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 Milan-based political training institute run by Armando Siri, the right-hand 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 London-based 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 the 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.”