LILLE, France (AFP) — Former top Trump aide Steve Bannon told the French far right on Saturday that “history is on our side” as he addressed the party conference of a National Front that is seeking to bounce back from crushing electoral setbacks.
“The tide of history is with us and it will compel us to victory after victory, after victory,” Bannon, once a powerful figure in the Trump administration and former head of Breitbart News, told the FN conference in its northern stronghold of Lille.
“Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day we get stronger and they get weaker,” Bannon said in an address which drew strong applause from FN leader Marine Le Pen.
Le Pen, who will wind up the gathering with a speech on Sunday, suffered a bruising loss to centrist Emmanuel Macron in last year’s presidential poll and the party won only eight seats in the general election that followed.
Her poor showing in a final TV debate against Macron raised questions about her fitness to lead one of the world’s biggest economies and in the months since both party and leader have appeared somewhat deflated.
Le Pen arrived in Lille having vowed to ditch the tainted FN brand, seen as a key hurdle to winning power, in favor of an as yet unannounced new name.
The party canvassed 51,000 members last year about the name change proposal and on Saturday it emerged that just 52 percent had voted in favor among the 30,000 who responded. That compared with 90 percent of respondents wanting a referendum on continued EU membership and 98 percent wanting to cut immigration to France.
‘King of fake news’
Bannon, who has repeatedly expressed support for Europe’s far-right movements, fired the opening salvo at the gathering — after the head of Macron’s Republic on the Move party, Christophe Castaner, had earlier dubbed him “the king of fake news and of white supremacists.”
Bannon said he agreed with Le Pen’s expressed belief that “it is not about left versus right,” while blaming the media for having “always kept us out of power.”
Warming to his theme, Bannon added: “You argue for sovereignty and they call you a nativist. You argue for your freedom and they call you a xenophobe. You argue for your country and they call you a racist. But the days of that smear are over.”
Speaking earlier in Paris, former party head Jean-Marie Le Pen, replaced by Marine in 2011, dubbed the American’s visit “paradoxical” and “not exactly the definition of ‘de-demonisation'” his daughter has sought to give the party.
Marine Le Pen is running unopposed for a third term and her address Sunday will see her try to turn a page on the anti-Semitic, openly racist party of her former paratrooper father.
“Without a name change we will not be able to forge alliances. And without alliances we will never be able to take power,” she said last month.
Despite doubts voiced by some older party faithful in Lille, FN youth leader Gaetan Dussausaye insisted that the party had to “swallow its pride” as “the FN brand is still a block for voters”.
Observers said the party may keep the word “national” in a future label with “Rassemblement national” (national assembly) a putative alternative.
The soap opera squabbles of the Le Pen dynasty have long kept French media in thrall.
Jean-Marie Le Pen said that in losing heavily to Macron his daughter had “not been equal to the challenge” — a sentiment echoed by many FN members.
Others woes have stacked up since, including the party’s alleged misuse of EU expenses.
But party members credit Marine with massively expanding the party’s support, doubling its score from 5.5 million votes in the 2002 presidential election to 10.6 million, or almost 34 percent, in 2017.
Le Pen is hoping for a rematch with Macron in next year’s European elections by forming alliances with other eurosceptic parties around the bloc while banking on divisions at home between pro-Macron centrists and right-wingers tearing his party apart.