Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Marion Maréchal’s Populism is the Future of the French Right

An important convention highlights the changing character of French conservatism—and France itself.

Last Saturday’s “Convention of the Right” in Paris, organized by associates of Marion Maréchal, would surely have received more attention had it not taken place days after the death of Jacques Chirac. Chirac was a somewhat right-of-center former president, prime minister, and “Gaullist” politician whose days in French politics are remembered warmly, because they were, most French would agree, better days for France.

Chirac was in the news constantly from the mid-1970s until his second presidential term ended in 2007. Energetic, a superb campaigner and retail politician, unafraid to flirt with right-wing demagoguery as a candidate, he governed always as a centrist, ready to accommodate the Left. Demonized for asserting during one campaign that French workers dislike the “noise and odors of Islam” and are tired of rising early to go to work knowing that African migrants can receive more from state benefits than they make from their salaries, he governed always as a moderate. This was seen most notably when he accepted French guilt for the injustices carried out under Nazi occupation and for not checking the gradual erosion of French sovereignty to Brussels. He is rightly heralded for trying to dissuade George W. Bush from invading Iraq. Yet he was, in a way, the epitome of the political mindset that the Convention of the Right sought to undermine. Faced with an unexpected run-off against Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential race, Chirac refused to debate the “fascist,” thus garnering left-wing support while ensuring that the immigration issue would not be raised in a widely viewed televised presidential debate.

Chirac, of course, won in a landslide, and seemed to have been caught by surprise when the immigrant suburbs exploded into weeks of violent rioting a few years later. Remembered fondly, he was helped by being the leader of the “Gaullist” party, though he did much to take that political formation in directions—towards Brussels, wallowing in French guilt and multiculturalism—that de Gaulle would have found appalling.

It was natural, then, that talk about Chirac and his era would dominate the French airwaves upon his death. The purpose of the Convention of the Right was precisely to break down the barriers between the establishment Right—moderate, bourgeois, and centrist—and the so-called extreme Right, a tendency growing throughout Europe as it becomes increasingly evident that the establishment wing has little will to solve Europe’s problems. 

Former deputy Marion Maréchal is the niece of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s granddaughter. Her aunt has done an historic job in building her father’s party—formerly the National Front, now the Rassemblement National—into a viable right-wing populist force. This included purging it of the anti-Semitism with which Jean-Marie Le Pen was seldom reluctant to flirt. But there seem to be limits to Marine’s enterprise. In the last election, which she lost badly to Emmanuel Macron, her doubling down on populist economics probably alarmed voters who may have agreed with her on immigration and cultural issues. Her stress on the laicism of La République, an effort to ground her polemic against Islam’s growing presence in mainstream French history, probably put off some Catholic voters. And there is a part of France—Catholic, highly educated, patriotic, with historic loyalties to the France that predated the Revolution—that may be growing in influence in reaction to the progressive onslaught.

A recent work on the new French Right, “Le vieux monde est de retour,” describes a youthful Catholic intellectual resurgence, a reaction against the slogans of May 1968—everything is possible, free love, marriage for everyone, mass immigration—that have more or less governed their lives. This is the kind of conservatism of Marion Maréchal’s circle, and it includes many who supported the openly Catholic, avowedly conservative, proudly bourgeois François Fillon in the last election. He was the center-right candidate and likely victor until his campaign imploded amidst reports of a no-show parliamentary job held by his wife and other charges of personal corruption. Implicitly Maréchal’s argument is that however meaningful the divide between the respectable Right of Gaullist or bourgeois parties and the extreme Right of Jean-Marie Le Pen might have been, its rationale has evaporated. Her aunt has made the extreme Right more or less respectable; mass immigration has rendered it necessary.

The biggest polemical gun of the Right is Éric Zemmour, author of Le Suicide Français, for many months the bestselling book in France. He is a Jew whose refugee parents fled Algeria, a man who likely knows more French history than anyone else who appears on the country’s airwaves. He has knack for going up to the edge of what is considered acceptable discourse, only to then be accused of going over the line.

In his opening address for Marion Maréchal’s conference, one heard the hardline version of Zemmour—he pulled no punches in criticizing immigration, “which aggravates every social problem, schools, lodging, unemployment, public debt, public order, prisons.” He noted too that “every problem intensified by immigration is made worse by Islam. It’s a sort of double punishment.” The French state, he said, has become the “weapon of destruction of the nation working towards the subjection of the French by another people and another civilization.” The question, he continued, is “will young Frenchmen accept being reduced to a minority status in the land of their ancestors?” This is, to be clear, as blunt and straightforward an elucidation of the great replacement ideology as one will find, and unsurprisingly the French Left was aghast that the speech was broadcast in its entirety by the French news channel LCI. Calls for Zemmour’s assassination soon proliferated on left-wing Twitter.

Perhaps the most productive new analogy of Zemmour’s speech was his comparison of the present age to the era of the Nazi-Soviet Pact—an alliance no more unlikely than the entente between liberal cosmopolitan “Rights of Man” enthusiasts and fundamentalist Islam on the desirability of mass Muslim immigration to the West.

After Zemmour, the conference was comparatively subdued. America’s own Candace Owens was warmly received, telling a receptive crowd that there was nothing wrong with a French government that favored French people. But likely the most important speech was Marion Maréchal’s calm and straightforward address, which also included a rendition of the demographic replacement issue. We must, she said, resolutely support “our right to historical continuity, our right to the primacy of French culture over that of imported cultures.” In the next breath, she stressed what she called the grand deplacement, the collapse of the French economy outside the most dynamic urban metropoles. She claimed—in a point regrettably never made by America’s right-wing politicians—that ecology is a conservative cause, that the protection of countrysides and forms of food production amounted to the protection of an identity.

In short, Maréchal managed to make Zemmour’s points in a less contentious way.

Clearly the conference showed that the idea that historic France is being overwhelmed by foreign cultures and peoples through the machinations and neglect of its governing elites is less a fringe conspiracy theory and more mainstream conservative discourse.

The goal of the Convention de la Droite was not only to change the Right, but to pave the way to elect a genuinely conservative president. Yet it’s not clear to me how that will happen soon. Granted, Emmanuel Macron was a virtual political unknown two and half years before his election, but he was an important economics minister in a socialist government, known for his pro-business views. Neither Marion Maréchal nor anyone on her roster has that stature, or the military background that might be its electoral equivalent. 

Moreover, Macron has proven adept politically. He helped induce the Gilets Jaunes to discredit themselves through violence, while tacking rightward, at least rhetorically, on immigration. With the recent dismal electoral performance of the traditional center-right, he now occupies the bourgeois center of French political life, obviously an attractive spot.

Nonetheless, there remains a powerful political logic behind the Convention de la Droit. The split between the mainstream Right, which includes traditional Catholic voters and business-oriented types, and the more populist Rassemblement National—and the former’s willingness to join the with the Left to exclude the RN from potential governing coalitions (or, per Chirac, refuse to engage them in debate)—no longer makes sense to young people worried about France’s future. It’s as relevant today as the old Communist Party affiliations of the 1950s—which is to say not completely irrelevant but not that important either. 

One feels that Marion Maréchal will one way or another achieve her goal of breaking down the barriers dividing the Right because it makes so much sense that it be done. Then, of course, winning a national election remains the hurdle. But here one remembers that most of the time, given a binary choice, France does vote for the more conservative candidate.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcConnell9.