Article by Cécile Alduy. Video by Nora Mandray, courtesy of Field of Vision.
The National Front is dead. The perennial bogeyman of the French political scene officially ceased to exist on June 1, 2018, when the party voted 80 percent to rebrand itself Rassemblement national (National Rally). The move came after months of brainstorming aimed at stopping the massive hemorrhage of sympathizers and voters that followed Marine Le Pen’s disastrous presidential debate on May 3, 2017, and the electoral underperformance that ensued.
Up until then, the party founded in 1972 by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen and a few far-right groupuscules had seemed on an irresistible ascent. Under his daughter’s stewardship, it had sailed downwind election after election and scored record highs. By December 2015, the National Front could rightfully campaign as the “first party of France” and secure 40 percent of the votes in its northern and southern strongholds after beating every other party in three rounds of midterm elections. All bets were off for the 2017 presidential race.
And then the bubble popped. A young up-and-coming new player, Emmanuel Macron, disrupted the entire political scene with his trademark movement “En Marche!” Running a campaign fuelled by Tupperware parties, evangelizing mega-rallies, focus groups and big data analysis, he made optimism hip again… and his opponents look old school.
But for the National Front, the fatal blow came from within. Marine Le Pen herself signed the party’s death certificate when she pulverized any shred of credibility left to her “Frexit” platform, a French exit from the Eurozone, in the final face-off with her nemesis the Europhile Macron during the nationally televised presidential debate. Within a few minutes, she sabotaged her chances to ever look—let alone be—presidential. She was unprepared, ill-informed, and aggressive. She had no coherent economic program. Her funny faces and schoolyard antics baffled even her strongest supporters. Unsurprisingly, she took a beating.
Her niece, National Front’s darling Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, once dubbed “Europe’s new rock star of the right” by Steve Bannon’s Breitbart, had the good manners to wait a few days before dropping “Le Pen” from her name to become simply “Marion Maréchal.” Within a year of the presidential race, the “FN” and “Le Pen” brands had become a liability.
Their legacy, however, has never been stronger.
Nicolas Lebourg, a historian of the far right and the author of a half dozen books on the National Front, offers this assessment: “Marine Le Pen has lost a lot of her symbolic capital, but maybe not that much of her electoral capital, and nothing of her cultural capital.” She might have failed in the ballot box, and damaged her public image, but her and her father’s ideas have only gained traction in recent years.