After re-election, Le Pen suggests party could change name to National Rally
Kim Willsher in Paris
Marine Le Pen has been re-elected leader of the Front National and immediately proposed changing the far-right party’s name to Rassemblement National (National Rally), saying it must serve as a rallying call to new voters.
Le Pen said FN had moved from its roots as a protest group into opposition and was now ready to govern under a new name.
“I have thought and consulted long and hard on the name. It must carry a political message and clearly indicate our political project for France. It must imperatively include the word ‘national’,” she told the party’s conference.
“The nation is at the heart of our engagement and project, that is clear but it is not enough. It [the name] has to express our wish to rally people.
“It must be more than a project; it must be a rallying cry, a call for those who have France and the French at their heart to join us.”
Le Pen announced that party members would be asked to vote on the rebranding in the coming weeks. “It’s up to you to decide,” she told delegates.
For a political leader whose primary objective in recent years has been to soften FN’s image and shed its antisemitic, jack-boot image, the proposed name had unfortunate echoes of the Rassemblement National Populaire (RNP), an extreme-right collaborationist group set up by Marcel Déat, a “neo-Socialist, during the German occupation of France between 1941 and 1944.
Le Pen’s attempts to “de-demonise” the far right appeared to have paid off when she got through to the second round of the presidential vote last May. A chaotic and bizarre performance against Emmanuel Macron in the run-off debate, however, put paid to her slim hopes of reaching the Elysée.
The FN’s two-day conference in Lille, the first since the presidential defeat, was sold as an opportunity to rebrand the party and prepare for next year’s European parliament elections. Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon spoke at the conference on Saturday, saying “history is on our side and will bring us victory.”
Although Le Pen has partially sanitised the FN’s image, the clean-up operation has not been wholly successful. On Saturday a video released on the internet appeared to show one of the party’s parliamentary assistants, and a leading figure in the FN youth movement, shouting a racist insult at a security guard at a bar. FN said afterwards the assistant concerned had been suspended pending investigation.
In her long closing speech, Le Pen outlined the lines the party would take. Her tone was both strident and at times rambling, veering from high-horse morality to mockery and defiance and back.
“The party has put itself back on its feet, taken root and spread. Our fight is nothing less than a challenge for civilisation,” she said.
She attacked the EU, globalisation, the free market, Islamism and immigration. Sections on French values and traditions, the French language, national identity and heritage brought cheers and applause. At one point the hall erupted into chants of “On est chez nous” (this is our home).
“We are the last, and only, defenders of the French republic,” Le Pen said.
Rassemblement National is a semantic fusion of Front National and Rassemblement Bleu Marine, an association created by Le Pen for the 2012 legislative elections.
As well as its Vichy connections, the name was also used for a party created by Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, an extreme-right lawyer who stood in the 1965 presidential election. Tixier-Vignancour’s election campaign was run by Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and the FN leader from 1972 to 2011.
A questionnaire sent to FN members before the event suggested only 52% were happy with changing the party’s name – details of which were kept secret until Sunday afternoon – but the deputy president, Louis Aliot, said the FN name had become a “psychological barrier” to French voters.
The result of the poll of party members on the name change is not expected to be known for six weeks.
The conference approved a change of FN rules that stripped Jean-Marie Le Pen of his title as honorary president. He was thrown out of the party in 2015 after repeating antisemitic and racist comments for which he is notorious, but appealed against the decision. A court confirmed his expulsion last month.
On Sunday Thierry Mariani, a former MP with the centre-right Les Républicains, called for his party to seek a rapprochement with FN, saying the far-right party had changed.
However, a French government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, said FN’s makeover was cosmetic. “They replace Jean-Marie with Marine and perhaps tomorrow Marine by Marion [Maréchal Le Pen, Marine’s niece] but in essence nothing has changed,” Griveaux told Europe 1.
The appearance of Bannon at the conference divided FN supporters. Gilbert Collard, an FN veteran, said inviting Bannon was counterproductive. “We might try to avoid giving ammunition to our enemies that they can use dishonestly against us,” he said.