Interview with Marion Maréchal, CEO of the Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences (ISSEP) in Lyon and a central figure among the French conservative right: “Collegium Intermarium and ISSEP wanted to create a small island of resistance, a sanctuary in which the historical role of the university, which is first and foremost the search for truth and the transmission of knowledge, is revived.”
Marion Maréchal is a former MP for the National Front, the party led by her aunt Marine Le Pen. Elected at 22 in 2012, she was then the youngest MP in the history of the French Republic. Considered in France to be a central figure among the conservative right, in 2018 she set up a higher education institution in Lyon with the aim of training tomorrow’s conservative elites in a country where higher education is very much dominated by the left.
Marion Maréchal was in Warsaw on 1 October to take part in a panel discussion on the future of the university, as part of a conference entitled “The place of truth in the age of cancel culture”. She agreed to answer questions from the Visegrád Post in an exclusive interview. The conference was organised by Collegium Intermarium, a new private university founded with the aim of educating the conservative elites of Central and Eastern Europe.
On the occasion of the ISSEP CEO’s visit to Poland at the invitation of Collegium Intermarium, the two higher education institutions signed a partnership agreement for the publication of expert opinions, the organisation of events and student exchanges.
The Visegrád Post interviewed Marion Maréchal on 1 October in Warsaw.
Olivier Bault: You say that the Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences (ISSEP), which you founded in Lyon and of which you are the CEO, is a centre of intellectual resistance where freedom of expression is practised. This is very similar to the claim made by Collegium Intermarium, the new Central European university established in Poland, where you came to take part in the inaugural conference for its first academic year.
Can we say that ISSEP and Collegium Intermarium are two islands of intellectual freedom in societies that have been undergoing a totalitarian drift?
Marion Maréchal: Yes, we can say that, and the declared objective of our two schools is to be a response and an alternative to a phenomenon that is unfortunately becoming more and more prevalent in the university world, whether in Poland or in France. This manifests itself firstly in an intellectual homogeneity, an intellectual conformism to be precise, and secondly in a sectarianism that sometimes borders on intellectual terrorism. It is indeed rare that a week goes by in France without a controversy about teachers being threatened, marginalised, or ostracised, or conferences being disrupted or even cancelled, or student unions putting pressure on universities to push an often very radical militant agenda. We see many institutions – not all, fortunately – zealously relaying a certain number of ideologies. I am thinking in particular of LGBT ideology, neo-feminism, cancel culture, wokeness, and, in France, immigrationism. Sometimes, as at Sciences Po and the Sorbonne University, they even create programmes dedicated to these ideologies, especially gender studies.
Students are taken hostage in the process, and, most of the time, they do not even dare to express a different opinion for fear of becoming the target of criticism at best, and threats at worst. For example, at the University Lumières Lyon 2, a student in political studies who had denounced on social networks the political correctness and the total absence of contradiction and differences of opinion in his courses was insulted and physically threatened, without the university’s management ever taking a stand or taking his side.
In the face of this, and in the face of the decline in standards – because the two unfortunately go hand in hand – I believe that Collegium Intermarium and ISSEP both wanted to create a small island of resistance, a sanctuary in which the historical role of the university, which is first and foremost the search for truth and the transmission of knowledge, is revived.
Olivier Bault: In Poland, Collegium Intermarium has obtained private funding for its launch, it has behind it the Institute for Legal Culture Ordo Iuris, which is an association of lawyers with conservative sensibilities that is very well known and very active in that country, it has the government’s moral, if not financial, support, and there will even be several secretaries of state at the inaugural conference today, one of whom is attached to the Ministry of Education. In France, however, ISSEP seems rather to be ostracised by the public authorities and the world of higher education…
Marion Maréchal: The first notable difference between our two countries is that conservatives are not in power in France. I imagine that the Polish government looks favourably on such initiatives. This would be all the more logical since the current Polish Minister of Education was originally supposed to be involved in this project before he was called to join the Morawiecki government. So I guess there is some synergy there, and this is what I wish them.
In our case, to put it simply, it is the liberal-progressives who are in power. Our school is obviously not looked upon favourably by the left and by the current government. We have no public subsidies, but after four years of existence our teaching staff includes about fifty people, a significant number of whom teach at public universities and are not afraid to acknowledge and proclaim that they are also at ISSEP. This shows that things are changing a little bit. Our teachers teach only one subject, hence their number, and as we run courses in both political science and management, they also include business leaders, journalists, senior civil servants, officers, lawyers, not to mention contributors to the Centre for Analysis and Forecasting, which is our research centre and the source of our publications.
Our students are progressing and we are gradually achieving academic credibility. It was certainly more complicated for us at the beginning, but I notice today that our students all manage to find internships, sometimes even at large French companies, and all of them have been integrated professionally without significant difficulties. Around ISSEP there is a whole ecosystem of associations, companies, and communities, which also provide support and are first-line recipients. With this network logic, we have largely compensated for the difficulties we could have had by not being supported by the government, and we now have about a hundred students each year, including about thirty in the master’s programme and about seventy in continuing education.
Olivier Bault: You have established a school in Spain. Can you tell us a few words about your Spanish undertaking? Why did you choose Spain?
Marion Maréchal: Indeed, last year we opened a Spanish subsidiary which is working very well, with programmes adapted to Spain, in Spanish, with Spanish teachers and a Spanish staff. We have a desire to spread ISSEP internationally. Initially, my dream was to prosper in the “Latin alliance” and to start by setting up in Italy, Spain, maybe even Portugal. It so happened that a Spanish team came to see us, a rather young team, between 30 and 40 years old, some of them having worked in the world of politics but without being elected, others being entrepreneurs – a bit like us at ISSEP, and they explained to us that they would like to reproduce the ISSEP model in Spain. Today, this Spanish school operates autonomously, but we have a common brand identity and a common educational charter as well as administrative links.
Olivier Bault: I believe that universities suffer from the same kind of problems in Spain and France…
Marion Maréchal: Yes, but the Madrid ISSEP managed to get some big names on board right away, including former ministers who joined the project, and even, funnily enough, the head of the football federation, who got involved in the scheme. You could say that they were a big success right away because they brought in some big names. This is indicative of the fact that even though Spain is on the left, there is a great deal of dynamism in conservative circles, which are sticking together. This is less true in France.
Olivier Bault: Did you think, before you heard about Collegium Intermarium, that Poland too needed an island of intellectual resistance in higher education? Does this surprise you?
Marion Maréchal: No, this does not surprise me so much because I realise that, even in countries where conservatives are in power, education in general and higher education in particular remain the preserve of the left. The cultural battle has long been lost. In my country, it used to be the Trotskyites who ruled in the education sector, today there is everywhere a form of neo-Marxism, since the class struggle has been replaced with the race struggle or the gender struggle. The nature of the dominant and the dominated has changed, but the dialectic, the reasoning and, in some respects, the methods remain the same: we don’t debate, we guillotine.
Faced with this neo-Marxist left, the young generation of conservatives – the Collegium Intermarium team is also young, they are people in their 30s and 40s, as is the case at ISSEP – is willing to work together, going beyond our possible differences in order to be part of a logic of connections, of networking, of pooling strengths and experiences. It is very interesting because it is new and it is growing. When I went to CPAC, the big meeting of American conservatives, I was struck by the network logic of those circles across the Atlantic, in all their diversity. They have this logic of solidarity and this desire to hunt in packs, as the left very often does. In France, we do not have that culture at all, but it seems to me that this is less true elsewhere in Europe.
Olivier Bault: After this first visit, do you plan to develop exchanges with Collegium Intermarium?
Marion Maréchal: Of course, this is the goal and I hope it will happen, as I hope it will with the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), a large school that offers training in Hungary, with a lot of international exchanges. I saw them last week when I was in Budapest for the 4th Demographic Summit. They also know them well at Collegium Intermarium. The idea is to have symposiums and study courses in common, with publications in several languages, and also to exchange teachers and, in the long run, to succeed in arranging student exchanges during certain periods.
Olivier Bault: You also work with a higher education institution in Russia, I believe.
Marion Maréchal: We have indeed signed a partnership with the University of St. Petersburg and in particular with its political science department, even if the Covid pandemic has put things on hold for a while. We also have a partnership with a large private university in Lebanon, in Kaslik. It is the USEK, the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik. This type of partnership is always very rewarding for the students and also for us. In an environment that is, in fact, globalised, we must also open up to the outside world, and it is our objective to do so.
Olivier Bault: Last week you spoke at the Demographic Summit in Budapest and you met Viktor Orbán. What did you learn from your exchange? What did you tell him and what did he tell you?
Marion Maréchal: It was a very interesting meeting that was scheduled to last 30 minutes and lasted an hour and a half. We first talked about the French and Hungarian electoral situations, and then we discussed geopolitics. For my part, I talked to him about Turkey, Russia, Germany… I was struck by the man’s experience – you can feel that he has a good grasp of the issues he talks about – and I was also struck by the Hungarian pragmatism. The people we are dealing with are not ideologues with principled positions. They are very pragmatic in international relations, without being in any way foolish. What was said reflected very much my own state of mind. Viktor Orbán also wanted to know what the French thought of Germany, and I believe that we shared the same opinion on the fact that the Germans were allies for us but that we did not want a German Europe, and that France, by locking itself into the mirage of the Franco-German couple, was contributing to this German Europe, that it was not defending its interests effectively and that, above all, it was depriving itself of other relevant alliances within the European Union – alliances to defend a European alternative that would also be a Europe of civilisation. In this respect, the countries of Central Europe should be privileged allies.
Olivier Bault: In today’s progressive liberal Europe, “the sun rises in the East”?
Marion Maréchal: I think there is a bit of resistance everywhere. There are various divides within the European Union. There are economic divides, but there are also geopolitical divides, since not everyone has the same vision of Europe. Some, as has always been the case in France, want a sovereign and independent Europe. Others see Europe as a part of a larger transatlantic grouping. And there is a civilisational divide too. Some people see Europe as a kind of multicultural railway station hall without borders, while others see it as a civilisational entity to be protected and developed. There are allies across all three divides throughout Europe. On the economic front, we French have allies in the South who, like France, are the biggest victims of the total opening of economic borders, particularly with developing countries and emerging countries or powers such as China. We conservatives have civilisational allies in Central and Eastern Europe, of course. We certainly have fewer allies on the issue of Europe as a power, but from that point of view Germany is also evolving after having seen its traditional stance put to the test on a number of issues, in particular the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. I think that France must be able to have its own voice heard by learning to both defend its interests and work together with all those who share its vision on these various subjects.
Olivier Bault: Do you think that Poland will play an important role in the face of the rise in Western Europe of the woke ideology that comes from the United States?
Marion Maréchal: Yes, undoubtedly, and I believe that this is what the Poles want. I am very happy that there are countries that are able to stand up to Brussels in this respect. Brussels goes far beyond the treaties. It was never originally intended in the European treaties that the EU should take up “societal” issues. It is clear that a real ideological steamroller is being set up. It is fortunate that a number of countries are standing up to this and not letting themselves be intimidated, and we should be grateful to them, because at the moment, unfortunately, the countries of the Western part of the continent are not leading this fight.
Olivier Bault: Do you think that the Catholic faith, which is so common among Poles, also plays a role? Do the countries of Western Europe, including France, not suffer above all from having lost their faith in God and from finding themselves weakened, without fixed points of reference and with fluctuating values, in the face of the rise of individual and community demands? I am thinking, for example, of the very poorly named “bioethics” law recently passed in France…
Marion Maréchal: I think that the Poles’ resistance is linked to a lot of things and Catholicism is indeed an important spiritual cement that is part of their identity and their specificity, because they were a Catholic country neighbouring Orthodox countries. Like France, Poland is a thousand-year-old country. In our country, Hugues Capet ruled in the 10th century, and it was around that time that Poland was born. It is therefore a country with real depth and which, like France, has experienced falls and resurrections. It is a country that has been dismantled, that has experienced many invasions, and is therefore, in a way, acutely aware of its fragility. It is a country that knows that it can die and that it must always fight to defend its survival and integrity, something that France is perhaps less aware of. France has invaded more than it has been threatened, even if its own territory has also been invaded. France was not dismantled as Poland was. I believe that all of this makes for a fiercer will to defend the Polish point of view within the European Union.
Olivier Bault: You founded ISSEP with a long-term perspective. However, in Budapest, you expressed your fears about mass immigration and the Islamisation of France. Do you not fear that, by the time your school can have a positive impact on the composition and state of the French elite, it will be too late for France?
Marion Maréchal: It is obvious that the cultural and educational battle is for the long term. We are not on the media’s timescale. That is why many people turn away from it: they want results right away. I think this is a mistake. History is written by the active minorities. Therefore, this minority must be trained. It is never too late to try. The philosopher Simone Weil said that uprooting destroys everything except the need for roots. Schools like ours answer the need for roots. And since we are answering a need, I think we will grow very fast. I am quite optimistic from that point of view, although we are still at a stage where we are sowing the seeds. We will see the fruits in a few years.
Olivier Bault: You said in 2019, before the Right Wing Convention in France, “I am now placing myself in an educational, cultural battle. My world is that of ideas and no longer that of the ballot box.” Yet, in French conservative circles, some see you as a possible Joan of Arc. Do you rule out returning to a political career one day?
Marion Maréchal: To see me as a possible Joan of Arc is to do me too much honour. Having said that, I have never ruled out a return to politics and I have always said that I am keeping that option open. To be honest, I think I will go back to politics because I enjoy it and it drives me. However, I do not want to rush into anything. I want to give myself the time and the choice of the right moment. Politics is a radical choice. This will mean that I have to take a leave of absence from ISSEP. That enterprise is very close to my heart and I think it is very important. So I do not want to make this choice until I am sure that everything is in place for this school to live and develop without me being part of it, even if I am only one element in a big team. So I do not have a precise plan, but of course I am keeping all my options open.