Re­brand­ing goes awry for France’s far right

Tehran Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

For any pop­ulist party worth its salt, brand­ing is cru­cial. New­com­ers to the po­lit­i­cal scene need a catchy name to grab vot­ers’ at­ten­tion and sig­nal what they stand for.

The True Finns, Spain’s Pode­mos, Italy’s Five Star Move­ment or the Czech Re­pub­lic’s ANO (Yes) party are prime ex­am­ples. For far-right par­ties with a longer and darker past, a blander ti­tle may be prefer­able. The an­o­dyne names of the Swe­den Democrats or of Aus­tria’s Free­dom Party lend an air of re­spectabil­ity to a hard na­tion­al­ist agenda.

For Marine Le Pen, who suf­fered a heavy loss to Em­manuel Macron in last year’s French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the chal­lenge is one of re­brand­ing.

A year ago, she was rid­ing high in the polls and seemed to pose a real and ex­is­ten­tial threat to Europe. Now, sup­port for her Na­tional Front has crum­bled and she is strug­gling to as­sert au­thor­ity over the party founded by her es­tranged fa­ther. On Sun­day, she at­tempted to per­suade sup­port­ers that she was set­ting the party on a fresh course to win power — with a new name in­tended to sani­tise it in the eyes of main­stream vot­ers and open the way to al­liances with other ac­tors on the French right, who are in­creas­ingly play­ing on tra­di­tional FN themes of iden­tity and im­mi­gra­tion.

As a re­brand­ing ex­er­cise, it has al­ready gone badly wrong. Rassem­ble­ment Na­tional, the name Ms Le Pen has cho­sen, is per­haps meant to echo the Rassem­ble­ment du pe­u­ple français, a short­lived party of na­tional unity founded by Charles de Gaulle. But it also re­calls the Rassem­ble­ment Na­tional Pop­u­laire, a wartime col­lab­o­ra­tionist move­ment with fas­cist lean­ings.

It copies a slo­gan used by her fa­ther, Jean-Marie Le Pen — even though Ms Le Pen has been work­ing to dis­tance the party from his overtly racist dis­course.

To top it all, the FN may face le­gal chal­lenge over its right to use the name. Nor does a change of name seem likely to en­tail any change in the party’s un­der­ly­ing ethos and poli­cies. If any­thing, Ms Le Pen ap­pears likely to re­fo­cus on core far-right themes, af­ter a pe­riod in which she sought to har­ness blue-col­lar anger at glob­al­iza­tion and the eu­ro­zone’s eco­nomic woes.

In a ram­bling speech on Sun­day, she ranked the “smil­ing and tri­umphant glob­al­ism” of Mr Macron as a threat equiv­a­lent to what she called the “scourge” of Is­lamist ide­ol­ogy.

Mr Le Pen se­nior was swift to point out the lack of orig­i­nal­ity. He also noted that, if the aim was to “detox­ify” the party, invit­ing Steve Ban­non to its Congress was a strange choice.

The for­mer White House strate­gist duly ex­horted FN sup­port­ers to wear the la­bel of “racists” as a “badge of hon­our”. Nonethe­less, it would be a mis­take to write off Ms Le Pen, or the deep-rooted move­ment she rep­re­sents.

All po­lit­i­cal par­ties in France are strug­gling to rein­vent them­selves fol­low­ing Mr Macron’s de­mo­li­tion of the Cen­tre-left and right in last year’s elec­tions.

But the pres­i­dent’s dom­i­nance is largely a func­tion of his per­sonal charisma. His cen­trist party, La République en Marche, re­mains frag­ile, lack­ing ex­pe­ri­ence or a clear iden­tity, and vot­ers are still in­clined to iden­tify them­selves with tra­di­tional left and right group­ings.

The Repub­li­can right is start­ing to re­mo­bi­lize, un­der the lead­er­ship of Lau­rent Wauquiez, who is com­pet­ing for far-right vot­ers. This is a threat to Ms Le Pen, but it also sug­gests that some form of al­liance of the right and far-right may not be un­think­able.

Ms Le Pen is in a weak po­si­tion now but her per­sis­tence is not in doubt. As she told her au­di­ence on Sun­day, Italy’s vot­ers have just shown how four years can change a daz­zling young Europhile new­comer into an elec­toral li­a­bil­ity.

Marine le Pen, leader of the far-right Na­tional Front, and Steve Ban­non, the for­mer White House strate­gist.

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