France's far-right finishing school The entrance of the new ISSEP school "Institut de Sciences Sociales Economiques et Politiques" (Institute of Social, Economic and Politic Sciences) in Lyon | Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images
The entrance of the new ISSEP school "Institut de Sciences Sociales Economiques et Politiques" (Institute of Social, Economic and Politic Sciences) in Lyon | Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images
LYON, France â" Move over Ãcole nationale dâadministration, thereâs a new training school for the French elite â" or rather, for right-wingers who think the French elite has gone soft.
This month, the d oors will open at the Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences (ISSEP) in Lyon, Franceâs third-biggest city. It will, its high-profile backers hope, become a breeding ground for the countryâs next generation of conservative thinkers and leaders.
It also marks the return to public life of Marion MarÃ©chal, once the great hope of the French far right, who is the collegeâs director. She said the idea was to train a new crop of politicians and officials to replace the âvisionlessâ Parisian elite.
âWe have politicians now who know how to do good political campaigns, but donât know how to be leaders,â she told POLITICO in an interview at ISSEP headquarters. âWe must transform a disoriented elite which knows little about French history and French diplomatic heritage.â
Sheâs chosen an inauspicious place to begin such a transformation. The school is tucked away in a former industrial neighborhood of Lyon and its interior is small, m odern and unremarkable. Itâs closer to the conference rooms of a chain hotel than the frescoed amphitheaters of the Sorbonne.
âIt is a place for meeting all the right-wing familiesâ â" Erik TegnÃ©r, member of the youth branch of the center-right RÃ©publicains party
The return of MarÃ©chal has, however, been well-received by the French right. The granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, she was the youngest member of Franceâs parliament before stepping away from politics in 2017, and she is more popular than her aunt, National Rally leader Marine Le Pen. A poll by Elabein June found that right-wing voters think MarÃ©chal would be a better candidate in the 2022 presidential election than Le Pen. She also provides solid southern French support as a counterweight to her auntâs northern power base.
Although President Emmanuel Macron enjoys massive parliamentary support, his poll numbers are plummeting and the National Rally (f ormerly the National Front) hopes it can go one better than its 2017 second place election finish next time the French go to the polls.
However, MarÃ©chal is keen to put distance between her new venture and the party she used to represent.
âWe are not the school of a party,â she said. âThe teaching has a conservative tendency, but what we want is to offer some fresh air.â
âThe use of the words âpolitical scienceâ [in ISSEPâs name] seems a bit worrisome to me because political science is not politicsâ â" Renaud Payre, director of Sciences-Po university in Lyon
âWe can be a patriotic school and also wish to be open, and exchange visions,â she added.
MarÃ©chal said she had âpartitioned offâ her âformer political activities.â But, she added, âIt is up to me to find a balance now and I have made sure that these two universes donât overlap.â
Part of that effort came in May when MarÃ©chal dropped âLe Penâ from her surname. She had adopted the Le Pen name from her mother in an effort to build political clout but itâs nowhere to be found now on her social media accounts or on the ISSEP website.
Jean-Marie Le Pen had his own theory, that âhis name was too heavy to carryâ for his granddaughter, according to Public SÃ©nat.
Financed by a group of local entrepreneurs, ISSEP was launched in May as an âalliance between business knowledge and public affairsâ that promises to train a ânew generation of decision makers,â according to its brochure.
Though its curriculum is not yet recognized by the French state, the school has received 75 applications for its masterâs degree, and about 35-40 people applied for its vocational training courses.
âWe have closed applications because we want to start things in a good and professional manner,â said Patrick Libbrecht, a former business manager who runs the school alongside MarÃ©chal. âBut we hope to grow.â
On offer is a two-year masterâs degree in project management and political science with up to 13 hours of classes per week (at a cost of â¬5,500 a year) in subjects such as âthe art of disinformation,â âhistory and military strategy,â âIslam and Islamic civilization: analysis of a new global trend,â and âconservatism in the U.S.A., China and Russia.â
Marion MarÃ©chal at the inauguration of the new Institute of Social, Economic and Politic Sciences in Lyon | Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images
The college also offers weekend classes (at â¬900 a year) that aim to train politicians and managers in how to organize a campaign team, âdevelop a victorious strategyâ and âsucceed in a written and TV interview.â
Erik TegnÃ©r, a member of the youth branch of the center-right RÃ©publicains party, is one of those to have signed up to ISSEPâs weekend courses.
âIt is a place for meeting all the right-wing families,â TegnÃ©r said, adding that ânow all the right-wing intelligentsia has joined Macron.â
TegnÃ©r praised the schoolâs ideological dimension and emphasis on general knowledge. âOn the right side of the political spectrum, we lack youth with an ideology,â he said. âWe must put ideology back by being good and competent.â
Two months after the school was launched, the words âwe have peed on your school, Marionâ were written on the front of the school.
Others worry that the school will become a haven for young populists.
The headline of an article published on the website of the radio station Europe 1 described the school as âFifty shades of extreme right.â Renaud Payre, the director of Sciences-Po university in Lyon, told the newspaper Ouest-France that, unlike ISSEP, his school âtrains students who are open to the world, and not secluded in any cultural or political identity.â
âThe use of the words âpolitical scienceâ [in ISSEPâs name] seems a bit worrisome to me because political science is not politics,â Payre added.
Those fears come not just from the presence of MarÃ©chal. Several members of the collegeâs board also come from the far right, including Raheem Kassam, former editor of the London edition of the news site Breitbart; Paul Gottfried, an American conservative philosopher and historian; and Oleg Sokolov, a Napoleon expert who heads the Russian Union of Re-enactments.
The new Institute of Social, Economic and Politic Sciences in Lyon | Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images
Patrick Louis, who worked for Philippe de Villiers, a controversial former member of parliament, said he had accepted an offer to teach geopolitics at ISSEP because of the need to ârebuild the French education system.â
âWe are no longer able to respond to the true needs of students and the professional world,â said Louis, who also teaches at the main university in Lyon. He said it is a shame that French conservative authors such as Jacques Bainville, Joseph de Maistre and Georges Bernanos are not on the traditional French curriculum.
âAll the greatest innovations were done by people who were rejected by the system,â Louis said.
Not everyone agrees. Two months after the school was launched, the words âwe have peed on your school, Marionâ were written on the front of the school. The author signed it, âA French citizen, a real one.â
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