France’s Marine Le Pen plans party rebrand in hopes of populist rebound
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France’s Marine Le Pen plans party rebrand in hopes of populist rebound

National Front trying to shake off reputation for racism and anti-Semitism that has marked it for decades

President of the French far-right Front National (FN) party and member of Parliament Marine Le Pen looks on during a session of questions to the government at the French National Assembly, in Paris, on May 29, 2018. ( AFP PHOTO / Philippe LOPEZ)
President of the French far-right Front National (FN) party and member of Parliament Marine Le Pen looks on during a session of questions to the government at the French National Assembly, in Paris, on May 29, 2018. ( AFP PHOTO / Philippe LOPEZ)

LYON, France — France’s far-right National Front, trying to shake off its reputation for racism and anti-Semitism that has tinged the party for decades, is expected to approve a name change Friday as it seeks new momentum under leader Marine Le Pen.

Party members are widely expected to back the scrapping of the National Front name for Rassemblement National (Union, or Rally) at a congress in Lyon, southeast France.

“The National Front has become adult… its nature has changed. It has gone from a party first of protest in its youth, then an opposition party to a party of government,” Le Pen told French television after announcing the rebrand plan in March.

She is hoping to draw voters who back her conservative, anti-immigrant and eurosceptic agenda but who might have been turned off by the more incendiary views of her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“That has always been the party’s dilemma: try to attract the classic right while at the same time keeping the symbol of a National Front that hasn’t yet gone away,” Valerie Igounet, a historian specialising in the far right, told AFP.

This September 28, 2016 photo shows National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen in Mormant, near Paris. (AFP/Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt)

“Party activists might reject (Jean-Marie’s) more controversial comments, but many of them admire him for what he’s built,” she said.

Marine had already kept the Le Pen name off her campaign posters last year, and even her niece Marion Marechal, seen as a rising right-wing star, has stopped using the Le Pen name.

Marion Marechal (C), niece of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, delivers a speech on education in Paris on May 31, 2018. (AFP/Francois Guillot)

In a nod to the 48 percent of members who opposed a rebranding in a survey last year, the party kept its distinctive flame logo — which Jean-Marie borrowed from the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, one of his main inspirations.

He was eventually kicked out by his daughter over his repeated anti-Semitic comments, part of her efforts to portray the party as a mainstream and viable governing force.

Yet Le Pen has struggled to regain her footing since a stinging defeat by Emmanuel Macron last year, despite winning 34 percent of the vote — a record for her party.

She has faced financing problems as well as criminal charges for tweeting pictures of Islamic State atrocities and over the alleged misuse of European Parliament expense funds.

More recently she has been trying to win over leaders of other rightwing groupings ahead of European Parliament elections next year, so far without success.

Even some party lawmakers have abandoned her, including MEP Bernard Monot, who quit Thursday criticising the focus on only “security, the fight against terrorism and immigration.”

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