Rebranding goes awry for France’s far right
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.