Ahead or Behind for a New Front: Le Pen’s Latest Rebuilding Effort

 

On September 23, standing in front of a banner declaring, “Ahead for a New Front,” French presidential runner-up Marine Le Pen announced the “historic rebuilding” of the Front National (FN). This announcement marked the kick-off of a twelve-stop tour during which the party and its supporters “will be able to discuss everything.” What “everything” entails remains somewhat ambiguous for the moment; all that Le Pen has clearly indicated thus far is that a focus on image will make up the core part of the FN’s comeback. She has expressed a desire to make the FN more mainstream within the government—thereby shedding its reputation as a fringe group—and to clarify positions that she feels were “not understood” by voters in this spring’s presidential election. This effort will be carried out via a three-pronged approach of “new alliances,” (predominantly with the press and potentially with other world leaders who share her far-right leanings), the creation of an “intellectual journal” and an “online press review” to inform the public about FN policy and actions, and a renaming of the Front National itself. Clear policy, on the other hand, has yet to be stipulated. However, there have been indications that Le Pen will be steering her party from the “neither right nor left” line used during her presidential race back to its traditional far-right focus on national sovereignty, which would prioritize immigration, crime, and terrorism over more socioeconomic issues such as labor and unemployment, inequality, and economic policy. Even this stance, however, is more about choosing a certain image as a party than about reworking policy.

In light of huge setbacks in the months since France’s  presidential election, a makeover could well be the FN’s primary objective—and is indeed the reprise of a classic Le Pen strategy that has served her well in the past. However, centering this refondation around a far right-centric rebranding effort, all while preserving Le Pen as the face of the party, is tone deaf both to the issues facing the party (internal and outside divisions alike) and the present national political climate.

In terms of garnering broad support, now is not the time for the FN to revert to its most basic founding ideals. Far-right policy as a whole has rapidly lessened in its appeal to the general French public in light of world affairs since the French presidential election. The excitement surrounding Brexit and Trump’s 2016 election, both of which had emboldened Le Pen and her followers in her presidential bid, has now developed into a hangover. As a steady stream of Trump administration scandals and follies increasingly alarms Europe, the French populist spirit dampened. As the full implications of Britain’s decision to leave the EU become apparent, this is accelerated. As of August, the Eurozone economy was growing twice as fast as that of the UK—while the former experienced 2.1% growth since Brexit, the latter only showed 0.3% growth. Following this trend, the popularity of the EU has dramatically increased in France; since 2016, support for the institution has risen from under 40% to a solid 56%, according to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Furthermore, the same survey indicated that 59% of French citizens believe Brexit to be bad for Great Britain. Thus, Le Pen’s claim that pure misunderstanding is what caused the French electorate to reject the FN’s desire to leave the Eurozone at the polls is simply false.

Meanwhile, as the appeal of the FN declined, a new threat presented itself: La France Insoumise (FI), a brand-new party established in 2016 and led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. While Le Pen took a few months off following her presidential defeat, Mélenchon and FI have emerged as the principle figure of opposition to the Macron presidency, precisely the niche Le Pen had hoped to create for herself and the FN. In fact, a recent Ifop poll found that the majority of French voters believes Mélenchon to be the most effective current opposition leader, while only 40% believe that the FN even embodies a true opposition to En Marche. Mélenchon is dangerous in that he has proven himself extremely capable—perhaps even more capable—of rousing public fervor than Le Pen herself. Such a rival would severely undermine Le Pen’s ability to take back the spotlight, even with a huge PR effort. In its inaugural legislative elections, FI won 17 seats in the National Assembly while the FN scored only eight. On the same day, Le Pen announced the FN’s rebuilding effort to a quiet crowd of about 500 as Mélenchon successfully pulled off a demonstration in Paris protesting  the recent passage of Macron’s labor laws that attracted thousands. Furthermore, Mélenchon appeals to the same populist base, particularly that of young people, that Marine Le Pen would risk losing with a rightward shift.

Ironically, the decision to go back to stressing the FN’s most established, far right beliefs is in keeping with Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whom Marine ousted in 2002, and in rejection of Florian Philippot, Marine’s long-time second-in-command. In an interview with RTL radio, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former FN president, blamed the party’s losses (both in the presidential and legislative elections) on its decision to seek more centrist and leftist voters, asserting that it needed “to go back to the basics” of its founding and “focus more [on]  real problems, demographic problems, problems of mass immigration,” if it wants to become successful. He placed the brunt of the blame on Philippot, who was the mastermind behind the FN’s “undemonization” strategy (which including the party’s efforts to distance itself from its notorious Holocaust denial), Marine Le Pen’s “neither left nor right” line during the presidential election, and her 144-point presidential platform. Having firmly declared “Philippot, c’est fini!” in the wake of Philippot’s departure, the younger Le Pen seems to have regressively sided with her father in her latest rebranding of the FN. However, this decision appears to be clearly flawed: according to an Ifop poll, only 17% of French people consider FN’s decline to be the result of its “positioning too [far] left.” In addition, while Le Pen already has high credibility in traditional far-right FN issues, she only has about 27-35% credibility on so-called “leftist” issues that Philippot had developed.

“The excitement surrounding Brexit and Trump’s 2016 election, both of which had emboldened Le Pen and her followers in her presidential bid, has now developed into a hangover.”

Thus, it is more critical that she develop her policy in these areas in order to legitimize the FN as a governing force. It is also important to acknowledge that, despite Le Pen’s decisive defeat, it was ultimately Philippot’s guidance and image-rebuilding over the past 15 years that led her to FN’s most successful electoral outcome in history, carrying 34% of the vote; Jean-Marie Le Pen, by contrast, only managed to win 17.8% of the vote in his 2002 bid for the presidency, which, at the time, was considered an enormous percentage for such a radical candidate. In short, this return to a more orthodox far-right platform is retrogressive and risks all the progress the FN has made since the turn of the century. It’s likely that Le Pen didn’t revert out of a fair effort to right her failing party, but to serve her own political motives. Philippot, an initially key factor in Le Pen’s rise, now presents a legitimate political threat; his departure came after Marine Le Pen demoted him for his refusal to step down from chairing “Les Patriotes,” a new movement in support of Philippot’s supposedly “leftist” initiatives.

The Le Pen-Philippot face-off echoes a much deeper problem within the FN itself, which cannot be solved simply by yet another rebranding effort. The deep division and dissatisfactions of FN voters were reflected in the legislative elections for the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, this past June. While the FN had projected 45 “winnable” seats based upon the results of the presidential election just a few months prior, it only ended up winning eight. This enormous loss was due primarily not to the success of the opposition, but to the fact that more than 50% of reliable FN voters abstained from voting. This demographic—already comfortable with the image of the FN and its policies—doesn’t need more outreach or rebranding to be sold on its platform. Rather, they are plagued by a deep rift within the party reminiscent of that between Philippot and the senior Le Pen; between a traditionally far-right cohort and a younger generation that seeks a leftward, anti-capitalist, protectionist, and anti-European focus. Both experts and FN advisors alike have widely pointed to Marine Le Pen’s failure to lead her party towards coherent policy—which was particularly evident during her presidential debate with Macron—as the cause of this deep divide.

This issue can be fixed, but not by promoting outreach, changing the party’s name, or simply moving back towards the right—which will only alienate the younger, Philippot-sympathizing cohort that the FN has managed to accrue since Le Pen took control from her father. Rather, it requires systematic policy revision in order to form a clearer platform that will allow the views of all of its constituents to be represented. Indeed, the flaws of this “refondation historique” are due partially to the reality that the ideals of the FN simply may not reflect the current direction of the nation, and in large part to a failure to take into account those public needs and opinions. Moreover, given the current direction of public opinion and well-poised rivals like Mélenchon, this “refondation historique” is already off to a rocky start. The loss of Philippot, which went barely acknowledged by Le Pen, reflects retrospection that appears to be less about Le Pen serving her party’s needs than her own cravings for political dominance. Politically, one can never truly count Marine Le Pen out. However, if the FN really wants to change everything—as they have claimed—it is time for a more drastic step: 15 years ago, the removal of Jean-Marie Le Pen kick-started a meteoric rise for the Front National. Likewise, perhaps today a change in leadership is just what is needed to bring in fresh ideas and better represent the current perspectives of the party.

 

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