Marine Le Pen, Caught Between the Old and the New

Aaron Timms

Like Nigel Farage on the night of the Brexit referendum, hailing the Leave vote as a victory for “real people, ordinary people,” Marine Le Pen has long romanticized a certain idea of reality. “Real people” were at the heart of the Front National (FN) leader’s pitch to the electorate in 2012, and they feature heavily in her most popular campaign appeals this time round as well.

But what is real? Go back to 2012 and Le Pen’s message was essentially the same as it is today: a salty brew of jeremiads against the “Europe of Brussels,” globalization, and the French political establishment. In that year’s election, of course, Le Pen failed to qualify for the runoff, receiving less than 18% of the vote in the first round. This time, by contrast, she’s polling around 25%, dominates the digital debate, and has a non-trivial chance of becoming France’s next president. Has reality shifted in Le Pen’s favor, or has Le Pen shifted to accommodate reality? Have “real people” come to better reflect the imagined electorate of the FN’s deepest historical longings — an electorate that’s angry, impatient, hostile to outside influences and disgusted by “the system” — or has the FN altered its message to attract those voters who formerly might have been deemed beyond the party’s reach, or indeed, unreal?

The answer is a bit of both — and appropriately so, since having a bet each way is the defining feature of the modern Front National under Marine Le Pen. Ever since the party’s foundation in the 1970s, the FN has been caught between radicalization and normalization, ideological purity and electoral pragmatism — between hoping, on the one hand, that the electorate will radicalize to better align with the party’s philosophies, and taking steps, on the other hand, to normalize the party and make it acceptable to “mainstream” voters.

The process of the FN’s normalization — or de-demonization (dédiabolisation) — was begun under Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s founder, though it has accelerated since his daughter took control of the party in 2011. Marine — so anxious to expunge the baggage of the party’s anti-semitic and xenophobic past she’s shed, like Jeb! before her, the albatross of the family name — has worked hard to get the FN to project a more sunny, open, socially conscious, and less nakedly nasty and exclusionary, face to French voters. The FN under Jean-Marie Le Pen was like Jean-Marie Le Pen himself: a succession of haughty snarls, built on spite and nourished by failure. Today the party projects an image that aims for something closer to the personality of its new leader: direct, no-nonsense, unpretentious, at times almost friendly.

Marine Le Pen’s accelerated dédiabolisation of the party has not simply been a matter of policy and messaging; it’s also, and perhaps most importantly, been about people. Le Pen the younger has promoted a new generation of young technocrats — many of them former members of the mainstream parties of the center-right and center-left — and elevated several into her inner circle. But holdovers from the ancien régime remain. There’s now a durable division in the FN between the old guard — the senior officials who came of age in the party of Le Pen the elder — and Marine’s new generation. The old guard includes figures such as Wallerand de Saint-Just, Steeve Briois, and Bruno Gollnisch. The young generation includes deputy party leader Florian Philippot, a graduate of the HEC business school who began his political life as a disciple of former Socialist minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, Jean Messiha, an Egyptian immigrant and ENA graduate who also grew up as a chevènementiste, Philippe Murer, an economist associated with the circle of academic Jacques Sapir, and Sébastien Chenu, who served as chief of staff to former economy minister Christine Lagarde.

Inspired by Brexit and the U.S. election, Marine Le Pen has trumpeted the power of social media to overcome pernicious media narratives and advance her political message. “I see you every day, on Facebook, on Twitter, in chat rooms,” Le Pen told her supporters last year. “You make the debate come alive. You are intelligent, funny, convincing, and you don’t match in any way the portrayal the media wants to give of you. In 2017 I hope that, thanks to the internet, you will be a powerful strike force for democracy!” Social media has been a key part of Le Pen’s strategy of dédiabolisation; indeed, it’s been the main vessel for the strategy’s communication. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the FN’s young generation is leading the party’s drive to digital supremacy in this election.

The graphic above summarizes the digital contribution of the old and new guards so far this campaign. [Link to signals] The new generation, plainly, has done far more to drive engagement with Le Pen’s campaign online over the last year than the holdovers from the old party. Philippot, Murer and Chenu regularly figure among the top daily drivers of overall conversation online about the election. Le Pen’s young advisors are her online communicators-in-chief — and they’re a big part of the reason why the FN leader continues, with just over a week to go until the first round, to dominate the digital campaign.

But the old stagers are still there. And with them remain vestiges of the party’s unsavory past. Outrage rippled across the internet on Sunday after Le Pen claimed that France was not responsible for deporting Jews from Paris’s Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vél d’Hiv) during the Holocaust — despite former president Jacques Chirac acknowledging over 20 years ago the very opposite. The episode immediately revived memories of the FN’s rich history of anti-semitism and historical revisionism, according to which the gas chambers were “a detail of history” (Le Pen the elder) and Marshal Pétain was “not a traitor” (idem). Sophie Montel, one of the FN old guard included in Predata’s signal for Le Pen’s campaign, once agreed with Le Pen the elder’s stated belief in the “obvious inequality of the races.” The FN’s closet is replete with skeletons of this nature.

Nor does the closet only have skeletons; there are live creatures roaming around in there as well. Last month a party official was caught on camera denying the Holocaust, and in February a young advisor published a tweet describing Théo L., the young black man at the center of a police violence scandal, as “scum.” The internet giveth, and the internet taketh away.

Le Pen issued hasty condemnations of both statements above — the Holocaust denier was also expelled from the party — but her reluctance to agree to the French state’s responsibility for the Vel d’Hiv deportations shows that the FN, for all the professionalization of its campaign operations in recent years, remains caught between de-demonization and staying true to its historically demonic self. Too much nouveauté and Le Pen risks alienating the base. (Tellingly, her father is already on record as a hater of the party’s new technocratic turn.) Too much red meat dog-whistled in the direction of the base and new voters will flee. In a tweet, Emmanuel Macron described Le Pen’s Vél d’Hiv comments as a “heavy mistake” that revealed the “true face” of the FN; the tweet was among his most popular of the past week, helping the favorite’s digital engagement signal to its second highest level of the campaign so far.

Le Pen’s challenge is to “normalize” her positions just enough that she can conceivably win the support of more than 50% of voters in a second round runoff, but stay sufficiently radical that her candidacy will still be seen as an outlet for popular discontent over immigration, the EU, and the privations wrought by globalization. If the social media debate is any indication, “real people” are paying attention to Le Pen’s message. But reality is unlikely to be kind to her should further reminders of the FN’s roots surface in the coming weeks. ⏪

Aaron Timms is Predata’s Director of Research. Contact: aaron@predata.com.