The new champion of the French Catholic Right?

Marion Marechal addresses CPAC (Getty Images)

“Chartres sonne, Chartres t’appelle! Gloire, honneur au Christ-Roi!” Under a radiant sky a stream of singing pilgrims stretches across the French countryside. It is Pentecost weekend and roughly 12,000 people are walking from Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris to Chartres, the cathedral town about 50 miles south of the capital.

The pilgrimage, which has taken place for the past 36 years, is organised by the traditionalist group Notre-Dame de Chrétienté (Our Lady of Christendom). This year the pilgrims are joined by Vatican liturgy chief Cardinal Robert Sarah.

But there is another star in the crowd: Marion Maréchal, niece of Front National leader Marine Le Pen. She is tackling the pilgrimage with a group of friends. At first, she keeps a low profile: she is just another pilgrim among pilgrims. But her anonymity does not last long. Other participants soon ask if they can be photographed with her. “Thank you for being here,” says one pilgrim after another.

Maréchal officially retired from politics last year after her aunt was heavily defeated by Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election. But this precocious figure, who became an MP in 2012 at the age of 22, already seems to be planning her return to front-line politics. Last autumn she helped to found L’Incorrect, a conservative magazine run by some of her followers and serving as a vehicle for her ideas. And last month she launched a private school in Lyon, the Institut de Sciences Sociales, Economiques et Politiques (Issep). Raheem Kassam, the former editor-in-chief of Breitbart London and chief adviser to Ukip leader Nigel Farage, is part of the teaching team.

Then, in a highly symbolic move, she recently dropped “Le Pen” from her name. She had inherited it from her mother, Yann, one of the three daughters of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the Front National. Commentators suggested that she was distancing herself from the Le Pen political brand with a view to running in the 2022 presidential election. But she insisted it was simply “a way to demonstrate my transition to civilian life”. She told the Boulevard Voltaire website: “I have never and will never feel ashamed of my name.”

Her presence on the Chartres pilgrimage was significant. Maréchal is clearly counting on the Catholic Right to help her in her comeback. But her relationship with the Church is complex. She is at once both sincere and politically motivated.

Maréchal is one of the few French public figure with a “dual” Christian background. Though she was baptised Catholic, her adoptive father, Samuel Maréchal, is Protestant. Her grandfather, Michel Maréchal, is the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Nantes and a former missionary in Africa. She once described him as “a saint”. (Her biological father Roger Auque, a former journalist and diplomat, died in 2014.)

As a teenager, Maréchal attended the Pentecostal Sunday school during her holidays in Nantes. Some say she retains an Evangelical-style spirituality, focused more on her personal relationship with God than on reception of the sacraments. Later she attended the Institution Saint-Pie X, a school in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Saint-Cloud run by the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Spirit, who are attached to the Tridentine Rite. It was there that she received her First Holy Communion and Confirmation.

These days Maréchal’s religious practice fluctuates. Her marriage, to businessman Matthieu Decosse, lasted just two years, ending in divorce in 2016. But she is not afraid to describe herself as a Catholic or to defend the Church’s moral values. In 2013, she attended all the protests against same-sex marriage.

In 2016, she opposed a law censoring pro-life websites. “I am myself an accident,” she said during the debate in the National Assembly. A close friend of hers says she was telling the truth: “She came from a broken family. She knows how important these topics are.”

Maréchal is positioning herself effectively as the champion of the Catholic Right. Now 28, she attracts many young people, who recognise something of themselves in her. She also appeals to older, disoriented conservatives. She is occupying the vacancy left by the fall of François Fillon, the right-wing poster boy at the last presidential election, and the defeat of Marine Le Pen. She is the only one who can plausibly offer a synthesis between the Front National and the mainstream centre-Right.

The French bishops are, however, embarrassed by her. Although she is close to the Church on life issues and the family, she firmly rejects its stance on immigrants. Her pro-business views are also at odds with those of Pope Francis.

Yet some Church leaders have decided to enter into dialogue with her. Bishop Dominique Rey of Fréjus-Toulon (a Front National stronghold in the south of France) invited her to a diocesan summer school in 2015. But others are praying that French Catholics will ultimately refuse to follow this new Joan of Arc.

Pierre Jova is a journalist at the Catholic weekly Pèlerin

This article first appeared in the June 8 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here