In securing members' approval for her proposal to change the party's name, Front National leader Marine Le Pen won a small but useful victory. After her worst year as party leader, she'll take wins wherever she can get them.
Mainstream appeal would broaden the party's support base, goes the argument, but also make it easier for other parties to co-operate with it
Le Pen and her allies have long seen the far-right party’s name as an obstacle to electoral advance. For many French voters, they argue, the Front National evokes the toxic, fringe, anti-Semitic party founded and led for decades by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie. Since succeeding her father in 2011, Le Pen has retained the core of the platform – hostility to immigration, Islam and European integration – while adopting protectionist economic policies and cosmetically detoxifying the brand. Mainstream appeal would broaden the party’s support base, goes the argument, but also make it easier for other parties to co-operate with it – a necessity in France’s two-stage electoral system, which rewards alliance-building.
The proposed new name, Rassemblement National (National Rally, or Gathering) echoes the name of the main Gaullist bloc (Rassemblement pour la République) from 1976 until 2002. It also recalls a hard-right collaborationist group (Rassemblement National Populaire) set up during the Nazi occupation of France.
The assumption that the party is in retreat is wishful thinking. Le Pen won almost 11 million votes in last year's run-off – almost twice as many as her father in 2002
Le Pen has had a torrid year. A shambolic performance in the final presidential debate against Emmanuel Macron last year epitomised a poor campaign. Her 34 per cent showing in the run-off was lower than many expected, and a paltry return of eight seats in the National Assembly the following month made a mockery of the party's claim to be the chief opposition force.
For all its problems, however, the assumption that the party is in retreat is wishful thinking. Le Pen won almost 11 million votes in last year’s run-off – almost twice as many as her father in 2002. Over the long-term, its support is on an upward trajectory, and none of the evidence from recent European elections suggests the populist surge is weakening. With a presidential election four years away, the party has time to recover. Its rivals have nothing to be complacent about.