Les Patriotes: How Le Pen’s ex-protégé hopes to win over French far right
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For years, Florian Philippot was Marine Le Pen’s protégé, helping her rebrand France’s hardline National Front into a populist party. But bitter infighting over Europe saw him cut all ties and launch his own far-right alternative: Les Patriotes.
On Monday morning, 36-year-old Philippot – Le Pen’s former vice president and most trusted adviser – inaugurated the headquarters of Les Patriotes (The Patriots), in Saint-Ouen, in northern Paris. The move comes just three months after Philippot claims he was more or less pushed out of the National Front (FN) after bitter disputes with Le Pen over whether the party ought to return to its more hardline, anti-immigrant past, or continue to push its more populist message, focusing instead on economic nationalism.
During his eight years as Le Pen’s right-hand man, Philippot was key in helping her repair and soften the party’s image vis-à-vis the French; strategically moving it away from the racist ideology her Holocaust-denying father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had once advocated, and making it more about protective economic policies that concerned a greater amount of voters. Philippot is also credited with helping the party soften its stance on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, and engineered the party’s plan to quit the euro.
Blamed for election loss
But what started out as an in-party movement after Le Pen began to waver on the party’s anti-euro stance during last spring’s presidential election, has in six short months morphed into a political party that now hopes to take a big bite out of Le Pen’s electorate, vowing to do “The best for France,” by not only quitting the euro, but also the European Union in a so-called “Frexit”. Critics, however, say that he is about to commit political suicide, presenting nothing but a watered-down version of the FN’s political agenda on most other, non-EU-related issues.
Philippot, whose anti-euro sentiment had long irritated many FN members and which bore the brunt of the blame for Le Pen’s bitter loss to centrist Emmanuel Macron in the presidential run-off, announced his departure from the FN in September after being stripped of his role as the party’s chief of strategy and communication following his refusal to step down from the Les Patriotes movement. “I have no desire to be ridiculed, and I have no desire to do nothing. And so, of course, I’m leaving the National Front,” he announced on French broadcaster France 2, shortly after which he then took the first steps towards transforming his movement into a political party.
His former mentor, Le Pen, barely smirked at his ambitions, telling France’s parliamentary channel LCP later the same day that: “All those who have taken that route have led a solitary adventure and ended up disappearing… I think I can say that this will be the case also for Florian.”
In October, Philippot, who still holds a seat in the European Parliament, unveiled a 26-point political charter for his new party, with a “Frexit” and pulling out of the European single currency as being the No. 1 priorities. The party also advocates referendums by popular initiative, removing the upper-house Senate and “heavily reducing” immigration. Despite using a lighter anti-immigration rhetoric than the FN, Sylvain Crépon, a sociologist and French far-right expert at the Université de Tours, said there is little difference between the two parties.
“The only real difference between Les Patriotes and the FN is that Les Patriotes want out of the euro and the EU, and the FN doesn’t,” Crépon told FRANCE 24. “Of course, Les Patriotes don’t want to be considered as being far right; no far right or extreme right party does, but I think they are still very close to being that.”
To date, the party has around 6,000 members, many of them having defected from the FN for much the same reasons as Philippot himself. But Crépon said he doesn’t believe that is enough to pose any real threat to the FN or its electorate.
“I think the problem with Philippot is that he’s already a well-known figure, since he’s already spent many years with the FN. He’s in no way a new face, like Macron was, and so even if he tries to present his party [platform] as an ‘FN light’, most of those who chose FN in the first place did so for its nationalist, anti-immigrant platform, not because of any anti-EU rhetoric,” Crépon said, adding: “And so what they [the far-right voters] want is the original, not a new version.”
“It’s going to be complicated for Les Patriotes to be in competition with the FN because it is already so established. Le Pen is well-known and popular, with many years of experience, and so I don’t see how Les Patriotes could present themselves as a new and effective extreme right.”
Philippot, meanwhile, has spent the past few months touring France to drum up support in some of France’s far-right heartlands. His party is due to hold its first party congress in February or March next year, but the first real test is considered to be the European parliamentary elections in 2019.