LYON, France — Move over École nationale d’administration, there’s a new training school for the French elite — or rather, for right-wingers who think the French elite has gone soft.
This month, the doors will open at the Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences (ISSEP) in Lyon, France’s third-biggest city. It will, its high-profile backers hope, become a breeding ground for the country’s next generation of conservative thinkers and leaders.
It also marks the return to public life of Marion Maréchal, once the great hope of the French far right, who is the college’s director. She said the idea was to train a new crop of politicians and officials to replace the “visionless” Parisian elite.
“We have politicians now who know how to do good political campaigns, but don’t know how to be leaders,” she told POLITICO in an interview at ISSEP headquarters. “We must transform a disoriented elite which knows little about French history and French diplomatic heritage.”
She’s 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, modern and unremarkable. It’s closer to the conference rooms of a chain hotel than the frescoed amphitheaters of the Sorbonne.
“It is a place for meeting all the right-wing families” — Erik Tegnér, member of the youth branch of the center-right Républicains party
The return of Maréchal has, however, been well-received by the French right. The granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, she was the youngest member of France’s 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 Elabe in June found that right-wing voters think Maréchal 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 aunt’s northern power base.
Although President Emmanuel Macron enjoys massive parliamentary support, his poll numbers are plummeting and the National Rally (formerly 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, Maréchal is keen to put distance between her new venture and the party she used to represent.
“We are not the school of a party,” she said. “The teaching has a conservative tendency, but what we want is to offer some fresh air.”
“The use of the words ‘political science’ [in ISSEP’s name] seems a bit worrisome to me because political science is not politics” — Renaud Payre, director of Sciences-Po university in Lyon
“We can be a patriotic school and also wish to be open, and exchange visions,” she added.
Maréchal said she had “partitioned off” her “former political activities.” But, she added, “It is up to me to find a balance now and I have made sure that these two universes don’t overlap.”
Part of that effort came in May when Maréchal dropped “Le Pen” from her surname. She had adopted the Le Pen name from her mother in an effort to build political clout but it’s nowhere to be found now on her social media accounts or on the ISSEP website.
Jean-Marie Le Pen had his own theory, that “his name was too heavy to carry” for his granddaughter, according to Public Sénat.
Financed by a group of local entrepreneurs, ISSEP was launched in May as an “alliance between business knowledge and public affairs” that promises to train a “new generation of decision makers,” according to its brochure.
Though its curriculum is not yet recognized by the French state, the school has received 75 applications for its master’s degree, and about 35-40 people applied for its vocational training courses.
“We have closed applications because we want to start things in a good and professional manner,” said Patrick Libbrecht, a former business manager who runs the school alongside Maréchal. “But we hope to grow.”
On offer is a two-year master’s degree in project management and political science with up to 13 hours of classes per week (at a cost of €5,500 a year) in subjects such as “the art of disinformation,” “history and military strategy,” “Islam and Islamic civilization: analysis of a new global trend,” and “conservatism in the U.S.A., China and Russia.”
The college also offers weekend classes (at €900 a year) that aim to train politicians and managers in how to organize a campaign team, “develop a victorious strategy” and “succeed in a written and TV interview.”
Erik Tegnér, a member of the youth branch of the center-right Républicains party, is one of those to have signed up to ISSEP’s weekend courses.
“It is a place for meeting all the right-wing families,” Tegnér said, adding that “now all the right-wing intelligentsia has joined Macron.”
Tegnér praised the school’s ideological dimension and emphasis on general knowledge. “On the right side of the political spectrum, we lack youth with an ideology,” he said. “We must put ideology back by being good and competent.”
Two months after the school was launched, the words “we have peed on your school, Marion” 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 “Fifty shades of extreme right.” Renaud Payre, the director of Sciences-Po university in Lyon, told the newspaper Ouest-France that, unlike ISSEP, his school “trains students who are open to the world, and not secluded in any cultural or political identity.”
“The use of the words ‘political science’ [in ISSEP’s name] seems a bit worrisome to me because political science is not politics,” Payre added.
Those fears come not just from the presence of Maréchal. Several members of the college’s 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.
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 “rebuild the French education system.”
“We are no longer able to respond to the true needs of students and the professional world,” 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.
“All the greatest innovations were done by people who were rejected by the system,” Louis said.
Not everyone agrees. Two months after the school was launched, the words “we have peed on your school, Marion” were written on the front of the school. The author signed it, “A French citizen, a real one.”