JASON WALSH: New name but same old poison Pen personality

PUBLISHED: 13:00 19 March 2018

France's National Front may have a new name, but the spirit remains unchanged, writes Jason Walsh. Picture: PA

France's National Front may have a new name, but the spirit remains unchanged, writes Jason Walsh. Picture: PA

ABACA/PA Images

France’s National Front is trying to bounce back. But, JASON WALSH asks, is there any hope for the far-right basket case?

The National Front (FN) is no more. Meet the new face of France’s far-right: the Rassemblement National (National Rally).

The name was unveiled by party leader Marine Le Pen at its gathering in Lille last weekend. She was clearly in her element – and that element is the public spotlight. Flanked at one point by former Donald Trump aide, Steve Bannon, Le Pen told the crowd it was time for a change.

Change itself is nothing new for the FN, arguably western Europe’s most successful far-right party. While it has been a constant in French politics since its foundation in the 1970s, its nature as a coalition of former colonialists, monarchists, ultra-conservatives, Vichy apologists, free-marketeers, state-worshipers and, recently, angry ex-Communists, mean that its policies have swung like a pendulum over the decades. At least its economic policies, that is.

While the party has vacillated from plans to deregulate and cut taxes that would please Margaret Thatcher to dirigisme and social protections that would warm the heart of Jeremy Corbyn, one thing has been a constant: its nativist rhetoric, although even here the focus has shifted. To start with, its focus was on Jew-baiting (and gay-hatred), but in the late-1990s the party moved in a new direction, one which would have wide purchase in France and beyond: opposition to Islamism, often mixed-up with simple dislike of Muslims.

On the surface, the name change – which will be subject to a vote – is simply the latest salvo in Le Pen’s longstanding battle to modernise the party, to move it away from its roots in anti-Semitism and sentimentality for the Vichy regime, from the fringes of France, and into the mainstream. The focus on Islamism, and the rise of Islamist violence in France, has helped, making the party attractive to surprising groups of voters; not just the old working class, but even Jews and gays. It was enough to get the party to the second round of the presidential elections last year, but not enough to prevent it being roundly thrashed by Emmanuel Macron, long viewed as an also-ran, and so much a figure of the political centre that he may as well be the personification of a Venn diagram. Pro-Europe and pro-business, Macron could scarcely be more different than Le Pen, and this poses a profound question for her and her followers: how can the party make an impact? Critics say the name change is mere whitewashing, but, in fact, Le Pen’s movement faces an existential question: will the party continue to tread its statist path of social protection, once again make flat-out appeals to French nationalism, or make a play for the ‘alt-right’ constituency?

Whichever it chooses could well determine whether the re-founded party remains a player or whether it finally fades into the pages of history. The old guard are not impressed – but that is the entire point. Despite her 2017 defeat, Le Pen still thinks she has spied a hole in the political landscape almost, but not exactly, the size and shape of the FN.

France’s traditional parties, particularly the Socialists, remain in disarray following their crushing defeat by Macron, but whether or not Le Pen can manoeuvre into this space is open to question.

Her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, has decried the name change as “suicidal”, but the recent conference also saw him, already ejected from the party, stripped of his last remaining connection as ‘honorary president’.

In a bid to mollify internal critics Marine Le Pen paid tribute to the FN name, “associated with a glorious and epic history that no one can deny”. But the National Rally has yet to prove there is a vote out there for the taking. While Macron remains more or less unopposed, that opportunity will not last forever. The centre-right Republican party in particular will recover, while the far-left Unbowed France, led by the charismatic Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is gobbling-up support from the left wing of the Socialists, to add to its popularity among the youth and former supporters of France’s now much-diminished Communist party.

French politics has been remarkably sedate since Macron’s ascension to the Élysée. Although his popularity has slipped and he has been dubbed ‘the president for the rich’, attempts by unions to block his social reforms with their traditional tactic of mass demonstrations turned out to be a damp squib. The Republican and Socialist parties, meanwhile, have been unable to mount much of an opposition, while the Islamist terrorism that dogged France for years has faded from the political scene and, perhaps more importantly, the French political imagination.

Another blow to Le Pen’s post-election ambitions came when the FN’s deputy leader Florian Philippot quit the party. Young, gay, and an advocate of state socialism (and quitting the euro currency), Philippot was seen by many as another figure significantly more palatable to the public than Jean-Marie Le Pen’s old guard. Nevertheless, a break with fellow reformer Marine Le Pen was not long coming: in late 2017 Philippot founded a think-tank, The Patriots, and when instructed to wind the organisation up he instead quit the party. Five months later he relaunched The Patriots as a party. Nigel Farage, who is known to dislike Le Pen, addressed the party’s founding congress via video message – and wasted no time in calling for ‘Frexit’.

Le Pen has never been averse to taking a leaf from the tactics of the left, but while addressing working class voters may have buoyed her support, it is unlikely that aping the left’s propensity for personality-based splits will help her in her ambitions.

As for the new party name, Le Pen has already run into two problems. Firstly, there are already a similarly named groups called National Rally and Rally for France – and they have reacted with predictable anger. Rally for France leader Igor Kurek complained in a series of tweets, later saying he was ready to sue Le Pen. The National Rally, meanwhile, issued a press statement sarcastically telling “dear Marine” that the party name was already taken, and that it did not belong to the “extreme right”.

The FN, however, did use the name National Rally between 1986 and 1988. Perhaps worse still, the name Rassemblement National could prove a problem in another way. Thinking she has grasped the nettle in dealing with the FN’s past, Le Pen may have merely inflamed anti-FN passions by echoing its darkest associations: a party called Rassemblement National Populaire (National People’s Rally) was a collaborationist party in the Vichy government, the Nazi puppet regime that controlled southern France during much of the Second World War.

It is particularly awkward for Le Pen, whose plans to clean up the FN included rejecting her father who once claimed that Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Pétain was not a “traitor”. Some might argue that such a historical echo is not entirely inapt, given signs that the FN is in the process of reasserting its roots on the hardline right.

Thomas Guénolé, a political scientist associated with the left-wing Unbowed France party, says there has been a step change in the FN’s politics since the election, with overtures to the left being played down in favour of a more strongly ‘alt-right’ stance.

“The thing is, you had two factions in struggle in the FN,” he said. One was the statist, protectionist and pro-worker tendency, personified by Philippot. The other, now in the ascendancy, is more focused on identity politics and, ultimately, says Guénolé, striking a coalition with the centre right. This grouping is most associated with Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, niece of Marine and granddaughter of Jean-Marie.

She is, says Guénolé, a “reborn political rockstar” following her reappearance on the French political scene. She abruptly quit following the election but has been making a name for herself internationally, including by addressing the US Conservative Political Action Conference, where she bemoaned a France she said was transitioning from Catholicism to Islam.

Guénolé’s prediction of a coalition on the right is backed up by occasional clearly readable signs. For example, Thierry Mariani, a Republican MP, wrote in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper that the name change was a sign the FN is continuing to evolve. “Let’s see if an agreement or a rapprochement is possible,” he wrote.

But for perhaps the clearest indication of the FN’s direction of travel and its ambitions of a takeover of the right, you need look no further than the figure on the stage next to Marine Le Pen at the party conference: Steve Bannon, the ‘alt right’ godfather widely credited with developing the strategy that allowed Trump to win the presidency. Bannon, who advocates a quixotic coalition of competing European nationalisms, obviously fancies Le Pen’s chances, but the word on the street is that Macron could govern for a decade.

Le Pen clearly hopes this will give her movement the space to grow, but her party’s current ideological disarray suggests France’s traditional centre-right and reinvigorated hard-left are more likely to be the beneficiaries of any realignment that follows a long reign by the political centre.

Le Pen knows that, today more than ever, it is important to stand for something – anything – but the squabbling coalition she inherited from her father has never been the most politically coherent, and there is little sign she knows how to square that circle.

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