Is France’s repressed Bonapartism having a coming-out?

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It isn’t surprising that the French, unlike Americans, aren’t used to political dynasties. This is, after all, the country of the world’s most famous revolution, an event that not only was meant to put a definitive end to the most despotic dynasty of all—royalty—but that created the model for many, if not all, democratic revolutions that followed.

In reality, things didn’t entirely work out. Just after the French Revolution, another sort dynasty rapidly ensued (the Bonapartes). And now recently—literally this past weekend—a few new emerging dynasties received some enthusiastic support.

And not just any dynasty: a bleached-blond female dynasty on the extreme right. France’s Front National party continues to obsess French media (the newspaper Le Monde alone published a dozen news stories, one newspaper feature, and one magazine feature on the FN in just the past three days), and with good reason. The party is confident, electorally successful and increasingly ambitious—and this weekend, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the 24-year-old niece of the party’s president Marine Le Pen, and the grand-daughter of the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, came in first in the party’s central committee election (essentially the party’s parliament).This election of the youngest Le Pen—who was already France’s only Front National deputy in the French parliament, and France’s youngest MP ever, after winning her seat last May at the ripe age of 22—enthrones her as a third-generation leader in the far-right firmament. It is worth noting that the niece is considerably more extreme than the aunt. More vocally anti-immigrant, anti-gay, and a socially conservative practicing Catholic. She is very popular within her party, beating out by the far the party’s official number two, Florian Philippot. And evidently very popular outside the party as well, given her national stature.

Interestingly, Le Pen herself sees this win as an emancipation from any suspicions of riding on her legacy appeal: “I am delighted and honored. This allows me to have a legitimacy above and beyond my name. I thank the voters and hope to be worthy of this confidence,” she said. She also refused a party vice-presidency (which usually comes with the election) to avoid, she said, the party looking too much like a “Le Pen affair.” It might be a bit late for that, especially when Marion’s aunt Marine was re-elected president of the party at the same time, and to no surprise: she was the only candidate. She simply has no rivals for leadership within the party. And her father, Jean-Marie, is and will remain the FN’s honorary president.

Meanwhile, at the same time, in a slightly less extreme-right place on the political spectrum, at the center-right UMP party headquarters, another president was re-elected president of the party. But in this case, it was the former President of France. Nicolas Sarkozy was re-elected head of his party after a long, hard-charging, mud-slinging campaign. While not quite as dynastic as a no-rival re-election in a party dominated by three generations of the same family, there is still something peculiarly dynastic about the return of a former president to the prime position from which to run…for president. A candidate reincarnated as himself, reinstating his name, his unique political style, and his close circle of allies for yet another political round. Arguably, the birth of something of a dynasty (incidentally, Nicolas Sarkozy actually does have a son, his eldest, who is already making his way in regional Parisian politics).

Nicolas Sarkozy, former French President, newly (re)elected head of his UThis is all rather new to the French, who don’t really have a tradition of Roosevelts, Kennedy’s, Bushes or even Clintons. Even though the French have long had tacit dynasties: cultural and socio-economic dynasties, with the same social classes, the same elite schools, the same ageing political circles producing most candidates over the years. French politics has never been a game for outliers and upstarts, for candidates who didn’t came from some recognizable socio-economic background and some recognizable political family with some very recognizable badge of membership. But that was, precisely, tacit: no one was saying anything out loud, doing anything as outrightly dynastic as having the same name, being of the same family, or simply never really leaving power.

France may be welcoming a little Bonapartism back into politics.

The comparison between Bonaparte and Sarkozy was made a million times when he was President, because even then the similarities in style (bling arrivisme) and size (short) were too easy to resist. It turns out—shockingly!—that Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is actually a vocal admirer of Napolean Bonaparte. She can cite from memory the first lines of a famous biography of the Emperor by Jacques Bainville, a historian and well-known monarchist. Just for the record, though, Le Pen does make it clear: “Je ne suis pas monarchiste !”

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