France: the 'National Front' tries to redefine itself

Essay by Jean-Jacques Subrenat.

The following is an English version of a WikiTribune story in French published on March 12 2018.

Where does France’s National Front stand today? A few days before the congress of the National Front (FN, a right-wing party in France) in Lille on 10 and 11 March 2018, a public opinion poll published on 7 March 2018 credited the FN with 22 percent of favorable opinions, against 29 percent in 2017. Sofres-TNS, the polling institute, commented: “End of cycle for Marine Le Pen’s Front National: public image deteriorated, political platform widely criticized.’’ For Le Pen, the challenge of the congress was to consolidate her position as chairperson of the FN; for the party, it was to halt its decline and prepare for a series of elections from 2019 to 2022. Did the Lille congress address these challenges?

An unfavorable context. For over a year now, several factors have weakened the party chair. Her close advisor and party vice-chair, Florian Philippot, who helped the FN become a ‘’normal’’ fixture in French politics, left her to set up his own movement, Les Patriotes (The Patriots).

Just before the party congress started, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of FN, published his Mémoires: fils de la Nation (Memoirs: A Son of the Nation) in which he is very critical of his daughter Marine. Another concern for the party chair is the rising popularity of her niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, who is expected to become, sooner or later, a serious challenger for the leadership post. In addition, Marine Le Pen has some legal problems (Le Monde) in France, and she must also deal with a request for reimbursement by the European Parliament.

To top it all, the FN chair has to face up to a new political situation created by the ”Macron Effect” which has thrown a spanner in French politics, to the detriment of well-established parties such as Les Républicains (The Republicans) or Parti socialiste (Socialist Party), but also for a more recent creation like La France insoumise (Rebellious France) led by its founder Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But more than any other factor, it is her disastrous performance in the last television debate of the presidential campaign in 2017, against Emmanuel Macron, which led many people, including in her own party, to doubt whether she really had the stuff of a national leader. This happened at a time when the FN made clear its ambition to become the leading opposition party in France. Against this backdrop of multiple difficulties, Le Pen was eager to use the Lille congress to reassert leadership in the party, and to win back her credibility as a presidential candidate, which she had squandered during that TV debate in 2017.

Has Marine Le Pen managed to re-assert her authority? By being elected for a third term as chair of the FN, she has steered clear of some immediate dangers. At the Lille congress, she suggested a new name for the party, Le Rassemblement National (LRN), in which the word rassemblement (grouping, convention) suggests a willingness to welcome people with other political affiliations; but it also suggests she wants to get beyond the rather ponderous heritage of her father. This proposed change of name will be submitted to a vote by the party membership. The FN’s political agenda, which closely reflects Ms. Le Pen’s choices, embraces the usual far-right themes. Building on this new platform, Le Pen is keen to halt the decline of her party, and probably looks back to its past success. As far back as 1980 the FN had 35 members elected to the National Assembly. In 2002, her father garnered 16.86 percent of the vote in the presidential election, ahead of the outgoing prime minister and candidate of the Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin, who got 16.18 percent. At the regional elections of 2010, the FN won 17.5 percent of the votes in the second round. In the elections for the European Parliament in 2014, the FN had the highest score, in spite of the fact that its agenda was very critical of the path taken by the European Union. And most recently, as the FN congress came to a close, Le Pen seems to have consolidated her power. Re-elected for a third term as party chair, the new leadership team is made up of people close to her; Louis Aliot, member of the executive committee and parliamentarian (he is also Marie Le Pen’s life partner) will head the national council; the executive committee will include Jordan Bardella, a regional councilor; Nicolas Bay, an MEP; Bruno Bilde, a parliamentarian; and Steeve Briois, vice-chair, and mayor of Hénin-Beaumont. It’s also interesting to note that the founder of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been ”withdrawn from the honorary chairmanship of the party.”

A challenge for the FN: how to attract new members. In France, as in many countries, political entities have no legal obligation to follow a specific way of counting membership: in some parties, only people paying a fee are considered members, whereas En Marche! (launched by Emmanuel Macron) accepts online registrations, without a compulsory fee. In spite of these ambiguities, available figures do provide an order of magnitude: in 2014 the FN claimed to have 83,000 members, but the figure seems to have gone down. For the sake of comparison, Les Républicains (LR) claim to have 238,000 members, and the Socialists (PS) 111,450 in 2016, with probably a sharp decline since then. In the case of the FN, there is no certainty that younger people will want to join a political ”dynasty” in which, after founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, the current leader is his daughter Marine, with Marion Maréchal Le Pen waiting in the wings. In the meantime, the FN is busy heaping discredit on other political parties: the online media outlet TV Libertés Hebdo is targeting La France insoumise, a maverick formation which, just like the FN, claims to be the main opposition in France. The same online media is portraying the Socialist Party as a sinking Titanic. Be that as it may, criticism of its competitors will not suffice to gain support, and the FN will have to face up to other difficulties, including a sorry financial situation, which it is trying to repair by calling on its membership and supporters to subscribe to a “Patriotic Loan.”

Steve Bannon in Lille, quite a symbol. As reported by the television news channel BFM-TV, the former strategy advisor to President Trump aroused the congress in Lille, where he received generous applause. In front of a French audience, he did not hesitate to use some of the catch phrases he had crafted for Donald Trump, for instance in casting blame on the media: ”We’ve had to deal with the opposition of the establishment media (…) And by the way, where are those opposition media at this meeting?” Bannon had this piece of advice for the audience (reported by The New York Times): “Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes.” He went on: “Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.” And further, “Each day we will become stronger and they will become weaker.” Introduced and then warmly thanked by Le Pen, Bannon was the star of the show, giving his blessing to the FN and especially to Le Pen. In a subsequent interview with BFM-TV, Bannon described Le Pen as ”one of the most powerful in the world” among populist leaders.

Elections ahead. All political parties in France will have to prepare for the upcoming elections , spread over the next four years. Each one of these elections will have an impact on the image of the FN, the popularity of its leaders, and of course on the number of elected members in various assemblies, public financial support depending on this number. For all political parties in France, the following elections will require their attention: European Parliament in 2019 (5-year term, previous election was in 2014); municipalities in 2020 (6-year term, last 23 & 30 March 2014); election for local assemblies in the counties (départements) in 2021 (6-year term, last 22 & 29 March 2015); large regions in 2021 (mandat de 6 ans, dernières 6 et 13 décembre 2015) ; presidential in 2022 (5-year term, last 23 April & 5  May 2017); election to the National Assembly in 2022 (5-year term, last 11 & 18 June 2017). In her closing speech at the Lille congress, Le Pen recognized the importance of this electoral calendar, and declared unambiguously that the target for her party was now to become ”a party for governing”.

What type of European model? Much like the leaders of similar parties elsewhere in the European Union (Austria, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, United Kingdom…), Le Pen has the same priorities such as a strict limitation on immigration, a sweeping criticism of the EU, a rejection of the Euro, and the same social choices. With regard to the European institutions, at the Lille meeting Le Pen put forward a plan to replace the EU with a Union of European Nations (Union des nations européennes), a project she is building up with Gilles Lebreton, an MEP and member of her party. Also in the international arena, the FN will have to deal with sometimes cumbersome friends (Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon…).

Two conclusions. The FN’s Lille congress can be seen as a fresh start for Le Pen, whose authority is now supported by an executive committee held by close allies. But the FN will have to meet a number of challenges: be more attractive for new potential members, in a political landscape largely modeled by the ”Macron Effect”; put its financial house in order; be more attentive to public opinion, generally more favorable towards the European Union than the FN has been; and finally, set forth a cogent policy platform for each of the elections scheduled from 2019 to 2022.

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