This weekend Marine Le Pen proposed a new name for her party Front National: Rassemblement National. This proposal is part of a longer rebranding strategy of Le Pen. She wants to get rid of the extreme-right image of the party. If the history of this new name - Rassemblement National was the name of one of the French collaborationist parties under the Vichy regime of World War II - is indicative of that modernization, it does not promise any 'deradicalization' at all.
Le Pen, like father, like daughter?
In 1972, the French far right party Front National was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen. The party was established to unite various French nationalist groups. Jean-Marie Le Pen was known for his extreme right wing and provocative statements. In 1987, for example, he said that “gas chambers used to kill Jews in the Holocaust were “merely a detail of history”” (Chrisafis, 2015)
Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter, studied law at the Pantheon-Assas university in Paris. She has been a member of the party since she was eighteen years old. In 2011, Marine Le Pen became president of the party. Her aim is to 'de-radicalize' the party and to turn her back on the “anti-Semitic overtones” (Chrisafis, 2015) the party once endorsed. However, as its name already suggests, the party is still very nationalistic. Front National values economic protectionism, opposes immigration and has grown to be more sceptic towards the European Union throughout the years.
The less radical image of the party does seem to work though: the party has been growing ever since Marine Le Pen became president and during the last elections she beat her own record by getting more than 21% of all the votes (Sergent, 2017).
Marine Le Pen’s Message “Au nom du peuple”
Le Pen’s slogan is “Au nom du peuple’’, which translates to “In the name of the people”. She claims everything she is doing and will be doing, will be with the French people and for the French people. However, with only 21 percent of the votes, this claim is obviously not true. On her presidential campaign website, she stated that if she were elected president, she would restore France by carrying out the next eight points:
- Restore territorial, monetary, economic and legislative independence;
- Restore a strong state and re-establish the republican order everywhere;
- Reaffirm French values and the rules of secularism;
- Promote work, defend purchasing power and develop French employment;
- Organize tax justice and efficiency in the management of public money;
- Saving Social Security and guaranteeing pensions;
- Promote high quality education and training;
- To find an influential diplomacy at the service of the power of the country.
These points would have to make France and the lives of its people better and therefore restore France and make it the country Le Pen would like it to become. Her way to win votes is to say she is doing everything in the name of the French people, but that only applies to a small amount of the French population, since most people do not support her. She said that to really change France, the initiative will come from the people, that is to say from the heart of the country. This is the first factor that points towards populism, which we will get back to later in this article.
Image and Message Politics showed in Media
Through her visibility in the media, Marine Le Pen was able to portray a character that demonstrates her image, message, and style (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012). The identity she expresses in this way is a strategy of political marketing and branding, to create more attention for the idea of her political character.
On various social media platforms, she has displayed the political message she wants to send to the audience. She's demonstrated on numerous occasions that she has an empathic, strong and nurturing character. An example of this is the image she posted on her Twitter page of herself and a baby (figure 1). This image demonstrates her desire to be the leader of the people, as she isn't afraid to be in close contact with the locals in France. Le Pen is showing that she understands her audience. Clear indications of this are given by her leaning in and smiling, displaying that she wants to know the issues to act upon and find the solution for her electorate. The concept of 'issues and solving them' matters, as this idea of improving society is appealing, and in addition to that, it embraces her image to show the morals acted upon by Le Pen. Moreover, the image strengthens her slogan 'in the name of the people' as well, as it pictures her in the midst of the people. Pictured like this, she becomes the embodiment of her own slogan.
However, embodiment is not the only factor that comes into play with the picture above. Her appearance itself is also a clear indication of the identity of Le Pen. The items of clothing she wears, such as the navy blue blazer with simple long black trousers, show her as an elegant, focused and successful woman. All of these elements combined demonstrate Le Pen's trustworthiness to the public.
Creating such an image as is communicated in figure 1 has helped Le Pen and her party to appear deradicalized, whereas before they were seen as being extreme right. Furthermore, her campaign slogan “in name of the people” frames Le Pen as being fair and understanding. Both the twitter and the slogan example tie into Le Pen’s populism. The narrative framework suggests that she acts as the leader and the representative of the French. However, Le Pen’s political views with regards to right wing politics, and her anti-immigration and anti-globalization stances contradicts how most French people feel about these issues. The majority of the French prefer liberal, centre-left wing, and pro-globalization idealism, based on Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the 2017 presidential election. Therefore, Le Pen's claim to speak “in name of the people” can be true for her and her party, but not for the majority of the French population.
Another example of Le Pen's usage of the media is her tweet: “Bonnes vacanes à tous les chats…et à leurs maîtres MLP #JournéeInternationaleDuChat”, which means good holiday to all cats and their masters (figure 2). This tweet portrays Le Pen’s sense of humour and portrays her as being down to earth. Her sense of humour can then be picked up by her audience and win them over to become her supporters during a future political event. This demonstrates how online media, such as Twitter, can also aid in deradicalising Le Pen's image of being an extreme right politician and instead show her as a normal citizen who loves cats and is compassionate.
However, the messages portrayed above can be interpreted in various ways, both positive and negative.Le Pen's supporters will see her message as something positive, because she is shown taking the French public seriously, whilst also being able to have a laugh every now and again. Meanwhile, those who oppose her may see her message as being negative in terms of not taking politics seriously or making herself out to be a populist like Donald Trump by discussing irrelevant matters. When media and politics mix together, it becomes political marketing that indicates the the politicians' discourse through their actions, words and appearances.
Marine Le Pen as a populist
Does all this talk of ‘the people of France’ (as can be seen in figure 3) make Marine Le Pen a populist? Populism is a complex concept; the definition of which has changed through the years. In the past, populism was used to describe left winged parties, but now the concept seems to focus on far right parties (Maly, 2017).
Populism is therefore best understood as a communicative frame and not as an ideology. Populists have to pretend to speak with the voice of the people. This does not mean that they actually are the voice of the people. You can see how Le Pen mobilizes 'the people' to legitimate her (radical) discourse. Her voice is what occupies the minds of her electorate. Giving a voice to their concerns, how radical, racist or anti-democratic they may be, is then framed as being democratic. As mentioned above, her slogan is ‘Au nom du peuple’. One way for Le Pen to connect to the people is via social media platforms. In figure 1, Le Pen shows her ‘love’ for the people. She tries to show the woman behind the politician. Le Pen is trying to bring across that she is therefore part of ‘the people’.
Several forms of populism can be distinguished in Le Pen's performance as a politician. Both Vox populism and algorithmic populism are present in Le Pen's representation. Vox populism is characterized by a type of communication that favours interaction and entertainment (Maly, 2017); this can be seen in the way Le Pen is interacting with her target audience through the use of social media and by appearing on television shows. Another characteristic of Vox populism is ‘clintonification’ (Maly, 2017), which means showing the person behind the politician. We can see that Le Pen is doing this as well, by posting pictures like those in figure 1 and 2. She is not only talking about the issues in society, but also presenting herself as a lovable, dedicated and motherly figure. Another thing that Le Pen is doing online, is trying to facilitate the people’s voice on these social media, as can be seen in figure 4. This indicates that next to Vox populism, algorithmic populism plays a role as well.
Enlightenment or Anti-Enlightenment?
Marine Le Pen is claiming to be a democrat, which can be seen in figure 3. She states that 'we are a democratic party' (figure 3), but is this the truth? What is it exactly that is behind Marine Le Pen’s ideology? Can we say that she speaks Enlightenment talk or even anti-Enlightenment talk? To answer these specific questions, we will need to take a look at her ideas and place them next to Enlightenment values. The Enlightenment is a period in history which changed the way we think of people and the world we live in. The human being became central in the world. An individual with rights should be at the basis of politics, if we believe in Enlightenment talk (Sternhell, 2009). The keyword behind the Enlightenment is equality. Without equality, there is no freedom. It should therefore come before any kind of law. This also means that individuals possess universal human rights, which should not be allowed to be violated. However, the opposing ideology is the anti-Enlightenment, which revolves around organic nationalism (meaning organic ‘natural’ nations make up the world), anti-materialism and anti-universalism. Within this way of thinking inequality is natural.
Marine le Pen’s discourse shows similarities to anti-Enlightenment talk. She speaks in a nationalistic and anti-universal manner. We can see this, for example, in her Twitter banner in figure 4. This also comes back in many of her Tweets and Facebook posts. Another thing that points towards anti-Enlightenment talk is her preaching for inequality. Marine Le Pen does not believe that immigrants should take advantage of France by being supported by the French government. She has even said:
“More and more are coming from the third world, taking advantage of our benefits. It’s a choice of civilization. I will be the president of those French who want to continue living in France as the French do.” from an interview at the rally in Marseille (Times, 2017).
Le Pen seems to care for her people and her country more than for immigrants who are known to be the outsiders of France. In figure 5 she states that she is fighting for 'France and the French people'. This quote strengthens our claim that Marine Le Pen is nationalistic. Her values and views have shown an ideology that opposes the Enlightenment values, which shows that her own values are most fit for the way the anti-Enlightenment views democracy. This indicates that Marine Le Pen wants a different kind of modernity than the ideas of the Enlightenment prescribe (Sternhell, 2009). Although she claims to be a democrat (figure 3), she seems to want a different kind of democracy. Marine Le Pen is a nationalist politician; she is opposed to the idea of immigrants (see the quote from the rally in Marseille) and globalization, where materials are simply reached out towards everyone.
Le Pen, the anti-democrat
Since Marine Le Pen became president of Front National in 2011, her aim is to deradicalize the party with the intention of gaining the support of more people. Although the party is, under the reign of Marine Le Pen, still very nationalistic, this new approach seems to work. Front National has never had more supporters than during the current leadership of Marine Le Pen.
Le Pen tries, in various ways, to win the hearts of the people of France, in order to gain their votes. She's stated that to make something change in France, the initiative has to come from the people, in other words: from ‘the heart of the country’.
The media are also used by Marine Le Pen to reach out to the people. She uses them to portray a character of herself; a character that demonstrates her image, message and style. The expression of her identity in the media is a political marketing and branding strategy, in order to create more attention for her political character. When comparing the ways in which Le Pen communicates with the people and her attempts to win votes with characteristics of Vox populism and algorithmic populism, you will find a lot of similarities. Therefore, Marine Le Pen can be called a populist. Moreover, her views are very similar to those of the anti-Enlightenment ideology. So although she claims to be a democrat, it is likely that Le Pen's kind of democracy might not be the typical democrat's idea of democracy.
Chrisafis, A. (2015, April 08). France's Front National plunged into family feud over Holocaust remarks. Retrieved December 4, 2017.
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Maly, I. (2017). Digital Media & Politics, Class 3.
Sergent, C. (2017, April 24). French election: Why Front National supporters are secretly disappointed with their leader Marine Le Pen. Retrieved December 04, 2017.
Sternhell, Z. (2009). The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition. Yale University Press.
Times, N. (2017, May 05). In Their Own Words: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Retrieved December 06, 2017.