May 7, 2015 / 8:45 AM / 3 years ago

France's Marine Le Pen gambles with political patricide

PARIS (Reuters) - By pushing her maverick father out of the far-right party he founded four decades ago, French National Front leader Marine Le Pen is banking on an act of political patricide to ensure he does not end up ruining her bid for power.

France's far-right National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen (R) watches as her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, party founder and honorary president, reacts on the podium at their traditional May Day tribute to Joan of Arc in Paris, France, May 1, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The risk is that the 86-year-old former paratrooper, suspended from the party on Monday over provocative comments on the Holocaust, does not go down quietly.

The feud between Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter has few parallels in modern European politics and has been compared to everything from slapstick farce to “King Lear”, Shakespeare’s tragedy of a father driven to madness after turning his kingdom over to his daughters.

But Marine, whose core strategy since taking over the party in 2011 involves making it more palatable to mainstream voters, was always going to have to find a way of silencing her father before the 2017 presidential election.

“At first, it all gives a rather pathetic image of a party based on a dynasty,” said Cecile Alduy, a Stanford University professor and author of a new book analyzing years of speeches by both the father and daughter.

“But in the long run, if she manages the crisis well media-wise ... she could win from this break-up.”

The crisis at the National Front erupted one month ago when Le Pen senior reiterated past comments that the Nazi gas chambers were a mere detail of history, and defended Philippe Petain, the war-time leader who cooperated with Nazi Germany.

According to Sylvain Crepon, a political analyst and expert on the National Front, Marine and her party lieutenants “might have been waiting for just such an opportunity”.

“Better for this to happen now than drag this millstone until 2017,” he argued of their decision to suspend the elder Le Pen from the party and call a special meeting to strip him of the title of honorary president.

Surveys by pollster Ifop and Crepon’s interviews with party supporters suggest Jean-Marie Le Pen was increasingly considered a man of the past and was discouraging potential voters who otherwise agreed with the party’s anti-immigrant, anti-EU line.

But others say such a public row with an aging father whose health is visibly fragile could damage the image of Marine, a 46-year-old former lawyer, whose campaign posters have sought to portray her as sympathetic and caring.

“The way the break-up is taking place ... the brutality of the process - it’s all very violent,” said political science professor Pascal Perrineau. “It gives people the impression this is not quite a real party.”

A survey published by Le Monde on Wednesday underlined the ambivalence of many to a party which has made strong gains in local elections but is still far from power in national government. While 69 percent of respondents believed the National Front would not be able to manage the country, 67 percent agreed with it that there are too many foreigners in France.

“MAD WITH RAGE”

Perrineau noted that, as a member of the European Parliament, Jean-Marie Le Pen has a platform to continue to launch invective and embarrass his daughter.

True to form, once suspended, he reacted with outrage, saying it would be “scandalous” if his daughter won in the 2017 elections after the way she treated him.

“He is mad with rage,” Ifop’s Jerome Fourquet said. “We can expect just about anything.”

Alduy agreed, predicting that the elder Le Pen would play the role of the “leader betrayed by his own”.

“He could even start lawsuits over the National Front ‘brand’,” she suggested.

In an early sign of how the family feud could hamper the party’s quest for power, the next generation rising star Marion Marechal-Le Pen, who is Jean-Marie’s grand-daughter and Marine’s niece, is now thinking twice about whether to lead the party’s ticket in the south-east Provence Alpes Cotes d‘Azur (Paca) region, a Jean-Marie Le Pen stronghold, in December regional elections.

“Not knowing how Jean-Marie Le Pen intends to behave during the campaign, I wouldn’t want him to use the Paca region as a tool for revenge,” the 25-year old told Le Figaro.

Le Pen senior has hinted he could set up a new party and some believe he could consider running a rival list in the elections. But analysts say only a few die-hards would follow him - far from the late 1990s crisis when his then-deputy Bruno Megret left with many party officials and supporters.

That has not stopped opponents gleefully seizing on the first major crisis for years in the party.

Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who has said he wants to bring National Front voters “one by one” into his conservative UMP party in time for the 2017 vote, argues Marine Le Pen is being disingenuous in condemning her father’s remarks.

“Marine Le Pen has inherited her father’s party, she bears his name. And she is supposed to have only discovered two weeks ago that what Mr Le Pen says is outrageous?” he told Le Figaro in an interview on Tuesday.

“Who can believe such a thing?”

Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Mark John and Peter Graff

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