At the Tours Congress of the French National Front party this week, the party's founder, Jean Marie de Le Pen (82) retired from active politics and transferred the reins of his party to his daughter Marine, a lawyer and mother of three. Marie Le Pen defeated her rival Professor Bruno Gollnisch by and over two thirds majority although the vote was less decisive in elections to the party Central committee. Gollnisch turned down the post of vice president. claiming that he wanted to present the keys completely to Ms. Le Pen. Some of the old stalwarts of the party are already leaving in the belief that the daughter is going to change things around and abandon essential parts of the ideology.
Le Pen is indeed trying to reposition the party away from the old far right that her father epitomized, particularly that he and Gollnisch minimized or downplayed the Holocaust. Le Pen pere was not above courting the Muslim vote saying, that there was nothing contradictory between Islamic belief and the Front ideology. He was also hostile to Israel, calling Gaza "the world's largest concentration camp". He also retained the anti-Americanism that was the calling card of the old far right.
Marine Le Pen would like to emulate the successes of the Dutch Freedom Party of Geert Widers and the latest electoral breakthrough of the Swedish Democrats by adopting the mantle of secularism and a defense of traditional values against the Islamic wave that is threatening to engulf Europe.
She has also made overtures to the Jews. After the brutal murder of Ilan Halimi by an immigrant anti-Semitic gang in 2006, she offered to march in protest of the murder and despite the protests of Jewish organizations she eventually did so with other politicians. Le Pen claims that due to Islamic influence one cannot teach English "the language of imperialism" or talk about the Holocaust for fear of offending the Muslims. She is placing her fears of Islam in the context of women's rights, gay rights and other liberal causes, again in line with the more successful political counterparts in Europe.
Part of the rebranding is an attempt to break out of the electoral ghetto. As long as France does not return to the proportional representation system employed during the 4th Republic and on a one-shot basis in the 1986 elections, there is no chance that the National Front can ever claim more than a handful of seats (in contrast to the European Parliament elections that are governed by proportional representation where the National Front is able to elect deputies, one of them being Ms. Le Pen herself). 12-15% of the vote is impressive but it will not even get you a Metro ride. Therefore the National Front has to become an integral and legitimate part of the French right able to horse trade between the 2 rounds of parliamentary and presidential elections to secure concessions and select common candidates.
This marks a major turnabout from father Le Pen's policy. It seems that Jean Marie de Le Pen wanted to sabotage the right more than to gain political power. Therefore, the National Front would frequently keep a candidate with no prospects of winning in the final round, setting up a fatal "triangle" of two candidates from the right against the candidate of the united left. This would ensure the victory of the left..
Jean Marie Le Pen expected with some justification that his party would only gather strength under a government of the left, whereas a credible right government that could successfully compete in terms of law and order, a crackdown on illegal immigrants and at least a show of maintaining French cultural values such as the ban on the Muslim face covering, could undercut his success. In the 2007 elections this actually happened when Nicholas Sarkozy stole a good percentage of the National Front's electorate. These voters eventually drifted back, out of disillusionment with Sarkozy, but it illustrated the limits and sterility of the go-it-alone policy.
If Ms. Le Pen manages to reorient her party and give it legitimacy, the polls show that there would be partners in the establishment right. Many in Sarkozy's party would like to strike alliances with the National Front. They have done the electoral math. In terms of issues, the number of people who have embraced the Front's positions on immigration, scrapping the euro and returning to the Franc, and of diminishing the influence of the European Union, has climbed appreciably.