How Le Pen’s far-right party went from ‘de-demonisation’ to ‘normalisation’
Issued on: 04/08/2022 – 12:29
Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National is adopting a “normalisation” strategy in a bid to continue its long ascent after a seismic breakthrough in June’s French parliamentary elections – voting alongside President Emmanuel Macron’s party on its cost of living bill to try and present its MPs as the picture of professionalism.
Two months on, the shockwaves still reverberate from the French parliamentary polls. Rassemblement National (National Rally or RN) won 89 seats – an outcome no polls and precious few experts had predicted; an unprecedented performance for an outfit that got just eight seats five years before as the Front National.
For many observers, this marked the end of the front républicain, the French tradition of mainstream voters uniting against the far-right’s opponent in the second round to stop it winning. As such, the legislative elections showed the success of the strategy Le Pen used upon succeeding her father Jean-Marie in 2011 – the “de-diabolisation” (de-demonisation) approach, aimed at banishing its image as a neo-fascist rabble.
Le Pen expelled Jean-Marie from the party in 2015, saying he was committing “political suicide”, after he repeatedly dismissed the Holocaust as a “detail of history”.
She renamed the party in 2018 to move it on from her father – changing it from the Front National, with its fascist connotations, to Rassemblement National, reminiscent of the 1947 to 1955 conservative party Rassemblement du Peuple Français. This was not just any right-wing party but the political vehicle of Charles de Gaulle – leader of the Free French, anti-fascist hero and conservative icon – during his wilderness years in the Fourth Republic before he became the founding president of the Fifth in 1958.
After RN’s leap forward in the parliamentary polls, Le Pen has stepped up her strategy from de-demonisation to “normalisation” – a different kind of image change; trying to show that RN is not an insurgent force sniping from the sidelines without the competence to run things, but a grown-up party of government that can engage constructively with Macron’s executive.
Le Pen made her new approach clear on the evening of June 19, after the second-round exit polls had shown the extent of RN’s parliamentary gains. She declared that her party would be “respectful of the institutions and always constructive”. The next morning Le Pen underlined just how much she sees parliament as the arena for this normalisation strategy – quitting as RN boss to concentrate on leading the party in the National Assembly.
A few days later, she demanded a professional look from her group of new MPs, many of them political neophytes with backgrounds far from Paris’s grand institutions: “All the men have got to wear ties,” Le Pen insisted.
As the new parliamentary term got under way, RN’s Sébastien Chenu and Hélène Laporte became two of the National Assembly’s six vice-presidents – a natural development for the second-biggest single party in the house of parliament, but a difficult scenario to envisage even a few months ago.
After that symbolic institutional breakthrough, Le Pen used Macron’s cost of living bill as an opportunity to develop the normalisation strategy.
Le Pen made the cost of living the centrepiece of her muted yet effective presidential campaign, as she eschewed big rallies to focus on speaking to voters about purchasing power in France’s provincial towns and villages.
Le Pen is keen to maintain her party’s anti-system image – hence RN criticised the bill, saying it does not go far enough. But RN MPs backed it, helping it pass on Wednesday. During the preceding debates, the party’s deputies supported a range of unsuccessful amendments from other parties, including one from far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) firebrand François Ruffin. RN MP Jean-Christophe Tanguy said Ruffin’s proposed amendment was “common sense”.
It would have played badly for RN to try and put the kibosh on policies aimed at helping much of its electorate, noted Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University: “RN has to think about the big slice of its electorate that’s working-class; they’re precisely the sort of people that need help with the cost of living crisis.”
But strategic calculation also prompted RN to back the bill, Smith went on: “From Le Pen’s point of view it’s all about being a model pupil,” he said. “The process of going from de-diabolisation to normalisation is all about making a party with no parliamentary story really – when they got 35 MPs elected in 1986, the party’s previous record, they were always marginalised – into a serious party.
“This is the long game Le Pen is playing, looking ahead to the 2027 presidential elections,” Smith continued. “It’s not just about looking normal; it’s about looking grown-up. That’s what’s needed to win over other [more moderate] parts of the electorate.”
But RN’s normalisation strategy faces challenges. “Will its electoral base, driven by visceral anti-Macron sentiment and a broader anti-system attitude, accept this significant change to the party’s DNA?” asked Ipsos pollster Mathieu Gallard, speaking to Le Figaro.
The party’s organisation – centralised and personalised around Le Pen – will also be tricky to navigate as RN pursues its new strategy. “A normalised party means a party with plenty of local barons on the ground, and that means alternative power bases to the national leadership,” Gallard observed. “That’s going to be difficult for a party like RN to accept – highly centralised but, historically, also prone to schisms.”
Everyone expects Le Pen to remain RN’s dominant figure, but the two contenders for November’s leadership battle suggest two different ways of framing the normalisation agenda.
Le Pen’s young protégé Jordan Bardella grew up in the gritty Paris suburbs of Seine-Saint-Denis and has long focused his message on working-class voters in urban areas and France’s deindustrialised north, which became RN’s biggest constituency in the 2010s. Le Pen’s former deputy Louis Aliot represents an older generation – and tends to focus on RN’s other core constituency in the south, the first electoral base it acquired in the late twentieth century. Aliot won a landmark victory for RN in the 2020 local elections when he became mayor of Perpignan on the Mediterranean Coast.
While the differences between the two candidates are “small”, they are the product of their “different backgrounds and generations”, Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist in the far right at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès in Paris, told the French Senate’s news channel Public Sénat. “Aliot often points out that he’s been a member of the party since 1988 […] while also highlighting his experience running a city of 100,000 people. Whereas Bardella represents people who joined RN under Marine Le Pen’s banner after 2011.”