After an election campaign that continuously promised unexpected disruptions on the first round of the French presidential elections, the expected happened: the young centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen will confront one another for a second round on 7 May. The question is this: can Le Pen successfully distance herself from the extremist history of the party?
Marine Le Pen’s project has been called ‘dédiabolisation’, or the plan to detoxify the brand of the far-right and to get to those potential voters who may be sympathetic to the far right’s ideas, but in the words of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, were uncomfortable with the ‘wrapping paper’.
Le Pen senior has been a fixture of the French far-right for most of the post-war period. He seemed to have been everywhere, including his time serving as a Poujoudist MP in the 1950s, the years he spent in Algeria and his work managing the unsuccessful presidential campaign of the lawyer Tixier-Vignancour in 1965.
In 1972, he was the obvious choice for the far-right student organisation Ordre nouveau that wanted to revive the then moribund far right. He returned to Paris to help found a party: the Front National.
In the first years of the party’s life, financial difficulties added up to the toxic image the French public had of the far-right. The Front National only began its upward trajectory in the elections of 1981, as Jean-Marie Le Pen had toned down the continuities of the traditional Vichyite far-right and began focusing on a hitherto neutral term, ‘immigration’, as a way to channel old, mainly anti-Arab racism.
However, the Front National did not experience a linear surge. Its trajectory was far more akin to a yoyo, going up and down. Every so often, Le Pen’s tendency to relish in provocations – particularly anti-Semitic ones – only demonstrated the Front National’s continuities with the discredited history of the far-right. In the early 2000s, the youngest of his three daughters, the lawyer Marine who had become increasingly involved with the party, sought to rebrand the party as a ‘normal’ political player.
To achieve this, Marine – together with her most senior adviser Florian Philippot – has focused on controlling every visibly racist utterance from the party grassroots. Most notably, she has worked hard on distancing her personal profile from her father’s extremist image, especially on the record of Vichy and the Holocaust.
As the Marinist Front National excluded Le Pen senior in 2015 after he still maintained that the Holocaust had been but a minor ‘historical detail’, this transformation seemed complete. For the 2017 campaign, the ‘new’ Front National went a step further and minimised the old party name with its emblem of the tricoloured flame in favour of a new identity: Rassemblement bleu Marine with its harmless symbol of a blue rose. This change paved the way for a campaign that railed against the ‘corrupt establishment’ to get angry voters to complement the already convinced.
But this coalition of the extreme and the angry has always been difficult to maintain. The French far-right has always been notoriously fragmented and included Vichy apologists, nostalgics of French Algeria, reactionary Catholics, monarchists and other groups who did not necessarily see eye to eye.
Keeping them happy has always been hard enough, let alone seeming too soft to represent the ‘real’ far-right. The latest crack in this compromise showed just a few weeks before the first round, as Marine Le Pen realised she needed to pander back to the party core base and threw a new bomb into the fold, claiming the French government was not responsible for the Vél-d’hiv roundup, where French police under German orders rounded up 13,000 Jews sent to their death.
As Marine Le Pen goes into the second round, Le Pen’s project of detoxifying the brand and simultaneously keeping old voters of the far-right is in a position of weakness. Her latest declaration she would step down from the party leadership to focus on the presidential campaign demonstrates that. This futile exercise in re-branding is just another attempt to distance her own figure from that of the ‘extreme’ party. And yet, does this mean there is nothing to worry about?
Not quite. The second round of the elections is a high mountain for Marine Le Pen to climb, as she will need a 50%+1 majority, a feat no far-right candidate has achieved in a Western democracy. However, one should not underestimate the Marinist success in normalising the far-right and portraying her rival as just another member of the establishment. On election day, turnout will be key to ensure Le Pen’s project of detoxification does not succeed.
Itay Lotem is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in French Language and Culture at the University of Westminster. His research focuses on the memory of colonialism in Britain and France and with it the history of the far left and far right in both countries. You can find Itay on Twitter @ILotem.
Image: Marine Le Pen, Leader of the French National Front [via Flickr, Licensed under Creative Commons]