The Front’s leaders, however, insist that they don’t want to revive the FN of the 1970s and 1980s, the days of the party’s Holocaust-denying president Jean-Marie Le Pen and his obsession with immigration. “We can’t be monomaniacal,” Sébastien Chenu, the party’s new spokesman and one of eight FN members of the National Assembly elected in June, told me. “We have the pillar of identity. We have the pillar of sovereignty. And we have the pillar of anti-system. I think it’s on these three pillars that the discourse needs to be based.”
On social issues, too, Chenu said the party must evolve: While Le Pen’s 2017 platform called for the repeal of same-sex marriage, “we won’t say we’re against marriage next time,” Chenu said, referring to same-sex marriage. (Shortly after I spoke with Jean Messiha, he landed in hot water: In reference to the party’s former vice president, who is gay, Messiha told Le Monde that “you don’t work with Philippot if you’re not gay.”) “We need to appear like a party that wants to govern France and not just [as] a protest party,” Chenu said.
This logic animates the push for the party to pick a new name, which is expected to be announced at the FN’s “re-foundation congress” in March. With a new name comes an opportunity for a re-brand of sorts, leaders like Chenu and Le Pen hope. Yet they also insist that nothing fundamental has changed since the election. The platform remains the same, even though the party has effectively taken “Frexit,” or a call for France to leave the European Union, off the table (for now). What’s unclear is whether the longed-for overhaul can wrestle with the demons lurking just beneath the surface.
Consider the recent history of Hayange, a small town in Lorraine. In 2014, Hayange elected the FN’s Fabien Engelmann as mayor. Under Socialist Party control for nearly two decades prior, Hayange has struggled to recover from the collapse of the steel industry, and suffers from an unemployment rate of 18 percent, roughly eight points above the national level. Despite the town’s very real economic struggles, Engelmann, a former trade unionist, has fashioned a reputation for cartoonish race-baiting and vicious attacks on political opponents. He organizes an annual “Festival of the Pig” celebration that attracts droves of far-right sympathizers; critics say it is intended to send an anti-Muslim message. Engelmann also unsuccessfully sued a community activist for defamation after the latter called him a “would-be dictator” in a Facebook post. And he recently cut off electricity to a local chapter of a well-respected national charity after claiming it had been overrun by communists.
Engelmann has no significant economic achievements to point to. When we spoke, he stressed the importance of national sovereignty and protectionism. But he also wasted no time bringing up the “danger of Islamization,” and argued that immigration puts French identity at risk. Engelmann also explained why he refuses to participate in national commemorations of March 19, the anniversary of the ceasefire marking the end of the Algerian War. For one thing, violence persisted after that date, he said. “France brought a lot to Algeria,” he added. “You know, in 1850, people were still dying of syphilis in Algeria. France colonized the country, they put in hospitals, roads, a lot of things. Of course, there were bad things, on both sides. But if you talk to nostalgic people in Algeria that miss French Algeria, there was a certain democracy. Go to Algeria today. Look at the democracy now.”