At 94 and in declining health, Jean-Marie Le Pen could be taking it easy, reflecting in his gated mansion outside Paris on a life of extreme right-wing combat, active involvement long behind him. Instead, as the movement he created marks its 50th anniversary today, he maintains a keen interest in events that, beyond France and from Italy to Sweden, owe much to his influence.
The father of France’s far right can also be considered the grandfather of a broader strand of radical populism – sometimes loosely connected, sometimes less loosely – that has gained an increasingly strong grip in Europe.
Victory in Italy’s legislative election for Giorgia Meloni, who angrily rejects charges of fascism but draws inspiration from its practice by the wartime dictator Benito Mussolini, bears witness to the link. Her triumph is the latest manifestation of the far right’s ability to turn heads and exploit the concerns of millions.
After the recent election in Sweden, a party with neo-Nazi origins, the Swedish Democrats, seems likely to become the senior partner in a right-wing coalition. Hungary’s far-right Viktor Orban is among the models for Ms Meloni’s brand of eurosceptic nationalism, albeit mellowed ahead of polling to soothe markets and nerves.
And as distinctions between the conventional and extreme right become blurred, some conservatives in Britain and elsewhere might fit comfortably into such groups.
If there is a thread common to several of these movements with often murky backgrounds, it boils down to this: “That was then. We have changed.” It tempts otherwise ailing sections of Europe’s right and centre-right to wonder whether embracing such bedfellows might work for them, too.
Horrifying to many, uplifting to some, these breakthroughs arrive late in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s life, one dotted with mixed electoral performance and repeated judicial skirmishes over his wilder outbursts. But as well as deriving satisfaction from the growing appeal of his nationalism, he has lived to see the party he co-founded seize 89 seats in the French National Assembly – the largest number of opposition seats, and more than either the traditional Gaullist right or France Unbowed, the main group in the left-green Nupes alliance.
That achievement carries a bittersweet taste for him. In place of its sinister original name, the National Front, the party is now called the National Rally. Under the skilled leadership of his daughter, Marine, it has strived to present a more palatable face, ditching expendable reactionaries who dare to exhibit old-fashioned fascination with Adolf Hitler, collaborationist wartime France and anti-Semitism.
And the fiery old rabble-rouser has been ostracised, excluded from party membership at the instigation of his own daughter as part of her relentless campaign of "dediabolisation", an attempt to stop her party being demonised as undemocratic and anti-republican. The last straw was his stubborn repetition of hideous claims that Nazi death camps were a mere detail of war.
Whether she has truly detoxified a party with racist, even Nazi, connotations and a hatred of Jews, Muslims and black people fixed in its DNA is perhaps of secondary importance; she has undoubtedly succeeded in detoxifying its image. For supporters, any stigma has evaporated.
Her father insists his title of honorary president is “untouchable” even though the role was abolished in 2018. His relations with Marine Le Pen, who gave Emmanuel Macron a minor fright in April’s presidential election, increasing her losing share of the vote from 33.9 per cent in 2017 to 41.5, are glacial. There was a time when he could claim that despite her political makeover, there was little of substance to divide them. That has changed. “I am neither in her head nor her heart,” he recently conceded to the Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.
Marine Le Pen has stood down as the National Rally’s president to concentrate on marshalling her unprecedented parliamentary strength as a viable opposition.
In the battle for succession, there are signs that the National Rally of 2022 is uncomfortable at the golden anniversary’s reminder of an unsavoury past. Jordan Bardella, the bright young modernist hoping to beat Marine Le Pen’s former partner, Louis Aliot, to the post, has talked of treating it more as a celebration of her 10 years as president.
Exactly how the event will be marked remains unclear. If the National Rally of Marine Le Pen shows little appetite for feting 50 years that began with dubious adherents, her father defies advancing years to appear in the mood for a party.
He has spoken of making his home available to a committee responsible for organising some form of commemoration. But a long-term confidant, Lorrain Saint-Affrique, now says that the sheer volume of people wishing to attend has forced cancellation. The party itself has talked only of hosting a modest “symposium”, to which Jean-Marie Le Pen does not expect an invitation.
How far, in reality, has Le Penism travelled since the the National Front’s 1972 formation? The founding fathers were a bizarrely disparate bunch including at least one trade union leader, wartime resistants and a former communist as well as out-and-out Nazis, holocaust deniers and embittered opponents of Algerian independence. What united them was a belief in an ultra-patriotic white, Catholic France where immigrants – among others – were unwelcome.
Under Marine Le Pen, anyone owning up to racism, anti-Semitism or pro-Nazi sympathies can expect instant expulsion.
In the past, it was hardly unknown for voters interviewed in street “vox pops” to proclaim an attraction to “the extreme right”. Now, supporters flinch from the label, though their protestations are mired in inconsistency.
Laure Lavalette, a campaign spokeswoman for Marine Le Pen and part of the National Rally’s parliamentary intake, reacted indignantly to the far-right tag in a television discussion before the presidential election. All the same, her political background is the National Front and, briefly, a breakaway offshoot.
Marc-Etienne Lansade, the mayor of a town called Cogolin, has just failed in a legal challenge to an official designation of his ruling group of councillors as extreme right. Yet, he passionately endorsed the botched presidential bid of Eric Zemmour, proudly more right-wing than even Marine Le Pen.
Mr Zemmour was among far-right European figures quick to congratulate Ms Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party is routinely described at “post-fascist”. If he sees himself as the French politician of choice for those suspecting that Marine Le Pen has gone soft, where does that leave her estranged father?
Twenty years after a humiliating defeat to Jacques Chirac made him seem less a threat than a nuisance, he sees continent-wide far right advance as part of a more meaningful legacy. A “new dawn” for Ms Meloni’s allies in Spain’s Vox party, dark clouds gathered across European skies for a troubled political establishment.