De-demonising the FN? A PR story

Political analysts and candidates are contemplating no other scenario: Marine Le Pen will be in the second round of the French presidential election, to be held on 7 May. One poll after the other invariably places her in the run-off.

According to a poll conducted by BVA Salesforce, published on 8 April, the Front National (FN) candidate is credited with 23 per cent of voting intentions, alongside En Marche! candidate Emmanuel Macron.

The FN’s success is not a matter of chance. Since she took over the reins of the party in January 2011, Marine Le Pen has been making a conscious effort to professionalise the organisation and meticulously police its image. It is the much-commented-on era of “dédiabolisation”, “de-demonisation”. She has no intention of failing, as did her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who, having made it to the second round in 2002, proved incapable of broadening his electoral base to defeat Jacques Chirac, and reached a ceiling at 17.79 per cent of the vote.

The rebranding of the Front National is centred on a communication strategy that leaves nothing to chance. The FN’s leaders frown on the “extreme right” label, preferring the term “patriotic”.

Do not look for the FN’s tricolour flame, an increasingly rare sight. It has been replaced by a blue rose, the campaign logo. The name “Le Pen”, which has too many connotations, has also disappeared.

It conjures up the blunders of her father, the “Menhir”, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who described the gas chambers as “a mere detail in the history of the Second World War”. On the campaign posters, “MARINE presidente” are only two words accompanying the slogan “Au nom du peuple”(“In the name of the people”).

Despite being expelled from the Front National in August 2015, Jean-Marie Le Pen has nevertheless given his daughter his backing.

The rallies are managed with an equally tight grip. Cameras cannot be allowed to capture images highlighting any association between this rebranded FN and supporters of a radical far-right. Skinheads or anyone bearing any outward sign of adhering to an identitarian or nationalist ideology are excluded.

Faithful to her repeated condemnations of the elites and the media, Marine Le Pen bans certain journalists from her rallies, such as those from Mediapart or Quotidien, the programme hosted by Yann Barthès on TMC.

A “respectable” facade

The campaign spokespersons appearing on radio and television rarely stray from the “Mariniste” line. Ranking first in this inner circle deemed respectable enough to speak to the media is the FN’s vice president, Florian Philippot. This “sovereignist”, a graduate of the ENA (one of France’s most prestigious Grandes Écoles), who gladly presents himself as a “Gaullist”, corresponds to the image the FN leader wants to promote.

Another of Marine Le Pen’s right-hand men is Jean-Lin Lacapelle, national secretary in charge of federations and implantation. Unctuously nicknamed “the cleaner”, his mission is to “professionalise” the teams within the FN. He vets prospective candidates for the legislative elections and rules out those deemed too close to Jean-Marie Le Pen or radical far-right organisations.

It is no small task: the party wants to present 577 candidates for the general elections, although it only currently has two members of parliament. Agence France Presse (AFP) calculated that by September of last year, 28 per cent of FN municipal councillors elected in March 2014 had resigned.

Jean-Lin Lacapelle was in Marignane (Bouches-du-Rhône) on 5 April, to officially announce his candidacy for the general elections in a winnable constituency, from a hotel close to the airport.

Wearing a navy blue tie, naturally, he recapped on his mission: “When the ship is pitching, you need to be able to rely on a solid team,” he said, by way of justification for the blackballing, after having presented a “patriotic” manifesto to a select group of journalists. “Sarkozy surrounded himself with Sarkozyists, Fillon by Fillonists; Marine is surrounding herself with Marinists,” he added.

The party regularly rids itself of its “black sleep”. In the middle in March, it was the regional councillor and FN party leader in Nice, Benoît Loeuillet, who was suspended over Holocaust-denial statements exposed in a documentary broadcast on a French TV channel.

“It’s a bit too easy,” says political scientist Jean-Yves Camus, the FN “suddenly discovers its bookshop [editor’s note: stocked with revisionist works] when it has already been there for around ten years. The party had taken it over because it was bringing in supporters,” explains the head of the Observatory of Political Radicalism at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès.

The control exerted over its members is, above all, about controlling what they disclose. Investigations, such as that conducted by Médiapart, reveal that old members of the Groupe Union Défense (GUD), a far-right student movement using violent methods, are gravitating around Marine Le Pen.

Her friend of twenty-five years, Frédéric Chatillon, former leader of the GUD, strongly suspected of anti-Semitism and head of the Riwal communication agency, is employed by the Front National as “print and web technical coordinator”, as revealed in the Canard Enchaîné of 22 March.

Another influential force from the radical far right, the “Identitaires” (Identitarians), have successfully managed to impose their ideas on parliamentary deputy Marion-Maréchal Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s niece, according to historian and political scientist specialising in the radical right, Stéphane François.

These movements support theories such as “major replacement” and “re-migration” (forced return of immigrants their countries of origin) and defend local more than national identity.

One example is Philippe Vardon, former leader of an identitarian organisation in Nice, Nissa Rebela. Now operating under the FN label, as regional councillor for Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur, he is campaigning for Marine le Pen. Vardon was sentenced in 2016 for his part in a fight in Fréjus. In Nice, he used to organise the distribution of soup, for the homeless, made with pork, to exclude Muslims.

A reworked but still nationalist manifesto

The Marine version of the FN has brought changes to some aspects of the party’s manifesto. Liberal economics, which “was an important part of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s doctrine,” as Stéphane François recalls, is being called into question.

Marine Le Pen, for example, is proposing retirement at 60, the repeal of the Labour Law and a “reindustrialisation plan”.... The party has won the blue-collar vote.

But this does not necessarily mean there has been a transfer of votes from the Communist Party to the Front National, explains Sylvain Crepon, a sociologist specialising in the FN: “There has always been a right-wing worker base, going back to the 1930s. It is a property-owning, lower middle class that is afraid of losing everything it has built up.” 

The party’s social rhetoric has taken on greater importance in this campaign as a means of opposing pro-European Emmanuel Macron or the right-wing candidate, François Fillon, who wants to cut 500,000 public sector jobs.

Another segment of the population previously scorned by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now being wooed by the FN are public sector workers. According to a study by the Sciences Po centre for political research (Cevipof), one out of four hospital workers could vote FN in 2017.

The FN is also winning over the Catholic electorate, especially in the west of France, thanks to the opposition to marriage equality. And although Marine Le Pen, unlike in 2012, has stated that she will not challenge the reimbursement of abortion procedures, Marion-Maréchal Le Pen, who is closer to this electorate, is opposed to it.

Marine Le Pen is also attracting women’s votes. “In 2012, during the previous presidential campaign, it was the first time men and women voted in equal numbers for the Front National,” notes Sylvain Crepon. Divorced and a lawyer, the candidate is promoting an image more in sync with modern-day society, which is also heightening her appeal among a younger electorate.

Whilst this Front National no longer, at least openly, challenges the “the Republican ideal, gender equality and the memory of the Resistance”, says Sylvain Crepon, it has not distanced itself from its key cause, the leitmotiv of its manifesto: the defence of national identity.

The party is advocating the closure of borders, the repeal of birthright citizenship, and the rejection of immigration and multiculturalism… On 13 March, she stated that “a portion of migrants and their children has gone to war against France.”

 

The terrorist attacks and threat are enough of a pretext for her to paint a picture of a France she wants to “bring order back to”, hammering home the message on her campaign posters. A France where “national priority” would be written into the constitution, be it with regard to social housing or employment.

Marine Le Pen has no intention of erasing these ‘anti-system’ positions as part of the operation to clean up the party’s image. Although seeking to recruit new voters from the traditional right, the FN does not want to lose its own traditional support base. If it were to fall too much into line, it would no longer stand out from the other right-wing parties.

It is a balancing act that is difficult to keep up. On 9 April, Marine Le Pen statedthat “France was not responsible for Vél’ d’Hiv”, the roundup of 13,000 Jews by French police officers, under orders of the Vichy regime, on 16 and 17 July 1942. The mask slipped.

PR cannot control everything.

This story has been translated from French.