Marine Le Pen's National Front reluctant to look back on its 50 years

French far-right party faces dilemma over recognising milestone as it tries to shed past controversies

Marine Le Pen waves during French far-right party National Rally interparliamentary days at the Cap d'Agde convention centre, southern France. AFP
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For a political force that senses it may be only one election away from taking power in France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party is planning remarkably little fanfare for its golden jubilee.

A movement that began life as the Front National (RN), the creation of anti-immigration nationalists led by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and was renamed in 2018, will be 50 years old on Wednesday.

Given the electoral advances the RN has made and the spread of its influence to other European countries, most recently with the election win of Giorgia Meloni and her post-fascist party in Italy, it seems a milestone it could deem worthy of celebration.

But Ms Le Pen attaches greater importance to the semblance of respectability her leadership has brought over the past 10 and a half years, propelling her from marginalised extremes to the brink of presidency.

She has worked tirelessly, and with considerable success, to massage the party’s toxic image. Policies to ease the cost-of-living crisis have been prioritised without abandoning such core principles as a hard-line stance on immigration, Islamism and crime.

In April’s presidential elections, she increased her share of the poll from 33.9 per cent in 2017 to 41.5 per cent in the second round run-off, in both cases against a victorious Emmanuel Macron.

Few now doubt her ability to do even better, and possibly become France’s first female president, should she change her mind, having said she would not stand again if defeated this year, and make a fourth bid for the Elysee Palace in 2027.

A new breed of Le Pen supporters takes comfort in the belief that hers has become a “party like any other”.

But too open a commemoration of the anniversary could prove counter-productive by drawing attention to uncomfortable historical details.

Among Mr Le Pen’s co-founders in 1972 were former wartime Nazi collaborators, including two past members of the Waffen SS. He has been repeatedly taken to court accused of inciting racial hatred.

Moreover, Ms Le Pen’s 94-year-old father is now excluded from his own party, a consequence of his daughter’s exasperation with his repeated declarations minimising the Holocaust and Germany’s occupation of France. RN voters often justify their choice by stressing a distinction between the outlooks of father and daughter.

Details of exactly how the RN will observe the anniversary are unclear.

As recently as July, a senior party source was quoted by French media as promising a “special soiree with videos and — why not? — a concert”.

Now, the only publicised event is a proposed symposium at the French Parliament, where RN now packs unprecedented strength, with 89 members making it the biggest single opposition group.

A garden party at Mr Le Pen's imposing home in Saint-Cloud, on the western outskirts of Paris, appears to have been abandoned.

Approached by The National, one RN member of parliament, Philippe Lottiaux, who defeated a Macronist opponent in June to represent a stretch of the Cote d’Azur that includes the resort of Saint-Tropez, adopted Marine Le Pen’s theme of looking forward, not back.

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’’The past years have made us what we are today and are our roots, and that is important," he said.

‘’But nothing is frozen in politics and the commemoration of a party doesn't make much sense. This anniversary will, however, allow us to recall all the themes that our movement has put forward over the years.

‘’We have sometimes made the mistake of being right too soon and the anniversary will allow us to remember it.’’

Like many of his colleagues, Mr Lottiaux rejects the “extreme right” label routinely applied to the party.

’’There are two terms that are not appropriate, ‘extreme’ and ‘right’,’’ he said. ‘’I do not think that to denounce the evils of immigration savagery, the loss of sovereignty, deindustrialisation, loss of purchasing power of the French, insecurity etc, are marks of extremism.’’

Mr Lottiaux is reluctant to offer messages for “this community or that” and his outlook mirrors the conditional tolerance of Ms Le Pen.

“For me, there are no Muslims of France,” he said. “There are French and some are Muslim. As long as everyone respects the values and laws of our country, it is a duty to work for the well-being and full integration of our fellow citizens, regardless of their religion, colour or origin. On the other hand, if some feel more Muslim than French and want to impose the law of Islam in France, I consider that unacceptable.”

Neither Ms Le Pen nor Jordan Bardella, the RN’s interim president — as he concentrates on marshalling her parliamentary forces and the favourite to succeed her when delegates vote at a conference in November — replied to approaches from The National. Her father and the party’s communications director also offered no response to written questions.

Updated: October 05, 2022, 5:07 AM