When former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon took the stage before a crowd of National Front (FN) members in the northern French city of Lille, he was prepared to give France’s far-right a pep talk. “Let them call you racist,” he told FN party faithfuls over the weekend. “Let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it like a badge of honor. Because every day we get stronger, and they get weaker.”
The party, which was founded in 1972 on a nationalist, anti-immigration platform, by a leader with a history of Holocaust denial, has certainly been called all three of those things. Its current leadership has jettisoned much of its overtly racist rhetoric, though party leader Marine Le Pen has also flirted with Holocaust denial, denying French complicity with the Nazis. Bannon’s speech was part of the party’s two-day congress, during which Le Pen unveiled a new name for the FN: Rassemblement National, or National Rally. She said this moniker would not only demonstrate the party’s willingness to form alliances with likeminded parties in the future, but would also distance it from the more extreme connotations associated with its past and, in particular, with her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. His daughter, who took over as leader in 2011, sought to take the party more mainstream. Deeming her father’s xenophobic and anti-Semitic remarks a liability to that goal, she expelled him from the party in 2015. Taking that expulsion a step further this past weekend, the party voted to strip the elder Le Pen of his symbolic title as honorary president for life. “We were originally a protest party,” Le Pen said at the congress. “There is no doubt now that we can be a ruling party.”
This latest effort at rebranding comes at a pivotal moment for the party, which after decades on the fringes of French politics managed to push its way to electoral relevance, only to suffer a crushing second-round defeat to centrist Emmanuel Macron in last year’s presidential election. Now, with an eye to next year’s legislative elections, Le Pen is hoping a new name will ready the party to reclaim the the national spotlight. In this way, Bannon’s presence at the congress was important—his success helping get President Trump’s “America First” policy vision into the White House, paired with his recent European tour, brought the conference vast media attention. But it also exposed numerous contradictions. Though Bannon served in the White House, he was never really a mainstream political figure, and his ouster from both the government and Breitbart News have marginalized him even more. What’s more, his particular brand of populist nationalism makes him more akin to the FN’s founder than to its current leader. This irony was noted by Jean-Marie Le Pen himself, who said that Bannon’s presence was “not exactly the definition of the de-demonization” the FN has been seeking.
There was also the matter of the new name itself, which is less “detoxifying” than it is offensive. The proposed new name for the party bears a striking similarity to Rassemblement National Français, a French wartime movement that advocated for collaborating with the Nazis. It was also a slogan was used by Jean-Marie Le Pen during a past election campaign—evoking a vision not of a party forging ahead, but of one being dragged back.
Apart from the party’s plan to ditch its support for leaving the eurozone (a policy championed by the FN’s since-departed deputy, Florian Philippot), the overall agenda and ethos of the party remains almost entirely consistent. Le Pen made this clear in her address to party members Sunday when she said the FN’s far-right positions on immigration, globalization, and the European Union would stay intact. She practically had to do this. “Its core base is attracted to the party because of its uncompromising rebuttal to legal immigration, the multicultural society, and globalism,” Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on France’s far right, told me. “It’s been that way since 1972.”
So if the party’s so-called rebranding offers no real change, why does the brand survive? David Lees, a Warwick University researcher focusing on French politics, told me that more than French voters, it’s the attention that gives Le Pen the power she has. “It’s precisely because the media, and indeed the wider population in France and around the world, are interested in how the extreme right is doing—and that gives them a sense of credibility,” he said, adding: “She needs to do something now to keep momentum going to the next presidential election, which is what she’s really always been targeting.” It is also the case that the FN has a substantial if limited base of support—it won about a third of the votes in the 2017 elections, nearly doubling the FN’s next best showing in 2002 elections.
Like other French parties, the FN has struggled to mount a serious political challenge to Macron, whose parliamentary majority has enabled him to pursue his agenda without many legislative hurdles. Even as she tries to soften her party’s image enough to attract new voters, Le Pen wants to keep the FN’s core base of supporters, some of whom attribute her 2017 presidential loss to her inability to sufficiently emphasize what they see as the FN party line on national identity and immigration while focusing more on EU issues. This identity crisis within the party culminated in the September resignation of Philippot, her former vice president. Though he was widely credited with toning down the party’s historically homophobic and xenophobic elements, and shifting its focus from immigration to globalization and its impact on the working class, he drew ire from some party members over his anti-eurozone policies—a position opposed by a majority of French voters, and one some faulted for scaring would-be-voters away from Le Pen. “They’re returning [to] an identity-based rhetoric,” Philippot said of the FN in an interview with Cole Stangler for The Atlantic last fall. “It’s really a step backwards.”
While the controversial name change may have gotten Le Pen more some attention, there’s only so much a name can do. “She believes that her defeat [in 2017] was because of the former name and the stigma that goes along with it,” Camus said. “But the truth is that more than 60 percent of the French say they do not consider ever voting for the party, and that’s not just because of the name. It has to do with the ideas of the FN. Whatever the name, banning legal immigration remains beyond the pale. Giving separate and unequal rights to nationals and to foreigners is also unacceptable to a majority of the French.”
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