Le Pen scion opens school for far right

At the un­cre­den­tialed acad­emy, Mar­ion Maréchal wants to take aim at ‘ide­o­log­i­cal ho­mo­gene­ity’

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY JAMES MCAU­LEY IN LYON, FRANCE james.mcau­ley@wash­post.com

She lacks the doc­tor­ate typ­i­cally ex­pected of univer­sity ed­u­ca­tors and hasn’t yet fin­ished her cur­rent mas­ter’s course, ei­ther. But Mar­ion Maréchal, the princess royal of Europe’s no­to­ri­ous Le Pen dy­nasty and the grand­daugh­ter of a con­victed Holo­caust de­nier she has called a “vi­sion­ary,” has founded an acad­emy any­way.

The In­sti­tute of So­cial Sciences, Eco­nom­ics and Pol­i­tics (ISSEP) is no grand af­fair: It oc­cu­pies a rented of­fice suite in this bour­geois pro­vin­cial French city and is not yet au­tho­rized to award diplo­mas. Yet de­spite its mod­est start — about 60 stu­dents are en­rolled as classes kick off this month — its es­tab­lish­ment is part of a story play­ing out on both sides of the At­lantic. Here on the banks of the Rhone, Maréchal is of­fer­ing her com­pa­tri­ots a place of “al­ter­na­tive ped­a­gogy,” an as­pir­ing train­ing ground for a new man­age­rial right-wing elite.

Andrew Bre­it­bart, the far-right Amer­i­can pub­lisher and ide­o­logue, fa­mously said that “pol­i­tics is down­stream from cul­ture” — to con­quer the lat­ter is to con­quer the for­mer. ISSEP is com­mit­ted to the Bre­it­bart agenda and not just its slo­gans: Maréchal se­cured for­mer White House strate­gist Stephen K. Bannon as an in­for­mal ad­viser, and Ra­heem Kas­sam, Bannon’s as­so­ciate and for­mer ed­i­tor of the Bre­it­bart U.K. op­er­a­tion, sits on the school’s equiv­a­lent of a board of trustees.

They are in con­tact “ir­reg­u­lar[ly] but fre­quently,” Kas­sam said.

De­spite the pop­u­lar­ity of their rhetoric, agents of the ex­treme right strug­gle to win elec­tions and to main­tain what po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence they do achieve. Maréchal’s aunt, Ma­rine Le Pen, lost the 2017 French pres­i­den­tial vote in a land­slide to Em­manuel Macron, and Maréchal gave up her par­lia­men­tary seat af­ter her aunt’s de­feat. Bannon no longer has a plat­form ei­ther in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion or at Bre­it­bart News. But all of them are try­ing to soldier on in other ways — mainly in the softer realms of cul­ture.

“There are not only elec­toral fights on high,” Maréchal, 28, said in a re­cent in­ter­view at ISSEP. “There are also con­crete fights in civil so­ci­ety.”

The an­tag­o­nist she iden­ti­fies in her lat­est gam­bit to win le­git­i­macy is what she calls “ide­o­log­i­cal ho­mo­gene­ity,” specif­i­cally the “in­tel­lec­tual sec­tar­i­an­ism” of France’s cul­tural elite, the usual punch­ing bag of the pop­ulist right. Ex­cept that now she wants to be “elite,” as well.

“The idea is to cre­ate a school charged with the for­ma­tion of a new man­age­rial elite, both in terms of pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics,” she said. “An elite that is in­tel­lec­tu­ally free, pa­tri­otic, rooted in a his­tory and a cul­ture, and that is at­tached in an elec­toral sense to a bal­ance be­tween the lo­cal and the global.”

Bannon says he is on board. In the course of a 40-minute tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion in which he re­peat­edly men­tioned that he was a grad­u­ate of Har­vard Busi­ness School, he also said he met with Maréchal and five or six of her ad­vis­ers to dis­cuss ISSEP when she came to Mary­land in Fe­bru­ary to ad­dress the Con­ser­va­tive Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Con­fer­ence.

“My com­mit­ment to her and to her project is what­ever she wants,” he said. “I think she’s one of the sem­i­nal fig­ures glob­ally in this move­ment.”

Bannon said he sees ISSEP in the con­text of a num­ber of sim­i­lar schools and ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams “spring­ing up in Europe.” Th­ese in­clude, he said, a Mi­lan­based po­lit­i­cal train­ing in­sti­tute run by Ar­mando Siri, the right­hand man of Italy’s deputy premier, Mat­teo Salvini, and a project in a me­dieval monastery out­side Rome, run by Ben­jamin Harn­well, a for­mer Bri­tish law­maker and a Catholic ide­o­logue.

Pressed about her own aca­demic cre­den­tials and abil­ity to run a school, Maréchal, who also sus­pended her un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies in 2012, de­murred. “I am not a pro­fes­sor,” she said, not­ing that she will fo­cus on op­er­a­tions. “I don’t teach.” (Maréchal later said via email that she fin­ished that de­gree, in pub­lic law, sev­eral months af­ter her elec­tion).

France is still a coun­try where vot­ers like their pres­i­dents to project an image of in­tel­li­gence, and many po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts now date the be­gin­ning of the end of Le Pen’s pres­i­den­tial prospects to the lengthy, sit-down de­bate she had with Macron just be­fore the fi­nal round of the 2017 vote. She failed to demon­strate ba­sic com­pe­tence on sev­eral tech­ni­cal is­sues and lost less than a week later, earn­ing an even smaller share of the vote than cred­i­ble polls had pre­dicted.

ISSEP may be a means for Maréchal to lay the ground­work for a come­back and to cul­ti­vate the image of com­pe­tence that al­ways eluded her aunt, said Cather­ine Fi­eschi, an ex­pert on the Le Pen fam­ily and the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Coun­ter­point, a Lon­don­based think tank de­voted to so­cial and cul­tural dy­nam­ics.

She no longer pub­licly uses the name Maréchal-Le Pen, in much the same way as the Na­tional Front, the party her grand­fa­ther co-founded in 1972, re­cently changed its name to Rassem­ble­ment Na­tional, or Na­tional Rally, which still re­pur­poses the name of an­other fac­tion that col­lab­o­rated with the Nazis in World War II.

“Here I think you’ve got some­body pur­posely dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing her­self and say­ing, ‘We’re go­ing to be smart. We’re not go­ing to be afraid of ex­per­tise. We’re go­ing to do this prop­erly, we’re go­ing to pro­duce this elite of the pop­ulist right, how­ever much a para­dox that is,’ ” Fi­eschi said.

For a cer­tain type of stu­dent, ISSEP has proved ir­re­sistible.

Erik Teg­nér, 25, has al­ready com­pleted his stud­ies at Pan­théon-As­sas Univer­sity in Paris and then at Greno­ble École de Man­age­ment, a busi­ness school in south­east­ern France. But as a can­di­date for the pres­i­dency of France’s Young Repub­li­cans, a youth branch of the coun­try’s main­stream con­ser­va­tive party, he said he sees con­sid­er­able value in the pro­gram laid out by Maréchal.

ISSEP can serve to build nec­es­sary bridges be­tween dif­fer­ent fac­tions on the right, thus con­sol­i­dat­ing con­ser­va­tive power, he said, not­ing that the main­stream right can no longer af­ford to ig­nore what was once con­sid­ered an ex­trem­ist fac­tion on the fringes of pub­lic opin­ion.

“It’s im­por­tant,” Teg­nér said of join­ing forces. “If not, we con­tinue to lose.”

He may have a point. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est poll, con­ducted by the In­sti­tut Fran­cais d’Opin­ion Publique, the far-right Na­tional Rally is ex­pected to win 17 per­cent of the vote in the 2019 Euro­pean elec­tions and the more main­stream Repub­li­cans’ 15 per­cent. If the two fac­tions joined, they could con­ceiv­ably take the lion’s share of par­lia­men­tary seats away from Macron’s cen­trist party.

ISSEP is es­sen­tially the French ver­sion of a for-profit col­lege. A pri­vate in­sti­tu­tion un­af­fil­i­ated with the state, it of­fers two pro­grams, both for stu­dents who have al­ready com­pleted the kind of univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion its founder does not have. One is a two-year pro­gram in “man­age­ment” that costs $6,360 a year; the sec­ond is a one-year ex­ten­sion pro­gram for mid­ca­reer pro­fes­sion­als at $2,200 per year.

But for the mo­ment, it is un­clear what, ex­actly, stu­dents like Teg­nér will be buy­ing with an ISSEP de­gree.

Since the school is not rec­og­nized by the French state, it has no au­thor­ity to grant of­fi­cial diplo­mas and is ap­par­ently not seek­ing it, ac­cord­ing to ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials. “This school is not sup­ported by the Min­istry and no re­quest for the recog­ni­tion of diplo­mas has, to its knowl­edge, been ini­ti­ated,” Cé­cile Cor­radin, a spokesman for the Min­istry of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, said in an email.

ISSEP may not even have the right to op­er­ate. “The open­ing dec­la­ra­tion pro­ce­dure for this school is in progress at the Lyon Rec­torate,” Cor­radin wrote.

Mean­while, Maréchal at­tempted to play down her in­sti­tute’s po­lit­i­cal image. “This school is not a party. It doesn’t at all have an am­bi­tion in the elec­toral sense of the term,” she said. “It has a po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion for me in the no­ble sense, which means in the sense of ser­vice to the city.”

In the past, the Na­tional Front has never had a clear strat­egy for vic­tory, Fi­eschi said, avoid­ing al­liances and the purges that might have made it more palat­able. But things could be dif­fer­ent in a new fac­tion headed by Maréchal, es­pe­cially given her youth.

Com­pared with her grand­fa­ther, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and her aunt, who has never quite es­caped his shadow, Mar­ion cuts a far more pol­ished fig­ure, Fi­eschi said: “She’s a hologram of ef­fec­tive ha­tred.”

BRUNO AMSELLEM /DI­VER­GENCE

Mar­ion Maréchal at the In­sti­tute of So­cial Sciences, Eco­nom­ics and Pol­i­tics (ISSEP), the school she founded in Lyon, France. The for­mer mem­ber of France’s Par­lia­ment se­cured for­mer White House strate­gist Stephen K. Bannon as an in­for­mal ad­viser.

ERIC FEFERBERG/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

LEFT: Jean-Marie Le Pen, right, with daugh­ter Ma­rine Le Pen, sec­ond from right, and grand­daugh­ter, then known as Mar­ion Maréchal-Le Pen, in Paris in 2013. RIGHT: Maréchal in Fe­bru­ary at the Con­ser­va­tive Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Con­fer­ence in Mary­land.

ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

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