Le Pen’s rebranding of far-right party off to rocky start

Party founder, her dad, calls proposed name change a ‘political assassination,’ while survey suggests only bare majority of FN members support change

National Front leader Marine Le Pen attends the far-right party's annual congress in the French city of Lille on March 10, 2018. (AFP Photo/Philippe Huguen)
National Front leader Marine Le Pen attends the far-right party's annual congress in the French city of Lille on March 10, 2018. (AFP Photo/Philippe Huguen)

PARIS (AFP) — Marine Le Pen’s grand unveiling of a new name for France’s far-right National Front party didn’t go as smoothly as she’d hoped.

Unveiling plans Sunday to rename the FN the “Rassemblement National” (National Rally), the failed presidential candidate said the toxic brand was a key obstacle barring her from power.

Many voters who back her nationalist policies might have voted FN if not for the racist connotations clinging to the name of the party her father Jean-Marie Le Pen founded in 1972, she argued.

Despite claiming a record 34 percent of last year’s vote, Marine Le Pen has emerged weakened from the race against Emmanuel Macron and is badly in need of a comeback.

France’s former far-right National Front party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen (R) and his daughter and current party leader Marine Le Pen (L) on November 29, 2014 (Jeff Pachoud/AFP)

But enthusiasm for her renaming idea has been muted amongst party faithful — who, surveyed last year, only backed a name change by a slim 52 percent majority.

Web users were quick to point to uncomfortable similarities between her chosen name and the wartime Rassemblement National Populaire (RNP) party which collaborated with the Nazis.

“What’s the point of the name change — to clean up their image? Not sure that’ll go well, take a look at Google,” said one Twitter user, noting the RNP’s page topped search results for the new name.

‘Political assassination’

There was also confusion when it appeared that the FN hadn’t secured the legal rights to use the new name, still registered as belonging to one Frederick Bigrat.

A member of Bigrat’s nationalist group issued an angry press release condemning Le Pen’s move, but an FN lawyer confirmed Monday it had acquired rights to the name last month.

Meanwhile Le Pen’s father, booted from the FN for anti-Semitic comments after a long and highly public spat with his daughter, wasted no time in declaring the name change a “political assassination” of the party he founded.

The rebrand will be put to a vote of grassroots members, and losing it would be another blow to a leader who has been struggling to shore up her authority since the election.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen speaks during her far-right party’s annual congress in the French city of Lille on March 10, 2018. (AFP Photo/Philippe Huguen)

The 49-year-old ex-lawyer was elected unopposed for a third term at the helm of the FN on Sunday.

But there has been speculation that her telegenic 28-year-old niece Marion Marechal Le Pen — more hardline than her aunt — may be poised for a comeback that could undermine her.

Other woes include banking problems and criminal charges for tweeting pictures of Islamic State atrocities and over the alleged misuse of European Parliament expenses.

The FN boat sails onwards

The name change is the culmination of years of efforts by Marine Le Pen to “de-demonize” the FN and convince French voters that it is a viable party of government.

But her opponents, analysts and the press were united in concluding that while the FN’s name may change, its politics will probably not.

“The boat has changed its name, but it’s steering in the same direction,” wrote Patrice Chabanet in the Journal de la Haute-Marne newspaper.

Analyst Jean-Yves Camus predicted the party would stick “firmly to the right,” defending traditional “values, patriotism and a deep attachment to France.”

The surprise appearance at this weekend’s party conference of Steve Bannon, former right-hand man to US President Donald Trump, was a boost to Le Pen.

But critics said his speech had undermined her goal of putting a respectable face on the FN, after he told the crowd to “wear it as a badge of honor” if people call them racists.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen (R) applauds Steve Bannon after his speech during the far-right party’s annual congress in the French city of Lille on March 10, 2018. (AFP Photo/Philippe Huguen)

Like Macron, Le Pen has declared the era of left-right politics over, and her campaign balanced hardline rhetoric on Islam and immigration with tinges of left-wing statist economics.

Since her election defeat some analysts have predicted a possible return to a focus on identity rather than economic sovereignty, popular with the FN’s Catholic southern base.

But her conference speech in Lille offered a continued mixture of the two, urging a return to traditional values while also touting “economic patriotism.”

“To make people forget about the more scandalous aspects of the FN, the name would have to be accompanied by a shift in the program,” said sociologist Sylvain Crepon.

Le Pen has signaled that a key objective of the name change is to make other right-leaning parties less reticent to work with the FN.

But her offer of an alliance was again officially rebuffed by the right-wing Republicans Monday, despite former minister Thierry Mariani’s suggestion that it was not be such a bad idea.

“It won’t be enough to rehabilitate the National Front,” Republicans party spokesman Gilles Platret said of the rebrand.

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