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Christian Salmon: Marine Le Pen, the symbolic father

Miri Davidson19 June 2015

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On Tuesday, Marine Le Pen, leader of France's Front National, announced the formation of a far-right bloc in the European Parliament, bringing together 36 lawmakers from seven countries. Christian Salmon examines the symbolic play that has earned Le Pen her particular brand of reasonableness, including her relationship with her "comic devil" father, founder of the Front National. Translated by David Broder; visit Libération to read the article in French. 

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen and her father, the party’s founder and honorary president Jean-Marie Le Pen. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Image

By Christian Salmon

"Who stands to gain from this clash?", the commentators asked when the "divorce" between Le Pen (the daughter) and Le Pen (the father) became apparent. It is a legitimate question, and we can answer it easily enough by observing that Le Pen (the father) has reprised his role as a comic devil figure at 88 years of age, giving his daughter the unexpected gift of a now-incontestible "de-demonisation" that opens her way to the Elysée [the presidential palace].

It is not so important whether or not he did so deliberately. And the question of whether she had sincere or merely cynical motives for breaking with her father changes nothing. As Lacan said, les non-dupes errant…[1]. All the interviewers who tried to catch out Marine Le Pen by counterposing her to her father have now themselves been caught out. The matter is closed. The daughter has freed herself of her devilish father. Up till this point she only had usufruct rights on the Front National brand, and her father was the bare owner; but now it is fully her own. But the psychodrama is not only a quarrel over the family silver; there is, furthermore, a deep disagreement over their marketing strategy.

After all, in any rebranding operation you have to re-write the tale of the brand’s origins, which means grappling with the founder and his narrative of how it came about; a patriotism that rested on colonial assumptions, with its structural anti-semitism and its homophobia fed by the "pederasty" of the barracks… in short, an ideological framework that was ever more incompatible with Marine Le Pen’s own profile, defined as she was by the Rivarol [2] editor as a "little hussy with no faith and no laws, no doctrine or ideals, no backbone, a pure product of the media, whose entourage is entirely made up of unscrupulous careerists, infamous renegades and notorious Jews".

He might be a fascist, but he’s her dad all the same! And the father can at least be proud of having brought his daughter to the gates of power, even at the expense of the fascist bit. The Front National’s rebranding is complete. The Rassemblement bleu Marine [3] can begin. Marine Le Pen had already begun to rewrite the origins of the old Front National brand, inventing more presentable fathers than her own, for instance Georges Bidault, who succeeded Jean Moulin at the head of the National Resistance Council in 1943 and then took part in the foundation of the Front National in 1972. Marine Le Pen embodies conservatism and change, tradition and modernity, the mother at home and the emancipated woman. She is the talk of the town, and that’s what people want from her. "Surprise me!" – that’s what her audience/voters are asking for.

Marine Le Pen has understood that the way to master political debate is to gain mastery over the words, images and metaphors you use. So while she carefully avoids any reference to the Holocaust, she is far from shy about comparing Muslims praying in the street to an army of occupation, awakening memories of the German occupation, or going as far as to invoke the imaginary of the crusades as she whips up the threat of a "new Caliphate" in this country.

And she really has the measure of her father in terms of her hateful ways with words, for instance when she coined the acronym "ROM" [i.e. Roma/gypsy] to designate the Parti Socialiste and the conservative UMP, these letters standing for "Réunion des Organisations Mondialistes" ["Alliance of Globalist Organisations"].

Marine Le Pen has an instinct for the art of ideological sampling. From Chevènement ["republican"/left-Gaullist] to the Nouvelle Droite [fascist], Marine Le Pen takes it all in her stride, not only borrowing from the nationalist Right but also freely quoting Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht, Victor Schoelcher, George Orwell, Serge Halimi or even the Manifeste des économistes atterrés [a critique of neoliberalism by left-wing economists]. Some Front National old-timers have not followed her down this path, for instance Yvan Blot, who labelled the party founder’s daughter "Marine la Rouge". But he is mistaken to take seriously Marine Le Pen’s invocation of Marx – she is just trying to make a composite identity, drawing on works of the most varied ideological stamp. Her book is full of this name dropping, referencing a rag-bag of authors as a wink to all the audiences she wants to seduce: figures as diverse as Gilles Lipovetsky, Emmanuel Todd, Marcel Gauchet, Serge Halimi, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Pierre Rosanvallon, Karl Marx, George Orwell, Jean-Claude Michéa, and even… Jean-Luc Mélenchon are bearing the load for her "rebranding" operation.

But what really fascinates the media, as well as part of public opinion, is not Marine Le Pen’s ideology, but her own story. When Sarah Palin made her breakthrough in the US elections, her Go-Go boots counted for just as much as her wild claims, and her daughter’s pregnancy aged 16 just as much as her own statements against abortion. The contradiction didn’t bother the voters, and she won an audience. Marine, without doubt, is a better political operator than Palin, but what attracts people to her is not her ideology, but her profile: blonde, the daughter of…,  emancipated, a divorcée mother, an authority.

What is new is the symbolic dimension of the break, the catastrophic manner in which the instances of the law and of transgression have been set in motion, or rather, breached. The figures of prohibition and transgression are all out of place in this clash: the father has assumed the symbolic role of transgressor, allowing his daughter to assume the role of instance of the law.

In Freud’s schema, symbolic castration is the punishment that the father threatens the son with if he transgresses the prohibition against incest. For Lacan, the law of symbolic castration is not simply dissuasive but structuring. It does not just inspire fear of being sanctioned, but is "symbolic" in Lacan’s own sense: it is not the deed of the "real father" but of a symbolic father, the instance of the law that in Kafka, for instance, takes the form of the guardian of the law. In this schema, while Jean-Marie Le Pen is Marine’s father, it is Marine herself who embodies the symbolic father, the instance of the law. The daughter calls her father before a disciplinary hearing – here stands the law!

How could she re-establish national sovereignty if she didn’t even control her own party? A symbolic inversion that reinforces Marine Le Pen’s punitive side, so cherished by her compatriots. She punishes the father, stopping him standing for the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region. It’s his fault: he transgressed the prohibition against anti-semitism. So we have a party "in the name of the father" that excommunicates the real father "in the name of the daughter"; but most importantly, we have the symbolic father, the law, the authority that’s been in a bad way since François Hollande took over the presidency (and can it be any coincidence that he’s been given the epithet "granddad")? Nothing works properly any more at the summit of the macho-monarchical Fifth Republic’s power; the father of the Nation has failed. Now it’s for women and daughters to put this authority back together again; it’s up to them to save the instance of the law. Martine Aubry attacked François Hollande’s weakness, his sluggish Left, and his directionless project, but she herself wasn’t up to the historic task of taking the place of the law. Yet this could prefigure a matriarchal takeover of the authority that fell from the "guys’" hands. For they have nothing left: they have neither law nor language.

Christian Salmon is author of Les Derniers Jours de la Ve République, Fayard, 2014.

[1] A Lacan pun: ‘les noms du père’ [the names of the father] sounds like ‘les non-dupes errent’ [non-dupes err].

[2] A far-right magazine, critical of Marine Le Pen for her abandonment of more intransigently nationalist/racist positions.

[3] A coalition of forces supporting Marine Le Pen’s presidential bid. The name is a pun on the words ‘navy-blue’ and the Front National leader’s own name.