After the hard-right National Rally failed to win a single region in the recent elections, there will be a good deal of soul-searching at this weekend's party congress in the southern French city of Perpignan. Marine Le Pen is set to be re-elected as leader but her strategy of "softening" the party's image in a bid to broaden its appeal is under scrutiny.
Seventy percent of regular National Rally supporters didn’t show up to vote in last month's regional polls, depriving the party of the chance to win a region for the first time. The far-right group also lost more than 100 regional councillors in the process.
The weak showing has raised questions over whether Marine Le Pen’s strategy of “de-demonising” the party may have backfired.
When she took over leadership of the National Front from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2011, she began rebranding it as less toxic. She rejected the anti-Semitism and homophobia of her father, changed the party’s name to National Rally, ditched plans to leave the euro and said any bid to reintroduce the death penalty would be subjected to a referendum.
She has succeeded in attracting more women who now make up half of the party’s voters.
But the strategy of softening the edges to attract a broader electorate while trying to hang onto her father’s stalwart supporters was always a delicate balancing act.
Bruno Lerognon, a regional party official, resigned on Monday just after the election. In a letter sent to Le Pen, he criticised “an absurd strategy of opening up”.
Listen to the interview with Jean-Yves Camus in Spotlight on France
For Jean-Yves Camus, Director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the Jean Jaurès foundation and a specialist on the extreme-right, the blurring of lines between hard and mainstream right may have turned some voters away.
“Some of her voters say they do not want the National Rally to look like any other party because what’s the use of voting for a party that’s similar to those of the conservative right when you know that Marine Le Pen has much less chance of coming to power than the conservative right,” he told RFI. “So maybe the party has become too soft on some issues, including immigration.”
For Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Rally has to return to its roots to survive.
“Either Marine Le Pen goes back to the basics on immigration and insecurity” or the party will face “extinction” he said in a video broadcast on Wednesday, insisting the French far-right needed to get back its “virility”.
No going back
Camus says the back to the future strategy is “simply not an option”.
“There is no room in French politics for a party that belongs to the old extreme right. Jean-Marie Le Pen paid a very heavy price for what he said about the Jewish community and that the gas chambers were a detail of history.”
But Louis Aliot, RN mayor of the southern city of Perpignan, brushed aside the debate over the party’s “normalisation”.
“When we were more radical, we were told: you will never make it, and now that some people reckon we’re not radical enough, we are told: you’ll never make it,” he said on Sud Radio on Friday.
He preferred to blame the party’s defeat on low turnout, admitting “we have our share of responsibility”.
Whoever is to blame, there will be a good deal of soul-searching at this weekend’s party congress in Perpignan, the only town with over 100,000 inhabitants run by the RN.
Le Pen is expected to be re-elected as party leader as she’s the sole candidate in the running.
“The problem is there is no one, at least today, who is able and willing to challenge Marine Le Pen’s leadership,” says Camus.
He notes that Marion Marechal, Le Pen’s popular and more socially conservative niece, left the party. “If Le Pen fails in her election bid in 2022, Marechal may return,” he suggests.
One possible challenge may come from outside the party in the shape of hard-right editorialist and TV pundit Eric Zemmour who is hesitating over a presidential bid.
“He is much more outspoken on immigration and Islam than Marine Le Pen,” Camus says.
If Zemmour does run “he could siphon off the vote of disillusioned voters within the National Rally who are really focused on the great replacement theory, immigration and the death of traditional France.”
Stuck in the same strategy
Le Pen’s strategy may be faltering, but she has few options.
“There is no real alternative to the strategy that Marine Le Pen has decided,” Camus says. “If the party goes back to the old extreme right it will be a failure and there is no possibility of the party entering into some kind of alliance with the Republicans.”
Le Pen may be down, but she’s far from out of the race and will make her third attempt to reach the Elysée Palace in next April’s elections.
Polling shows a Le Pen-Macron face-off in the second round as the most likely scenario.
“Marine Le Pen wants to be elected and she thinks that she is ready to lead this country," says Camus. "And a lot of people inside the party have been waiting for decades to really come to power, to get responsibilities and change French politics.”
Deprived of power
But the way in which more mainstream parties came together in the second round of the recent regional elections, blocking the RN candidate who was in the lead in the PACA region, suggests there may be potholes on the path to victory.
Nonna Mayer, a specialist on the hard-right at the Paris-based Sciences-Po institute, agrees there are limits to Le Pen’s steady progression.
“Only 24 percent of the French consider she’s capable of being president of the Republic, less than a third of the French think her party is capable of governing,” she told news website Mediapart.
“I’ve always said that maybe the destiny of the RN is to be a strong party with a strong following of say 25-30 percent of the vote but without ever coming to power,” says Camus.
Despite Le Pen’s insistence that the party is very different from that of her father “it’s still seen by many people as too extreme”.