France’s Le Pen picks burkini-banning mayor as campaign director
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Far-right leader Marine Le Pen on Saturday named the young politician David Rachline as the director of her presidential campaign, a risky choice who should appeal to party loyalists, while she reaches out to a broader audience.
Le Pen made the widely expected announcement during a speech to supporters in the Mediterranean city of Fréjus in an event that, by her own account, marked “the start of the mobilization for this presidential campaign”.
Rachline, 28, has been the mayor of Fréjus since April 2014 and the youngest member of France’s Senate since October of the same year. The leader of the anti-immigration National Front (FN) party described him as “a man who symbolizes youth, work, merit, loyalty and success”, as she made his campaign appointment official.
He is also a politician with a questionable past and who has stoked controversy since he took over the mayor’s office two years ago. Experts said he represented a crafty, although risky, pick. Rachline could help Le Pen quell divisions within her party and appeal to her core constituents, while she softens her message in the quest for new voters.
“It may be a careless decision, because David Rachline has a track record for saying extreme things, and Marine Le Pen does not want to scare people and wants to avoid gaffs at all costs,” said Nicolas Lebourg, a political analyst at the left-leaning Fondation Jean Jaurés think tank.
“Or it may be part of a strategy to counterbalance her softer image, because she still needs to keep the FN’s core voters fired up,” he added.
With only eight months left before France picks a new president, Le Pen hopes to reach the second round of the elections. She enjoys as much as 30 percent support among voters, according to the most recent opinion polls. By comparison, President François Hollande would only claim around 10 percent of ballots, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy around 25 percent.
However, Le Pen saw similarly strong figures dwindle as election day approached in 2012. Four years ago she ended up with 18 percent support in the first round of the ballot, watching Hollande and Sarkozy advance to the second round with comfortable margins.
The 2017 presidential race could become just as competitive, and will deliver a series of its own unique challenges. Attention will inevitably shift to France’s main right-wing opposition Les Républicains party and to the ruling Socialists as the two camps hold primaries, respectively in November and January.
Before she can concentrate on tearing down her chief opponents, her main concern will be keeping her own party united. Indeed, the FN has struggled with divisions, even as it has enjoyed a surge in regional and local polls.
The main rift has been between the old-guard, notably the now ostracised FN founder Jean Marie Le Pen, and the new generation of politicians that merged around his daughter Marine after she took over the party. It is here where Rachline could play a crucial role.
“David Rachline’s great strength is that he is compatible with all of the groups inside the FN. The party is a lot more divided than its leaders would like to admit, and Rachline’s talent is that he is on good terms with everyone,” said Dominique Albertini, a French journalist and the author of a forthcoming book on the far right’s presence on the Internet.
“Rachline is a bridge between the old FN – that of Jean Marie Le Pen – and the new FN – Marine’s party,” Albertini told FRANCE 24.
Keeping Le Pen senior and his supporters within the party in check is likely to become an increasingly important component of the presidential campaign. The ageing far-right leader did not waste any time to criticize his daughter’s speech in Fréjus, telling French daily Le Figaro on Saturday that her presidential ambitions were unrealistic.
Good cop, bad cop?
Le Pen’s speech over the weekend was also notable for her decision not to directly criticise Islam, and thus alienate Muslim voters in France. The FN leader has in the past compared Muslims praying outside overcrowded mosques in Paris to Nazi occupation during World War II. She has since avoided drawing similar controversial comparisons, and in Fréjus only blasted the peril of “multiculturalism”.
Her new campaign slogan “In the name of the people” (Au nom du peuple) also reflects this move away from identity politics and insecurity – issues that have loomed large for FN candidates in the past – to embrace a more positive and socially acceptable message.
Rachline’s appointment on the surface appears to fly in the face of this effort. Since he took over as mayor of Fréjus he has made headlines for his opposition to the completion of a new mosque in the city and, this summer, for joining a handful of other officials who banned “burkinis”, or full-cover swimsuits used by some Muslim women.
Last month France’s Council of State ruled against the ban, saying it was at odds with basic civil liberties. A regional administrative court also overturned the anti-burkini decree in Fréjus.
Given his track record and popularity among the ranks of the FN, some think Rachline’s role within the campaign will be to play “bad cop”, while Le Pen is allowed to take the high road.
“Marine Le Pen is already preparing for the second round [of the election], while David Rachline will act as a proxy during many television appearances before the first round. If there is good coordination, it could really pay off,” said Lebourg. “The risk is that they are caught in contradiction and give the impression no one is in charge."