The surge of the far-right Front National (FN) since Marine Le Pen took over the leadership of the party from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen is often seen as emblematic of a new dawn for the FN. Since his retirement from the leadership and his expulsion from the FN in 2015 over comments on the Holocaust, the party founded by Le Pen Senior has seen strong performances in the French elections. The preferred narrative of Ms Le Pen goes that her father’s racism and extremism is now in the past and the FN is a mature mainstream party of government without the ugliness that came with her father.
However her declaration that the expulsion of her father from the Front National draws a line under the bigoted past of the party and heralds an immaculate future, including the possibility of government, does not stand any intelligent scrutiny.
Her indignation at her father’s statement about the Holocaust being a mere ‘detail of history’ (a remark he had made many times before 2015) appears more like an elaborately choreographed attempt to detoxify the FN in the hopes of electoral success rather than anything principled. Le Pen Senior’s associations with Vichy enthusiasts, his collaboration with the right-wing terror group the Organisation of the Secret Army and his steady stream of Jew-baiting and racist remarks clearly hindered the party’s performance.
Her initiative to oust her father from the party and his position as honorary chairman has clearly delivered some of the intended electoral benefit. By removing the negative shadow of her father Marine Le Pen can get voters to temporally forget what he said everyday as a matter of course and make a vote for the FN easier to stomach. The strong first place results in both the 2014 European elections and the 2015 French regional elections probably owed a great deal to the rebranding of the FN.
But for all its talk of being the voice of the everyday Frenchman and the honest alternative to the two establishment parties of the Republic, this populism is transparently cynical. The FN is not the first far-right political party that has sought to sanctify its image with hollow attempts at moving away from the extreme into the mainstream.
Nick Griffin of the white supremacist British National Party appeared at precisely the right time as a more media savvy leader and scored for his party council seats in UK local elections and two seats in the European Parliament. Though the BNP duly disintegrated after its supposed ‘breakthrough’ what was surprising was how successful their strategy was. What also benefited the BNP was the British media’s fascination with the party and the unspoken desire to have the controversial outfit on the news regularly in order to generate high ratings.
The BNP was not alone in its ‘modernisation’ strategy of not drawing attention to the darker elements of the party’s intellectual heritage. The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has attempted to obscure its linkages to the Nazi era by presenting itself as an anti-establishment and modern political force. In recent elections the FPÖ has performed strongly amongst voters under 30 and in working class Vienna, demonstrating their appeal in Austria’s stale political system.
Marine Le Pen is pursuing the same strategy of gaining legitimacy by ditching indefensible positions and personalities in order to decrease the negative media coverage of the FN.
But the question for Marine Le Pen should be ‘why did you wait so long to condemn your father’s crude racism’? After all she had no problem being given plum positions within the FN under her father’s all pervasive control. No problem being elected to well-paid government offices and the European Parliament in her father’s name. And no problem inheriting the leadership of the FN by the grace of her father.
The FN has been here before in affecting a major facelift in order to improve its electoral fortunes. Under Le Pen Senior the FN made a dramatic shift in its economic policy that was transparently opportunistic. During the Cold War they were the champions of de-regulation, the free-market and staunch critics of welfare paternalism. Since then the FN has abandoned pro-capitalism and taken up protectionism.
Under Marine Le Pen the FN has targeted the former strongholds of the French Communist Party industrial suburbs and rustbelt northern French towns. While using much of the language of the anti-capitalist left it has successfully appealed to older and economically distressed voters mistrustful of globalisation. While certainly smart electoral strategy it just confirms the essential hollowness at the core. How else could one describe it when a supposedly nationalist conservative party steals its economic policy from the Communists?
Although she doesn’t mimic all of her father’s loathsome rhetoric she continues much of the same dubious and outright sinister associations of his. Under her leadership the FN accepted a €9 million ‘loan’ from a Russian bank, it seems, in exchange for a steady stream of praise for the Putin Regime. And despite her claims of modernisation and ‘de-demonisation’ she retains close friendships with more suspect far-right parties in Austria, Slovakia, Belgium and Germany.
She is essentially trying to place a more respectable façade over what still remains an intolerant chauvinism and a contempt for the French Republic. The Front National’s attempt to steal the mantle of Gaullism from the conservative Republicans is a cynical move to conceal past sympathies for Vichy and the French Empire. Le Pen Senior started out in French politics by opposing Charles De Gaulle’s withdrawal from the brutal war in French Algeria after all.
For all the talk of an irreconcilable split within the Le Pen family it may be that Le Pen Senior’s ousting from the FN and his condemnation of his daughter is actually designed to assist his progeny. In an interview on the BBC Le Pen did not bite when an interviewer repeatedly tried to goad him into attacking his daughter and her decision to expel him.
He also extolled Marine’s adherence to principal on a number of issues which suggests he may not be entirely on the out.
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