By Ishaan Tharoor* – The Washington Post
The Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual conclave of the American right, is underway just outside Washington. President Trump will deliver a speech there on Friday, while Vice President Pence opened proceedings Thursday with a paean to his boss’s first year in office, a recitation of his Christian bona fides and a Republican rallying cry ahead of pivotal midterm elections this year.
“Even more than in 2017,” wrote my colleague Dave Weigel, “this year’s conference … is structured as a celebration of GOP power and Trump-style nationalism.”
But it has not gone off without controversy. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the youthful niece of French far-right heavyweight Marine Le Pen, also addressed the gathering Thursday. Her appearance dismayed some establishment Republicans, who were not eager to associate with a political faction linked to the dark remnants of European fascism. The acceptance of people such as Maréchal-Le Pen and British anti-immigrant campaigner Nigel Farage, who is speaking Friday, seemed to underscore the hard-rightward drift of the Republican Party.
“These are not conservatives; these are members of an international ethno-nationalist populist movement,” Matt Lewis, a moderate Republican commentator, said to NBC News. But he added that this was in keeping with Trump’s ultranationalism. “This new populist nationalist Trumpian vibe, it’s no longer a fringe thing. It’s the mainstream of CPAC.”
And as Trump goes, so goes his party.
CPAC has “featured speakers who raged against gays, Muslims and immigrants and, for years, it banned panel discussions about gay rights,” noted right-wing Washington Post blogger (albeit indefatigable Trump critic) Jennifer Rubin. “However, it was also a place where mainstream conservatives came to speak, and where policy gurus from think tanks had calm discussions. In short, CPAC has been a fringy gathering for many years, a few thousand hard-right warriors (including many students) within a larger movement on the right. Now CPAC encapsulates the GOP. Adherents of President Trump’s brand of Republican politics do not bother to disguise their extremism, conspiracy theories, paranoia or xenophobia.”
Maréchal-Le Pen displayed much of that paranoia and xenophobia during her 10-minute speech. “France is no longer free today,” the 28-year-old said. “After 1500 years of existence, we now must fight for our independence.” She went on to bash the European Union, earning cheers from the CPAC crowd. Her remarks echoed Trump’s own blood-and-soil rhetoric over the past year.
The European Union, she said, was “an ideology without land, without people, without roots and without civilization.” Maréchal-Le Pen soon clarified what she meant, suggesting France was turning “from the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church to the little niece of Islam.” She decried what she called the scourge of immigration, bashed globalization, signaled a desire to quit NATO and cozy up to Russia, gestured at her opposition to same-sex marriage, and championed the “historical continuity” of her nation.
“I’m not offended when I hear President Donald Trump say ‘America first,'” she declared, in the line that drew the greatest applause. “In fact, I want America first for the American people, I want Britain first for the British people, and I want France first for the French people.”
On one level, it was the boilerplate nationalism you would expect from someone in her position. Even her critics may argue that inviting her was largely harmless. A year ago, Maréchal-Le Pen was a much more attractive political prospect: Her aunt’s National Front was poised to challenge in national elections in France, riding a right-wing populist wave through Europe. But by the summer, the National Front had been soundly beaten by the centrist Emmanuel Macron and its leadership plunged into bitter infighting.
Maréchal-Le Pen herself, deflated in defeat, stepped aside from politics and the public spotlight. Her appearance on the stage at CPAC marked something of a return. (It’s still hard to see what she gains at home by addressing this audience abroad: Public opinion polling regarding Trump in France finds widespread disapproval of the American president, even among National Front voters.)
Ahead of the speech, the event’s organizers circulated talking points to supporters eager to justify her presence and downplay the unsavory Le Pen name. “She has publically [sic] distanced herself from her aunt and stands for classical liberalism (i.e., conservatism),” the email read. “She has expressed support for school choice, private property, lower taxes, less government spending, market competition, and traditional marriage.”
Benjamin Haddad, a European politics expert at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, said such a reading “completely misses the point.” Maréchal-Le Pen has indeed clashed with her aunt. She is also closer to her grandfather, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front’s founderwho has a long record of Holocaust denial and other bigotry.
“I am the political heir of Jean-Marie Le Pen,” Maréchal-Le Pen told my colleague James McAuley last year. “At the Front National, we all are his heirs. He was a visionary. He was right about a lot of things.” Marine Le Pen’s efforts to woo a broader section of working-class voters compelled her to distance herself both from her father and her niece.
“Marion is a far-right nationalist like her grandfather, and it’s precisely because Marine tried to distance the party from the toxic image of Jean-Marie, to become more mainstream and attract working-class voters, that she opposed her,” Haddad told Today’s WorldView. “[Marion] distanced herself from her aunt because she thinks her aunt is too moderate, not the other way around.”
And while Maréchal-Le Pen kept invoking a supposed populist mandate, Haddad said it’s “good to remember that her ideas were defeated in France. When she talks of the power of the people, they overwhelmingly defeated Marine Le Pen in 2017.”
Nevertheless, the far right has left its imprint on French politics. More mainstream politicians on the center-right are aping Le Pen’s brand of identity politics. That is a phenomenon all too familiar to those watching Trump’s America and the events unfolding in Washington this week.
———————————— *Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor