France’s National Front (FN) bears many similarities to Britain’s Ukip: a divisive but influential leading figure, a burning hate for migrants and the European Union, and a tendancy towards constant internal strife. So following Ukip’s implosion during and after last June’s general election it is not all that susprising that the Front National has been taking a similar path.
Since Marine Le Pen was beaten by Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the French election last May, a series of internal fights has unfolded at the FN. The most recent row is also the most important to date: Florian Philippot, the FN’s vice president and Le Pen’s close advisor for years, has resigned.
It has been weeks in the making: early in September, Marine Le Pen had repeatedly asked him to give up leadership of one of the party’s internal groups, “The Patriots”, which he developed as his movement until it was seen as a threat to the party’s unity – a far-right version of Macron’s En Marche movement, if you will. As he refused to proceed, Le Pen officially removed him from his duties.
“Saddened, I am leaving the National Front,” Philippot tweeted. He explained on TV that he had been made a “vice president of nothing”: “I don’t have a taste for ridicule, neither one for doing nothing, so I am leaving the party.”
Philippot, 35, had been one of Le Pen’s most crucial allies since he joined the FN in 2011 and the party’s biggest representative in the East that heavily votes for Le Pen. He became the face of the party’s “dédiabolisation” (de-demonisation) and relative openness on social issues. In a hilarious but telling episode, Philippot was recently criticised by FN members after he tweeted about eating at “Strasbourg’s best couscous restaurant” (for couscous is not a culturally French dish and FN die-hards would have rather seen him tucking into a good old choucroute).
Le Pen has claimed that Philippot’s political career is “finished”: “A tool like thus of the National Front, which is extremely powerful and with which one can share ideas (…) cannot be created in a snap of the fingers. All the ones who tried it have disappeared and it will be the case for Florian Philippot. This is the reason why I regret his departure.” In a letter to FN members, she denounced his “insulting and diffamatory attacks” against the party and promised them a “debate” on the future of the party.
There is nevertheless a reason she may soon regret the loss of her former advisor: Marine Le Pen is increasingly alone. Philippot’s resignation comes only three months after Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, left politics and her duties within the party. A long rival of Philippot’s, her brand of very socially conservative (even for FN standards) identity politics also had a strong following. They always fought internally but balanced each other out.
Now, with both gone, Le Pen will struggle to reach out to their different bases – even if, as she wants to believe, Philippot fails to take enough of her supporters with him. She has also lost credibility after her disastrous debate with Macron, where she appeared weak and confused. Within the party, many point back at the debate as the date she started losing ground.
Everyone in French politics seems to be launching their own movement these days. There is no proof that Macron’s political miracle can be replicated: Philippot, just like his hopeful peers, could completely fail to create any momentum.
But it’s the FN that is stuck: “Marine” had hoped to become Macron’s main opposition, but that role is being filled by far-left Mélenchon, who has positioned himself to lead the protest against the new labour reform. She has missed the boat, and the rats are leaving her sinking ship.