What Marion Maréchal Le Pen taught me about classical liberalism

By February 23, 2018 No Comments

Marion Maréchal Le Pen speaks at CPAC on Thursday. Photo: AFP

By Jimmy Quinn

As a featured speaker at CPAC 2018, the annual conference of movement conservatives in the United States, National Front heir apparent Marion Maréchal Le Pen gave a speech extolling the history of Franco-American ties and expressing her hope in the continued strength of a transatlantic blood and soil nationalist moment on Thursday.


Conservative to the core, Marion is more Jean-Marie than Marine; she’s probably the closest thing to Poujade since Le Pen the patriarch himself. When legions of right wing American commentators took to Twitter to needle CPAC’s organizers about this speaking invite, Matt Schlapp, president of the group that puts the gathering together, called the populist scion a “classical liberal” who differs from Marine Le Pen on several issues.


If I’ve learned anything from my immersion in French politics, it’s that Americans wield political labels with the same precision as a gorilla would with those tweezers from the board game “Operation”. Yes, Schlapp is correct insofar as the niece holds different views from the aunt, who welcomed the thoroughly Eurosceptic, though not totally Frontiste, Florian Phillippot to the party before he left in a dramatic flurry last year. However, Marion Maréchal Le Pen and the Front remain the farthest things from classical liberals. My inclination is to think that Schlapp’s argument is one part American terminological confusion and one part cynical politics.


Classically liberal? The brightest young face of the National Front? The party’s calling card is a fusion of protectionism, anti-immigration posturing, and nationalist strutting. Perhaps the only place where the Front (or at least Marion Maréchal’s version of it) lines up with the fusionism of Reagan’s Republican party is on its culturally conservative vision for society.


But the Republican Party of today is not the Republican Party of America’s 40th president: Le Pen fit in perfectly at CPAC. In the high school cafeteria of today’s American right, she was the cool European exchange student—who packed in her suitcase broadsides against the European Union, Islam, and the neoliberal tendencies that maintain the status quo.


Le Pen left the audience with a key takeaway, that a transatlantic alliance of nationalists must continue to work in lockstep to protect traditional notions of gender and the nation-state from liberals, socialists, and Europhiles—and don’t worry, she’s not offended when Trump says America first, because every country has to do what’s in its own best interests. Had she accepted any interview requests from the American press (she did not for fear of having to comment on French politics), it’s not far-fetched to say that being called a “classical liberal” would have been anathema to her.


Her CPAC speech was more telling about the state of conservative politics in the United States than it was about her political future. The focus on identity was clear; ever the nationalist, she advanced an us vs. them worldview, and the crowd adored it.


In all fairness to Le Pen, liberalism without protective boundaries is no liberalism worth protecting—Raymond Aron, a French liberal thinker, says as much when he argues that liberalism is impossible without the nation state to protect liberty from outside threats. However, when identity becomes an end in itself, when it becomes the only thing that a group fights to preserve, classical liberalism withers and dies. Just look at the American right.


The Republican party of 2018, save that glimmer of hope in Utah and the ones exiting stage left in Arizona, has abandoned a morally unequivocal view of the world based on a set of unalienable universal values: Fiscal discipline, out the window with the recent pro-deficit budget. The FBI and the intelligence community, a rhetorical punching bag for the NRA and members of congress alike. America’s role of promoting liberty in the world, disregarded as a vestige of a golden past.


Somewhere along the way—maybe it was 9/11 and the years of endless war, or accelerating globalization, or the financial crisis, or the social malaise of “bowling alone”, or some mix—but somewhere along the way, the survival of the tribe became more important than the liberties of the individual. And that’s when conservatism no longer equated to classical liberalism. The American right has not lost total grasp of liberal ideas, but it’s time to consider what’s next.


Towards the end of her remarks, Le Pen mentioned the school of management and political science that she’s starting in France as a way to win the next generation of voters, thinkers, and leaders. This aspect of her address gained no mention in the American press and only a passing comment in French coverage of her speech, as far as I’ve seen. But as a student at another French institute of political studies, I consider this to be the most important part of the speech: The mission of a university conceived to “train the leaders of tomorrow,” a blood and soil elite to displace the current globalist-liberal elite.


She gets it: The battle over culture matters more than any single election.


Sciences Po is a bastion of liberal ideology that produces liberal actors who fight for liberal ideas. This emphasis on reason, enlightenment, and the individual is one that puts us on a path to achieving societal progress. Transatlantic exchanges, as students have so often learned in Sciences Po’s Euro-American program, facilitate the spread of ideas; from the Atlantic revolutions at the end of the 18th century, to the travails of the World Wars and the Cold War and the creation of a Western consensus on essential liberal principles, human dignity has been advanced by these currents.


While the transatlantic exchange at CPAC saw a push for illiberal tribalism, it just as strongly proved the stakes of education to liberal ends in France and the United States.

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