France

Le Pen rebrands

The French far right leader hopes to show a softer side

France’s far right attempts to clean up its image ahead of Presidential elections

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far right Front National (FN) party, inaugurated her new campaign headquarters in Paris on Wednesday. From here, Le Pen will manage her bid for the French presidency in April 2017 — on a platform to Make France Great Again.

Le Pen, 48, is broadly anticipated to reach the second round of presidential elections. She told CNN this week that Donald Trump’s surprise election will deliver a boost to her campaign.

Le Pen’s popularity has been buoyed by a Front National re-branding, which has seen the party marry its historic anti-immigrant rhetoric with language borrowed from the Left about the fragility of the French welfare state and the need to build France’s working class. In the FN’s formulation, however, it is not market forces, but rather Muslims and EU bureaucrats who put these institutions in jeopardy. In 2015, Le Pen stood trial for inciting racial hatred after she compared Muslims praying in the streets to a Nazi occupation. She was later acquitted.

As she opened her new offices, Le Pen also unveiled her new campaign logo: a thornless blue rose, lying on its side, with the words “Marine Présidente” written in soft blue and grey. The icon is understated, even delicate — hardly the traditional hallmark of far right iconography. The poster has no French flags or brash party slogans, and Le Pen explains in a Twitter video that the graphic has a “feminine nature.”

“In the language of flowers,” said Le Pen, “the blue rose renders the impossible possible.” The choice of flower borrows from the French Socialist Party (whose logo features a red rose) and the right-wing Republicans Party (whose color is blue) — in an effort, says Le Pen, to show that traditional political cleavages are “obsolete” in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world.

Almost more important is what the poster does not show: specifically, the name “Le Pen.” Since she took over the helm of the party in 2011, the leader has preferred to use only her first name, Madonna-style. This is usually interpreted as an attempt to distance Marine from the cruder politics of her father. The FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, was kicked out of the party last year for comments he made in which he dismissed the Holocaust as a mere “detail” of history and urged France to save the “white world.”

A week ago, Marine Le Pen emerged from several months of media inactivity to publicly congratulate Donald Trump on his US presidential victory. A longtime supporter, she said that Trump’s win “shows that people are taking their future back… It’s a sign of hope for those who cannot bear wild globalization. They cannot bear the political life led by the elites.”

Trump’s team has flirted back. Steve Bannon, the controversial Trump strategist and executive chairman of the conservative Breitbart News group, told French journalists: “France is the place to be, with its young entrepreneurs and women of the Le Pen family.”

Michel Thooris, a Front National politician who sits on the party’s central committee, told VICE News that “the French are waiting for a radical change. Marine is the only one to embody this hope… She is the only one who does not belong to the system.”

The general consensus in France is that Marine le Pen will do well in next year’s elections, possibly seizing up to 30% votes in first-round elections. But in the second round, she will face off against a centre-right candidate — likely Alain Juppé — and the rest of France will tactically rally against her; swallowing widespread distaste for Juppé’s Republicans in an effort to keep Le Pen out of the Elysée Palace.

But in a year of shock political results, some of Le Pen’s rivals worry that this scenario might not play out as planned. She can’t! She won’t!, the consensus holds. But could she?

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