National Front founder and former leade rJean-Marie Le Pen leaves the party's headquarters in Nanterre, near Paris, on August 20, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jean-Marie Le Pen may have been banished. But his ideas endure

The expulsion of the former National Front leader does not mean a shift away from his racist views. 

There’s no such thing as bad publicity goes the old adage and in the ongoing saga which currently pits the Le Pen dynasty against one another, it seems that may well be true.

Of course, family feuds and internal fighting within a party are never good for business, but when your business is staying in the news, and most significantly, affirming a distance from a toxic fascist legacy, the National Front could do worse than a summer "coup" to oust the notoriously racist party co-founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. He in turn has accused his daughter Marine - the party’s leader - of ordering his “political execution”, despite her decision not to be present during the deliberations by the FN’s executive office.

The French press has been dominated by the ousting which cements an increasingly public divide within the FN between JM Le Pen’s openly far-right ideas and Marine Le Pen’s attempts to mainstream the FN, by downplaying its racist roots and focusing instead on anti-EU, anti-austerity rhetoric, and emphasising a cultural exclusivism, with wide traction on the left and the right in France. The extent to which the conception of an “Islamicisation of France”, an idea with roots on the far-right, as well as anti-immigrant discourse, have wide traction in current media and political discourse in France today, is testimony to the efficacy of her strategy. But central to this mainstreaming has been the need to resituate her father within the party’s hierarchy, while seeking not to alienate his supporters and risk dividing the party, a move which could see JM Le Pen leave with a non-negligible percentage of the party’s loyal supporters. For all the party’s appeal to a more palatable image, it still draws committed support from the fringes. And the last split within the FN, in 1999, when a disgruntled Bruno Mégret set up a parallel party, the National Republican Movement (MNR), led to the FN’s worst showing in elections since the 1980s, with less than 6 per cent of the vote. Marine Le Pen is very conscious of avoiding any such outcome.

The FN’s leader has the 2017 presidentials firmly in her sight and key to her strategy has been asserting her leadership of the party, despite the hold of her charismatic father, and navigating the delicate task of retaining his core base of support, while distancing the party from some of his more openly racist views. It is no surprise that JM Le Pen’s most vocal opponent within the party has been Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen’s strategic director for her presidential campaign and the man in charge of the party’s communications, who described the move as “logical” despite the shock expressed by other members.

In May, JM Le Pen was suspended by the party after repeated instances in which he made racist remarks, including his description of the Nazi gas chambers as “a detail of history. In an attempt at damage control, the party announced a vote on a proposal to strip Mr. Le Pen of his honorary title of party president at its upcoming congress. It was during this congress that the patriarch was dismissed from the party, although thanks to a bureaucratic loophole, he does in fact remain the party’s honorary president.

Although the move had angered JM Le Pen and many of his supporters, it means that the firebrand MP – who won 33 per cent of the votes in the region Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur in the recent European elections– retains a formal association with the party, avoiding the real danger of a party split – for now. What’s more, he’s unlikely to disappear any time before 2019 given his role as an elected member of the European Parliament.

No one can say for certain to what extent the divide between Le Pen senior and his daughter is tactical or ideological. JM Le Pen’s closeness to his great niece, FN golden girl and France’s youngest MPMarion-Maréchal Le Pen, suggests that although it is possible the appeal of his founding views have skipped a generation, there may still be far more unity within the party’s ideals than is publicly revealed - and indeed, a significant stake for Marine in presenting the divide as starker than it actually is.

In response to his exclusion, Jean Marie Le Pen says he plans to question the competency of the executive office to dismiss him, as well as its partiality, while his lawyer dubbed the decision “suicide” for the party. All the commotion has dominated the French press where the infighting within the FN is often presented as a somewhat bemusing family feud.

In reality, the FN has become a staple figure on the media scene, where it has succeeded in normalising its presence and ideas thanks to a combination of astute rebranding, careful image management and an arid political scene where infighting within the right-wing UMP and utter indolence on the part of the Socialist party has left the way ripe for the mainstreaming of previously marginal oppositional voices. While Le Pen’s accession to the second round of the presidential elections in 2002, where he decisively lost against Jacques Chirac, was met with general dismay, political analysts are already predicting a strong show by the FN in the 2017 presidential elections. In a poll by the French agency Ifop in January this year, Marine Le Pen would have won the first round of the election had it been held then, with its leader gaining around 30 per cent of the public vote, significantly ahead of all hypothetical challengers.

The exclusion of Jean-Marie Le Pen is a fortuitous opportunity for the party to distance itself once again, very publicly, from its xenophobic tendencies, ahead of a presidential campaign Marine believes she has a real chance at winning. But whether Le Pen’s marginalisation reflects a shift away from the founder’s racist views among the party more broadly remains to be seen, with various FN MPs coming out in shows of support for the patriarch. To quote the MP Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, “Le Pen may have been excluded from the FN. Now to banish his ideas.”

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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