On the Scrappy Fringes of French Politics, Marine Le Pen Tries to Rebrand

LA TRINITÉ-SUR-MER, France — It was the setting for a simple origin story, or so it appeared. Marine Le Pen, the far-right chief aiming to be France’s subsequent president, got here to launch her newest marketing campaign in the seaside resort the place her firebrand father as soon as announced his personal bid for the presidency from the household house.

But the current journey to the household base at La Trinité-sur-Mer in western France, the place Ms. Le Pen posed for selfies with admirers, schmoozed with oystermen and took TV journalists on boat rides, was a crucial half of a rebranding effort towards respectability.

Steering the motorboat was Florent de Kersauson, a distinguished businessman who, after a long time of backing center-right candidates, was switching to Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally. By embracing Mr. de Kersauson, a former senior government at the telecommunications large Alcatel, Ms. Le Pen latched on to the sort of institution determine who may assist persuade voters that her social gathering was greater than a scrappy, household enterprise. And perhaps even assuage doubts about her competence to transfer into the Élysée Palace.

“The National Rally, formerly the National Front, has gone from being a protest movement to an opposition movement, and is now a government movement,” Ms. Le Pen mentioned.

A yr earlier than France’s subsequent presidential election, Ms. Le Pen, 52, is predicted to be President Emmanuel Macron’s major challenger in a rematch of the 2017 vote. For the previous 4 years, Ms. Le Pen has been making an attempt to rebuild her credibility following a poor campaign that was marred by an incoherent message and punctuated by a disastrous debate in opposition to Mr. Macron.

She has tweaked her financial message, shedding the social gathering’s opposition to the euro and European Union, a stance that alienated mainstream conservatives. She now talks of forming a authorities of nationwide unity by choosing the most competent, seasoned people, together with figures from the left, who would add gravitas to a celebration whose vp, Jordan Bardella, is barely 25 years previous.

Even as she hews to the social gathering’s harsh nationalist, anti-immigrant imaginative and prescient, Ms. Le Pen has redoubled efforts to “un-demonize” her social gathering, which has lengthy been related to the anti-Semitism, xenophobia, Holocaust denialism and colonial nostalgia of Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father and the social gathering’s founder.

Part of that has been an effort to humanize her. A flurry of current information studies revealed that she liked cats a lot she had develop into a certified breeder, specializing in Bengals and Somalis. The photos of her posing with the cuddly felines had been visible proof that the social gathering now not belonged to her father, identified for his fondness of menacing Dobermans.

Recent polls present Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron operating neck and neck in the first spherical of subsequent yr’s election, with Ms. Le Pen trailing by just some share factors in a second-round runoff.

Nicolas Lebourg, a political scientist, mentioned Ms. Le Pen, who’s operating for president for the third time, has struggled to bounce again from her shaky efficiency in 2017. While she projected a contemporary picture when she took over the social gathering from her father 10 years in the past, she faucets into fears operating by French society with out providing a optimistic imaginative and prescient for the future, Mr. Lebourg mentioned.

“It’s possible she’ll earn very good results in the first round, maybe even come in first, and then lose in the second round,” Mr. Lebourg mentioned, including that her projected robust exhibiting owed much less to her “charisma” than pessimism in France. “It’s more about the French fear of decline.”

The authorities’s poor dealing with of the coronavirus pandemic has undermined religion in the state and deepened a way of general national decline, Mr. Lebourg mentioned.

Mr. Macron has additionally been slowed down in a sequence of crises, together with the Yellow Vest movement. Attacks in recent months have additionally heightened fears of terrorism and accelerated Mr. Macron’s shift to the right to fend off Ms. Le Pen.

“I think I can win,” Ms. Le Pen mentioned in an hourlong interview inside her workplace at the National Assembly in Paris, the place copies of “The Philosopher Cat,” an illustrated quantity of feline-themed aphorisms, and a blue binder marked “immigration” and “security” lay on her desk.

To Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Macron was globalization’s candidate, whose presidency was one of “disorder, fragmentation and fracturing of French society.”

“Me, I’m the candidate of the restoration of the authority of the state,” Ms. Le Pen mentioned, including that she would shield France’s nationwide pursuits.

She has shed half of her populist financial agenda, particularly her proposal to drop the euro. She mentioned she now believed that the stability supplied by the widespread foreign money outweighed the negatives.

Keeping the foreign money is believed to assist Ms. Le Pen courtroom conventional conservatives, the identical group focused by Mr. Macron. “It’s reassured people who were worried by a position that made them think that it could have consequences on their assets,” she mentioned.

Her social gathering has gained additional credibility, Ms. Le Pen argued, in the local governments that her social gathering controls, largely in depressed areas in the north and south of France.

In La Trinité-sur-Mer, she launched Mr. de Kersauson, the former Alcatel government, as the head of her social gathering’s ticket in subsequent month’s regional elections. Getting extra defectors from the center-right — who’re financially higher off than the National Rally’s conventional backers, however who’re additionally feeling unsettled by the social modifications rippling by France — is one key to victory subsequent yr.

“Marine is a woman of her era, with the problems of her era, and she has the answers of her era,” Mr. de Kersauson mentioned in an interview.

Mr. de Kersauson, who situates himself on the heart proper politically, mentioned he would by no means have supported the National Rally when it was led by Ms. Le Pen’s father. But he mentioned he had slid towards Ms. Le Pen’s social gathering as a result of it was first to make the proper “diagnostic” about France’s issues, citing immigration and safety.

In the interview, Ms. Le Pen’s voice rose when she spoke about immigration — the pink meat concern that has sustained her social gathering’s rise, underneath each father and daughter. She mentioned authorities insurance policies had been too lax and blamed immigration for fragmenting French society, and giving rise to Islamism and terrorism.

“We can’t solve the problem of insecurity if we don’t acknowledge the idea that immigration is anarchic, and is the engine of insecurity in our country,” she mentioned. “When a plumber comes to fix a leak, the first thing he does is shut off the water.”

Ms. Le Pen needs to sharply scale back immigration and deport those that are in France illegally. Acquiring French citizenship needs to be made tougher, she mentioned, and contingent on respecting French “customs” and “codes.’’

“It’s also about the defense of the French lifestyle,” she added. “It’s about Americans not being French, French not being Italians. We each have our culture, each our identity.”

She additionally mentioned she had no issues with Islam, however vowed to crack down on Islamism, or any try to change French Republican values with spiritual legal guidelines.

But her critics see an issue in how she defines Islamism. For Ms. Le Pen, the Muslim head scarf is inherently an expression of Islamism, and sporting it needs to be banned in public.

“In France, we don’t wear the head scarf,” Ms. Le Pen mentioned. “France, it’s Brigitte Bardot in a swimsuit rather than women in niqabs.”

In La Trinité-sur-Mer, Ms. Le Pen’s message on immigration and safety appeared to resonate even amongst these nonetheless skeptical about her financial insurance policies and readiness to govern.

Guylène and Michel André, a retired couple who had come to see Ms. Le Pen launch her marketing campaign, mentioned they felt underneath siege in a altering France.

“We’re in France, after all, and we have the right to do what we want,” Ms. André mentioned. “We’re reduced to being cautious, not talking too much.”

But Mr. Lebourg, the political scientist, mentioned that Ms. Le Pen wants to broaden her enchantment.

In the interview, Ms. Le Pen described herself as “very discreet,” and mentioned she needed to open up extra about herself earlier than the election. “I think many people feel they’ve known me for a long time, but they don’t know me well,” she mentioned. “Maybe they believe they know me because they got to know me through my father.”

She mentioned she had reconciled together with her father, who’s 93 and whom she expelled from the social gathering in 2015 for making anti-Semitic remarks. The yr earlier than, she mentioned she had moved out of the household residence close to Paris after one of her father’s canines — a rescue, not a Doberman, as some French media initially reported — killed one of her cats.

Ms. Le Pen mentioned that canine was light, as had been her father’s Dobermans. “We shouldn’t indulge in caricatures,” she mentioned. “Dobermans have a vicious image, but, in fact, they’re very gentle dogs.”

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