You spend 40 years building a flourishing business and, finally, with age catching up, you hand it over to the only one of your children who has shown pride in your life’s work, understood its importance, and seemed ready to carry on the job. Then, with nary a word to you, she starts to shake up the family firm, offering new products, seeking new markets and undermining everything you believe in.
So do you just stand there and do nothing?
Not if you’re Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s extreme-right National Front. After spending years grooming the youngest of his three daughters, Marine Le Pen, he handed over the party to her in 2011. But since then, she has abandoned his hard-line positions and the extremist views he has long voiced.
In the process, she has won more followers than he ever enjoyed. She is projected to be a top candidate in the 2017 presidential elections, and a threat to the two major parties.
Mr. Le Pen, for his part, has decided to strike back against what he clearly sees as betrayal by his own flesh and blood. And if that means undermining his daughter’s political strategy and even threatening the survival of the party, so be it. The National Front was his creation, and he refuses to be silenced.
This month, still wearing the mantle of honorary president of the party, Mr. Le Pen gave a series of interviews in which he recycled some of the racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic views that have made him toxic to many French people in the past. “I am not a man to change his opinions or crawl,” he declared. He knew they would upset his daughter. “His aim is to harm me,” she said.
In his latest diatribes, he went from reiterating his opinion that the Holocaust was simply “a detail” in the history of World War II to defending the record of Marshall Philippe Pétain, the head of the collaborationist regime in Vichy, which deported 75,000 Jews to Nazi death camps.
To his well-honed hostility toward Arab immigrants, he added Asians, claiming absurdly that “a million” Chinese now live in France. And turning his guns on France’s Spanish-born prime minister, Manuel Valls, he lamented, “We are governed at all levels by immigrants and children of immigrants.”
Marine Le Pen was shaken. Only four years ago, when she succeeded him, she praised his “serene authority and integrity of thought” and “the righteousness, the nobility of spirit, the perseverance, the vision and at times the courage with which he led the National Front.”
With a prolonged economic slump feeding malaise across France, she has exploited both the unpopularity of President François Hollande’s Socialist government and the squabbling leadership of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, led by the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, to present herself as a new face and a fresh alternative. And her populist message, focused on the economy, the evils of the European Union and the corruption of traditional parties, has been getting through.
In last year’s European Union elections, the National Front came out on top in France, with 26 percent of votes. In departmental elections last month, it placed second, with 25 percent of votes. Recent polls even show that Ms. Le Pen could win the first round of the 2017 election, though probably not a runoff. Still, in just four years, she has moved her party from the periphery to the center of French politics.
Now, thanks to her father, the National Front is facing its greatest crisis ever. But like father, like daughter: Ms. Le Pen has come out fighting, dismissing her father as caught “in a spiral between a strategy of scorched earth and political suicide.” She rescinded party backing for his candidacy in southeast France, where he enjoys considerable popularity, in regional elections this fall. She has even begun “disciplinary procedures” against him in the party’s executive bureau.
But will she dare to call on the party’s members to revoke his title of honorary president and expel him from the party?
If Mr. Le Pen is afraid, he isn’t showing it. “Marine Le Pen perhaps hopes for my death, that’s possible, but she can’t count on my cooperation,” he said, adding that his expulsion would “implode” the party.
The National Front is already riven by a generational divide. Mr. Le Pen’s traditional support started with French military veterans who were opposed to Algeria’s independence in 1962, along with opponents of immigration and even former Communists who had been displaced from their jobs. He still has a large and loyal following in the party.
In contrast, Ms. Le Pen’s young advisers have persuaded her that both the party and her future candidacy can prosper only if she turns her back on what her father has come to represent. Family loyalty, they say, should not trump political opportunity.
The battle lines are drawn. Mr. Le Pen has every intention of running in the regional elections, insisting that “I am the lead candidate to kick out the Socialist-Communists.” In that case, he would have to run as a right-wing dissident against his own party’s official candidate. And who might the party nominate to oppose him? None other than his 25-year-old granddaughter, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.
Could this internecine war bury Marine Le Pen’s dream of one day reaching the presidential palace? Or can she rescue the National Front by demonstrating that her father has lost his marbles? As Shakespeare reminds us, battles for the throne always make for high drama. In this case, the final act is still to come.
Alan Riding, a former correspondent for The New York Times, is the author, most recently, of And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris.