a move to eject him would hurt his daughter’s image with grass-root members vital to her 2017 bid.
“Marine Le Pen would come across as unwilling to recognize her father’s contribution to the party,” analyst Jean-Yves Camus said. “The risk would be that it saps party morale.”
Marine Le Pen, who last week described her father’s behavior as “somewhere between scorched earth tactics and political suicide”, told Reuters Thursday she had no plans to eject him. Moreover, his honorary title cannot be removed.
She will instead oppose his bid to lead the party’s election list in December’s local polls in the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d‘Azur region and back his grand-daughter Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the latest member of the dynasty, for the ticket.
Yet even that would carry risks: at 25, Maréchal-Le Pen remains a political novice despite her seat in the national parliament. Her career could be ruined if her grandfather chose to run a dissident list against her in a region he knows well.
Quoted by the Journal du Dimanche weekly on Sunday, Jean-Marie Le Pen hinted he might step aside for Marion in what would be a possible olive branch.
It is a dilemma that should come as no surprise to Marine Le Pen. The first line of her official biography is a remark her father once famously made to her and her two sisters: “You are Le Pen girls for life. It’s not going to be easy, so you might as well get used to it fast.”
(This version of the story has been corrected to add dropped words in paragraph 3)
Writing by Mark John