Call Me Marine: French Far-Right Chief Gets Personal to Win Vote

  • Populist leader campaigns under first name for 2017 vote
  • Far-right leader seeks to erase racist image to broaden base

Marine Le Pen.

Photographer: Franck Pennant/AFP via Getty Images

Marine Le Pen already disowned her father’s political past. Now she’s ditching his name as she seeks a new family of voters.

The National Front leader has stripped the family moniker and any reference to her party from her marketing material in an attempt to clean up her image ahead of next year’s presidential election.

Le Pen, 48, is trying to erase voters’ recollections of her extremist roots in order to break out of the electoral enclave that has so far limited her ambitions. While all polls suggest Le Pen will be the clear winner in the first round next April with as much as 30 percent of the vote, they also show she’ll struggle to attract people from outside her core support and then lose decisively in the runoff.

“She needs to reassure voters, to cajole them and dissociate herself from the Le Pen brand and its history of Holocaust denial and racism,” Yves-Marie Cann, head of the Paris-based Elabe polling institute, said in an interview. “This is a clear strategy to break the glass ceiling that so far has stopped her from winning any major executive political position.”

Le Pen crashed into that ceiling in December’s regional election when she was poised to achieve a major breakthrough. The party won a record 6.8 million votes in the first round but failed to claim either of its main targets as voters converged on her mainstream opponents to shut out the National Front.

Le Pen 2.0

After that setback Le Pen retreated from the spotlight, avoiding the press for months. For much of that time, her main media presence was a blog called “Diaries of Hope” and she returned to the national stage in September with billboards using pastel tones and close up, ethereal photographs branded simply “Marine 2017.”

“I have no reason to be ashamed of my name, but I believe there is a kind of closeness with the French people,” Le Pen said on TF1 television on Sept. 11. She said claims that she was racist are “unfair” and “sad” and that nothing in her 2017 platform is discriminatory.

It’s not just about marketing though. Le Pen has also adopted the language of the establishment parties as well as extending her networks among public officials and borrowing some of their tactics for influencing the media with off-the-record briefings.

“Going mainstream has for years been crucial in order to compete on level terms with the Socialists or Republicans,” Nicolas Lebourg, a researcher on far-right politics at the University of Montpellier, said. “She missed her chance twice, in 2012 and in the regional vote, to reach out to the bourgeois and the establishment voters. This time she’s put herself in position to get access to them.”

Softer Rhetoric

Le Pen wants to avoid the fate of her father, Jean-Marie who made the runoff in his fourth presidential bid in 2002 only to face a wall of opposition that handed Jacques Chirac a landslide win. She’s targeting an overwhelming victory in the first round to neutralize claims from her opponents that she’s not a legitimate candidate.

To achieve that, she’s focusing relentlessly on France’s weak economy and near-record joblessness, while progressively softening her rhetoric on immigrants, betting that she can count on her long-time supporters to turn out regardless.

Unlike in her 2012 presidential bid, Le Pen has studiously avoided using the words “Islam,” “Muslim” or “halal.” Instead, she talks about “enemies” and “fundamentalism” and the rise of communities whose “politico-religious morals” are a threat to France’s traditions.

She’s also made a decisive break with her father.

Marine started to distance herself from her Jean-Marie’s anti-Semitic views as soon as she took over the party in 2011. Last year, she expelled him from the party and publicly denounced him saying he was “totally at odds” with what the National Front stands for.

Fighter, Patriot

Le Pen isn’t establishment quite yet mind. She still talks about the dangers of “mass immigration” more than any other topic and warns that “France is no longer in the hands of French people,” while urging voters to let her fix that.

The National Front leader remains among the top-rated politicians in France, a TNS Sofres poll for Le Figaro Magazine showed Thursday. Twenty-three percent of respondents said they want her to play an important role in the country’s future compared with 38 percent for presidential front-runner Alain Juppe and 22 percent for former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s supplanted Le Pen as the most vitriolic opponent of immigration. 

Yet Le Pen’s image nationwide remains largely negative, with just 35 percent of the respondents having a positive view of her, according to a poll this month. A large majority said she is a fighter, a great orator and someone committed to the French people who will say things other politicians don’t dare to. But she’s also seen as intolerant, racist, overly critical and lacking in technical knowledge.

Perhaps some voters can still see the resemblance to her father.

Marine’s 2016 campaign slogan is “In the Name of the People.” Twenty-eight years ago, Jean-Marie’s was “Le Pen, the People.”

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