French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has proposed her National Front party be renamed the National Rally – le Rassemblement National – in a bid to try to improve its image and to help facilitate alliances with other parties.
“I propose that the National Front (FN) become the National Rally (Rassemblement National),” Ms Le Pen told an annual conference of members in the northeastern city of Lille. “But it’s you who will vote on it, it’s you who will decide.”
“Our goal is clear: power,” Ms Le Pen – who was re-elected as the party’s leader during the conference – told the crowd, who cheered her speech denouncing immigration and the European project.
“We were originally a protest party,” she added. “There should be no doubt now that we can be a ruling party.”
However, despite the push to soften the party’s image, many pointed out the echoes the new name has of the Rassemblement National Populaire (RNP), an extreme right collaborationist group set up by Marcel Déat during the German occupation of France between 1941 and 1944.
The idea of changing the FN’s name was approved by a narrow majority of members, with 52 per cent backing it, according to figures provided by the party. The party had asked 51,000 members a number of questions last year, with the idea of a name change being narrowly approved by the 30,000 people who responded. The new name will now be put out to a vote by members via post, which will take a number of weeks.
In an apparent reference to the fact the name change does not have universal support, Ms Le Pen claimed the National Front name had a “glorious” history, but “it is for many French people a psychological obstacle”.
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That 52 per cent was in marked contrast to the responses to two other questions, with 98 per cent saying they want to see immigration to France cut and 90 per cent saying they want a referendum on French membership in the EU.
Ms Le Pen, 49, is aiming to bury the FN name that has been associated with her father Jean-Marie since he co-founded the party in 1972. Ms Le Pen has been the party’s leader since 2011.
The name change is supposed to signal a new beginning for the far-right party, which is staunchly anti-immigration and anti-Islam, to enable it to try to gain power. Ms Le Pen garnered 34 per cent of the vote as she lost to Emmanuel Macron in a presidential run-off last year, the best showing ever for the party, but less than might have been expected. Ms Le Pen has been seeking ways to move the party forward since then with support stagnating.
Ms Le Pen has spent the last few years trying to clean up the brand of her party. To that end, the FN severed the final ties to Ms Le Pen’s firebrand father Jean-Marie during the weekend conference. Ms Le Pen had attempted to banish him from the party in 2015 after he repeated previous comments that the Nazi gas chambers were “a detail of history”. Mr Le Pen had appealed against the decision, but his expulsion was confirmed last month and he was stripped of his honourary president title during the conference.
Mr Le Pen called the proposed name change for the FN political “suicide” in a recent interview with Reuters.
However, despite the move to create a more politically friendly party, including toning down some of the anti-Euro rhetoric that does not have much support outside of the core members of her party, Ms Le Pen was quick to attack the EU and globalisation during her speech.
She said Mr Macron’s La La République En Marche, or On the Move, party were the embodiment of globalists cut off from France’s roots. “In Macron’s France, to be on the move is to be a nomad. Just like migrants and tax evaders,” she said during the speech on Sunday.
“Legal and illegal immigration are no longer bearable,” she added. As many far-right parties across Europe have, Ms Le Pen has focused her message on national security and immigration.
It seems clear that the rhetoric from Ms Le Pen, who is facing charges over posting images on Twitter of atrocities said to be committed by Isis, will not be moderated much.
A speech from a former senior aide to President Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, suggested as such as he appeared alongside Ms Le Pen on Saturday and told delegates that “history is on our side”.
“Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honour. Because every day we get stronger and they get weaker,” Mr Bannon told the audience.
Ms Le Pen’s strategy appears to have tempted some in the centre-right Les Républicains party to consider forging an alliance. “The National Front has evolved, let’s look at whether a deal is possible,” Thierry Mariani, a former MP, told the Journal du Dimanche. That notion was quickly dismissed by a party spokesperson.
However, widespread recognition will prove difficult for the FN. In an Ifop poll published over the weekend, 63 per cent of the French public said the National Front would present a threat for democracy if it gained power. Their case will not be helped by the party suspending one of its parliamentary assistants pending an investigation, after a video was released on Saturday appearing to show a racist insult being shouted at a security guard for a local bar.
Mr Macron’s government is also sceptical. “You can change the name, the logo, the wallpaper, but in the end it is a little family enterprise which serves the interests of the family Le Pen for 50 years now,” government spokesman Benjamin Grivaux told French TV. “Basically, nothing changes.”
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report