Whilst Britain reeled from the Cold War terror of a Russian spy drama this weekend, the French city of Lille quaked beneath the roars of discontented nationalists. For the first time since the collapse of Marine Le Pen’s attempt at the presidency in 2017, the far-right Front National party met for their annual conference. The weekend’s hot topic: how to once again detoxify the party’s image and return from a post-defeat slump.
Detoxification (or dédiabolisation) is an issue that has long bothered the FN. Founded in 1972 by ex-paratrooper and Nazi music enthusiast Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine), the party has maintained a strongly nationalistic and anti-immigration line since its inception. Having languished on the fringes of French politics for years, the FN finally had its big break when Mr Le Pen got through to the second round of the 2002 presidential election. He was defeated when voters decided to hold their noses and back the incumbent Jacques Chirac, who won the election with an astonishing 82.2% of the vote.
Mr Le Pen had by this point become something of a persona non grata in French politics. His history of anti-Semitism, islamophobia and even alleged war crimes (from his time serving in Algeria) caught up with him. Ms. Le Pen took over as party leader in January 2011, finally expelling her father in 2015 following his refusal to attend a disciplinary hearing regarding remarks made about the Holocaust.
The rise of right-wing populism that took place throughout 2016 gave Ms. Le Pen a considerable boost. Marketing herself as the key anti-establishment candidate, she was able to make it through to the second round of the 2017 election but struggled against the infinitely more capable Emmanuel Macron, who in creating his own party managed to outplay Ms. Le Pen’s anti-establishment rhetoric. Defeated in the presidential and legislative elections by Mr Macron’s radical centrism and haemorrhaging support to the revived Les Républicains conservative party, the FN entered 2018 convinced that it was time for a makeover.
The start of this weekend’s conference held few surprises. Ms. Le Pen was re-elected leader of the party with 100% of the ballot, which sounds remarkable until one considers that she was the only candidate. Trump’s old propagandist Steve Bannon (remember him?) made a speech, taking a line from Khrushchev in declaring that “History is on our side”. This was received with mixed feelings, as many frontistes felt that Mr Bannon’s image is now so poisonous that his presence at the conference would cost them support.
Ms. Le Pen’s big Sunday speech was hardly inspiring stuff either. It was long, rambling and made endless jabs at the usual bugbears of the extreme right: the EU, free trade, Islam. Rather than presenting her beleaguered party with anything new, Ms. Le Pen instead opted to deploy her age-old tactic of whipping up conference hall fury by reeling off a list of political targets.
It was then that the new name was proposed. Over the next few weeks, FN members will vote on whether to change the party’s name to Rassemblement National (National Rally). A slim majority of 52% are believed to support the change, including Ms. Le Pen herself, but the suggestion has already caused its fair share of controversy.
First to complain was Igor Kurek, leader of a tiny Gaullist party of the same name. In a statement published on Twitter, Mr Kurek claimed to be ‘astonished by the amateurism’ of Ms. Le Pen, stating in no uncertain terms that ‘the FN will NEVER be the RN and the RN will NEVER be the new FN’. Then came the response from Le Pen senior, who had once used the term Rassemblement National when running the campaign of far-right candidate Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour in 1965. Horrified by the decision to rename his creation, he denounced the move as ‘political assassination.’
Even more alarming was the fact that the new name was nearly identical to that of the Rassemblement National Populaire, a neo-Jacobin, anti-Semitic collaborationist movement that was established under the wartime Vichy regime (see below). Given that the FN has struggled with accusations of being Vichy apologists for decades, it is no wonder that Sunday’s announcement caused one journalist to wonder whether the party’s leadership has even the faintest understanding of French history.
Of course, this excruciating attempt at a rebrand points to a much wider problem at the heart of the FN. Whilst the party has always maintained a substantial base of electoral support and has been boosted by events such as recent Islamist terror attacks and the victory of Donald Trump, it still carries a certain toxicity that FN vice-president (and partner of Ms. Le Pen) Louis Aliot considers a ‘psychological barrier’ to voters. For many, the words Front National conjure up images of racist thugs and anti-immigrant brutality, a stereotype somewhat reinforced by the release on Saturday night of one of the party’s parliamentary assistants shouting racist abuse at a security guard in a bar.
What the FN’s leadership never seems to grasp is that it will take more than a new name to eliminate the party’s negative image. Whilst their constant stream of anti-immigrant rhetoric may appeal to certain sections of the voting public, it remains deeply off-putting to the vast majority of people. Too late into the 2017 election did they realise that, to win elections, one has to present a party based around more than a single issue. Ms. Le Pen’s confused responses to questions on economic and foreign policy in the final round of debates last year cost her dearly.
If the FN truly wants to make itself more electable, it needs to move away from its inherently xenophobic language and history of racially-motivated violence. Unfortunately for the party, the melodramatic nationalism of its rhetoric is what retains its key supporters. It is therefore caught in the awkward position of trying to detoxify its image whilst simultaneously remaining aggressive enough to draw attention. Thankfully for France, no misguided attempt at a rebrand will change that.