“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 News 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.

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