Marine Le Pen loses control of May Day to topless activists and elderly father

National Front leader’s attempts to legitimse party are an uphill battle

Half-naked feminists, her embarrassing old father, financial scandal, the socialist mayor of Paris and crowd-thinning rain all conspired to wreck Marine Le Pen’s May Day.

The leader of the right-wing National Front (FN) had called for a “triumphant” May Day rally to celebrate the fact that the FN boasts more elected officials than ever before. She flanked herself with 62 new departmental councillors, using them as an excuse to keep her 86-year-old father off the stage.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the FN, began the traditional May Day homage to Joan of Arc and the march up the avenue de l’Opera in 1988. The annual fete has rarely, if ever, been so tense.

The disruption started in the morning, as Ms Le Pen laid a spray of lilies and roses at the foot of Joan of Arc’s gilded equestrian statue. Two women from the militant Femen movement burst onto the scene, with “Le Pen Top Fascist” written on their bare breasts and backs.

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The Femen struck again an hour later. As Ms Le Pen delivered her speech in front of the Opera, three women in blonde wigs appeared on a hotel balcony. They unfurled red flags bearing the words “Heil Le Pen” in gothic letters. The same words were inscribed on their bare torsos. They made Nazi salutes, shouted through a loud-hailer and held aloft a burning flare.

Forced to stop

Ms Le Pen was forced to stop her speech for several minutes, until FN toughs dragged the women off the balcony. It was “paradoxical to call oneself a feminist while interrupting a speech on Joan of Arc,” Ms Le Pen said. “I think they should go get dressed.”

Ms Le Pen’s anti-EU and anti-immigration speech had already been interrupted by her father. She and Jean-Marie Le Pen have been feuding for a month, since he spoke well of the second World War collaborationist leader marshal Philippe Pétain and repeated his past assertion that the Holocaust was a “detail” of history.

Mr Le Pen ignored the doctors who advised him not to attend the rally after minor heart surgery last week. He had promised militants a “surprise”. Leaning on an aide, the old man climbed onstage to face the cheering crowd, sporting his most pugnacious grin and shaking fists in defiance. Ms Le arine stood a couple of metres away, wearing a helpless, frozen expression.

Mr Le Pen has been summoned to explain himself before the FN’s executive bureau on May 4th. There is speculation that the party’s top officials could strip him of his status as “honorary president”.

FN vice-president Florian Philippot said they will "take the necessary decision, so that Jean-Marie Le Pen can retain his freedom of expression, as is his wish, but without his word committing the National Front".

Loyal defenders

The FN European parliamentary deputy Bruno Gollnisch is one of Mr Le Pen's most loyal defenders, despite the fact that Mr Le Pen chose his daughter rather than Mr Gollnisch to succeed him. "I hope this is going to calm down," Mr Gollnisch said. "It's getting ridiculous. The media would applaud a patricide, but it would leave scars within the movement."

A distinguished-looking man in a suit, tie and trench coat, wearing the badge of the FN’s internal security forces, told me he’s an official at the French interior ministry and joined the FN 15 years ago. “We’re outside the system,” he said, alluding to Marine Le Pen’s attempts to move into the political mainstream. “If we enter the system, we melt into what we are fighting. We lose our soul if we conform to the laws of political correctness.”

The FN is also dogged by at least three financial scandals, involving the funding of election campaigns in 2012, the use of EU parliamentary money to hire party employees, and the revelation this week that Jean-Marie Le Pen stashed €2.2 million – €1.7 million of it in gold ingots – in Switzerland.

In yet another blow to Ms Le Pen's efforts to legitimise her party, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo held a ceremony near the May Day debacle, marking the 20th anniversary of the murder of Moroccan immigrant Brahim Bouarram. Skinheads drowned Bouarram in the Seine after the FN's rally on May 1st 1995.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times