New name, same old, same old: Marine Le Pen's far-right rebrand is no revolt
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Marine Le Pen long touted this weekend’s National Front convention as a revamp to culminate in a new party name, without the vote-crippling baggage. On Sunday, the French populist pitched the rebrand: Rassemblement national. So what’s in a name?
Revamp talk aside, upon this weekend’s evidence, the National Front by any other name will smell just about as sweet – or foul, depending on the nose of the beholder – as it did before.
“The name must be a cry for unity, a call to join us, sent to everyone who has France at heart,” Le Pen declared Sunday, addressing a crowd of party faithful in Lille hours after her re-election, running unopposed, to a third term as party president.
“The National Front name carries an epic and glorious history that no one should deny. But you know, for many French people, it is a psychological blockage,” she explained on stage. “For some it’s a brake on joining us or voting.”
"Rassemblement national" -- which can be translated as National Rally or National Gathering and will now go to a party-wide vote -- is designed to facilitate political alliances with like-minded factions for a party saddled with 46 years of incendiary baggage, most under party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s rabble-rousing father.
Ten months after a French presidential race that left her 16 tantalising points shy of the Elysée Palace, the younger Le Pen has suggested such alliances are the missing link between remaining a party of opposition and rising to power at last -- and that removing the stigma of the old party name is the key.
Foot stomping assent
But in Lille on Sunday, her hour-plus address drew by far its loudest applause not for Marine Le Pen’s discourse on personal sovereignty in the digital age, workers’ rights or genetically modified foods. Those themes garnered polite applause compared to the rhythmic, auditorium-shaking rumble of stomping feet that met her tirades against delinquency and immigration, ancestral National Front themes. When Le Pen railed against state medical assistance for undocumented migrants, many rose to their feet, chanting in unison “On est chez nous!”, a rough equivalent to “This land is our land”.
When she reminded foreigners in France that they must respect the law or fly back to where they came from, the stomping rumbled again and “Marine for President” rang out across the room as supporters waved large French tricolours provided for the purpose.
To think Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972 before handing the reins to his youngest daughter in 2011, had made such a fuss about the rebranding. After all, the crowd sighed audible relief when Marine Le Pen assured them the party’s logo, a tricolour flame, would stay regardless. Indeed, so much for out with the old: as it happens, Jean-Marie Le Pen himself had used the name “Rassemblement National” in 1986 when his party joined forces with other factions and won seats in France's lower house.
Been there, done that
“I won election to the National Assembly, became a deputy, for the first time under that name,” Bruno Gollnisch, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s longtime right-hand-man, told FRANCE 24 in Lille. Gollnisch, too, had vocally opposed changing the party’s name. “I am a bit relieved because I feared a sharper break with tradition,” the 68-year-old said Sunday, fresh from his own re-election to the party’s national council.
Finally ousted in 2015 after yet another provocative remark about the Holocaust, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s long, unsuccessful legal fight for reinstatement finally failed for good last month. This convention marked the snipping of the party's final formal tether with its founding father, his title of President of Honour, a position eliminated in the updated party statutes approved this weekend. The elder Le Pen only recently dropped a standing threat to force his way into the venue in Lille uninvited, loath to be “an accomplice the murder of the National Front”, as he put it. But if the convention stage was a crime scene, the chalk outline was a faint one.
Gollnisch, for his part, said he deeply regrets the party decision to break ties with its 89-year-old patriarch. But in the same breath, he suggests the parting of ways with the olden days doesn’t go all that far.
“I note actually that there isn’t a split even with the symbols like the logo. There is very little as far as the name goes. There is even less in terms of the ideas, since Jean-Marie Le Pen or even I could have given the speech Monsieur Bannon gave yesterday,” Gollnisch said, referring to US alt-right former Trump aide Steve Bannon’s last-minute cameo in Lille on Saturday. “It was a very politically incorrect speech, you will have noticed.”
Supporters leaving the venue in Lille nevertheless gave the impression the old name and its lingering connotations were the nagging obstacles keeping the National Front from the electoral success it covets.
“If it can grow our electoral base, it’s a very good thing,” Philippe, sporting a red Make America Great Again ballcap and an elephant-shaped US Republican Party lapel pin, said of the proposed new label. “There has been so much brainwashing for decades that, like [Marine Le Pen] said, there is a psychological blockage against voting National Front,” the 43-year-old said. “At the last minute, people didn’t dare vote because of that. So the fact of being called ‘gathering’, it’s more appeasing and I think it can bring us quite a few new voters.”
Laure Chevalier, an elected regional official in the south of France, echoed that sentiment. “On the ground, I’ve seen the hindrance the National Front name can pose," the 37-year-old said Sunday. “In particular the word ‘Front’, which had still been provoking reticence -- in the polling stations, at the instant of sliding the ballot in, all the negative connotations of the previous years that could put a brake on voters putting a National Front ballot in the box.”
On the surface on Sunday in Lille, Marine Le Pen’s stamp was all over the convention; her father nowhere to be seen. Indeed, her most eager fans, who grabbed the best theatre seats in Lille’s Grand Palais auditorium a full hour before her name-changing address, were treated to an all-Marine Le Pen slideshow on the big screen: Marine petting a kitten, hugging children, petting a donkey, sampling cheese, holding an octopus, riding boats, watching a pig roast on a spit, paying solemn unspecified homages, all set to a jaunty jazz soundtrack while searchlights raked around the ceiling like an old-time Hollywood premiere.
But its new working title aside, this sequel, from much of the cast down to the cameo, may not yet have strayed all that far from the original for the box office to treat it any differently.