Ex-Trump aide Steve Bannon’s shock cameo Saturday set France’s National Front convention abuzz. Leader Marine Le Pen is assured re-election, running unopposed – if not undisputed. Can Bannon’s pep talk tame the herd of elephants in the room?
So last–minute was the former White House strategist’s addition to the FN convention’s Saturday agenda — announced in a 9:35pm tweet Friday night by party executive Louis Aliot, Marine Le Pen’s companion — the program handed out to the press at Lille’s Grand Palais venue didn’t even mention the headline guest. But Bannon, ousted by Trump last August after seven months on the job, came ready to work the room.
By the end of a 35-minute speech that Bannon delivered without notes as he paced the stage — pausing for the French translation and the increasingly warm applause that greeted his every translated thought — audience members were stomping their feet in unison as they clapped. “We’re here to learn from you,” he said, more than once, as the crowd revelled in his flattery.
Bannon’s praised Le Pen’s ambivalence over the left-right divide, saying “she described it perfectly”. The more pertinent political split, he said, is whether “you consider the nation state as an obstacle to be overcome or as a jewel to be polished, loved and nurtured”.
“What I’ve learned [visiting Europe] is that you’re part of a worldwide movement that is bigger than France, bigger than Italy, bigger than Hungary, bigger than all of it,” Bannon said to enthusiastic applause. “And history is on our side. The tide of history is with us and will compel us to victory after victory after victory!”
Bienvenu à Steve Bannon qui vient s’adresser au @FN_officiel demain à notre #CongresFN2018 et rencontrer @MLP_officiel. Les peuples se réveillent et reprennent leur destin en main. Welcome to Steve Bannon who will address #FN convention in Lille tomorrow. #BannonLille pic.twitter.com/fs25DKQS86
— Louis Aliot (@louis_aliot) March 9, 2018
Slamming central banks and central governments, the “Davos men” and crony capitalism at turns, Bannon on stage in Lille twice called Trump “our beloved president”. He touted crypto currencies as tools to freedom for a so-called global populist revolt. A co-founder of the hardline right-wing Breitbart News, Bannon sought and received loud boos and whistles for the reporters present when he blasted the “running dogs” in the “opposition media” taken aback by Hillary Clinton’s defeat. The American entreated the National Front crowd to embrace the “globalists’” epithets.
“Let them call you racist, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it like a badge of honour. Because every day we get stronger and they get weaker,” he said, before concluding on a “God Bless America. And vive la France” sending FN supporters leaping to their feet to cheer.
The fanfare over Bannon is a distraction from the glaring paradox of this otherwise largely technical party convention, one poised to reinstate Marine Le Pen as leader even as faith in her leadership has indisputably waned.
She has looked to stir up excitement for the party name change she will suggest on stage Sunday, a rebranding set to put the 49-year-old’s indelible stamp on a party she took over in 2011 from her rabble-rousing father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded it in 1972.
Hellbent on “de-demonising” the National Front in the public eye, Marine Le Pen made a show of snubbing the shaved-head and bomber-jacket types fond of her father and touting an economic program that vilified the Euro currency and advocated a state that protects the vulnerable (or at least the ones who hold French passports). Reaping the rewards of nascent respectability in one election after another, she built a stable of elected officials at nearly every level of government. Advocates claim that changing the ostensibly sulphurous name is a necessary next step, the last obstacle to political alliances that would finally carry the FN to power.
But FN members seem sceptical. According to the party’s own unverifiable numbers, only 52 percent of members who bothered to return a questionnaire approve of calling the party anything else.
What a difference a year makes. Only 10 months ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s youngest daughter was runner-up to Emmanuel Macron in the race for the French presidency. Her 34 percent score nearly doubled the result Le Pen père managed in his shock 2002 presidential run-off appearance. But by 2017, Marine Le Pen had raised expectations beyond what the ballot box would bear. Her egregious TV debate performance on May 3 – when she was underprepared and rattled against a cooler Macron – has come to bear the brunt of the blame, shorthand for the collapse of her fortunes.
“Can one judge a political leader exclusively on the strength of one debate? I don’t believe so, just as one can’t judge a football player on the strength of one match”, she told reporters recently.
Next, legislative elections in June saw the party fall well short of its objective of winning enough MPs to form an official group in parliament, bruising morale yet again.
Polling in the week ahead of this convention has given every impression that Marine Le Pen’s credibility bubble has burst. Only 16 percent of those polled nationally — down from 24 percent a year ago — think she would make a good president, according to a Kantar poll. In February 2017, 69 percent rated her capacity for decision making; just under half still do today. Only eight percent of voters think she understands France’s problems and how to solve them, half her score only a year ago — and, critically, just about the same as Jean-Marie Le Pen when he was last in charge. National Front supporters, certainly, are keener on their party’s leader. But while 74 percent last year believed she had a handle on France’s troubles and how to fix them, only 57 percent still think so today.
A herd of elephants in the room
The centrist Macron’s meteoric rise to power last year, pulling moderates on the left and right alike on side, reshuffled the French political spectrum entirely. Les Républicains, the country’s mainstream conservative party, recently chose a new hardline leader. Laurent Wauquiez is eager to attract FN voters, but has snubbed the prospect of a party alliance. Le Pen today has less political space to work with than she ever had before.
Meanwhile, politicians estranged from Le Pen’s own party have been making more headlines than she has. Florian Philippot, Le Pen’s right-hand man for eight years before he quit the FN last fall, pulled no punches when he started his own rival party, Les Patriotes, last month.
Days later, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Le Pen’s prodigal niece, stole the spotlight with her star turn at the CPAC convention outside Washington, DC, following no lesser a conservative light at the podium than US Vice-President Mike Pence.
Elected France’s youngest parliamentarian at just 22 in 2012, Marion has occasionally clashed with her aunt on policy; a hardline social conservative, the 28-year-old devout Catholic is said to be her grandfather Jean-Marie’s truer protégé of the pair. Marion officially stepped away from party politics last spring, but she remains enormously popular within the FN and above the fray. French coverage of her CPAC jaunt recalled Marine’s own failed attempt to meet then-President-Elect Trump on a visit to Manhattan in January 2017, despite a curious foray into the Trump Tower food court. Even party heavyweights seem to make little secret of the hope that Marion pick up the torch someday should Marine falter.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, meanwhile, incensed that his daughter would dare contemplate erasing his legacy with a party name change, has called the move treachery. After years of legal wrangling with his daughter after the party kicked him out for yet more controversial remarks about the Holocaust, he finally backed down from threats to attend this convention by force if necessary. Ultimately he said he didn’t want to “be an accomplice to the murder of National Front”. Instead, the old man was due to spend Saturday afternoon at a Paris bookshop, signing copies of his new best-selling memoir. The 450-page opus is only the first volume of his autobiography, concluding in 1972 and not shy about praising Nazi collaborationist leader Philippe Pétain. And yet the FN patriarch still manages a snipe at his blond scion in the book; cataloguing Marine’s recent political misfortunes, her father writes, “She is punished enough as it is for us not to pile more on her. The sentiment that dominates when I think about it: I feel sorry for her.”
Bannon, an awkward fit
And so on the surface Bannon was a curious choice for a convention conceived to modernise the FN’s image and lure aboard the 16 percent of votes Marine needed to win the Elysée Palace last May.
Not exactly a fresh-faced up-and-comer, the American hardliner is hardly less sulphurous than Le Pen’s father. Moreover, the 64-year-old Bannon is on the outs with Trump and now ostracized even by Breitbart.
Indeed, aside from populist parties itching to emulate his longshot electoral coup, the Trump name is toxic in France. A Suffolk University poll last spring found 82 percent of French voters viewed the Republican billionaire unfavourably, making the US president France’s lowest-ranking foreign leader, 11 points less popular than Vladimir Putin. Latching onto a Trump crony, even an ousted one, is hardly likely to stoke new alliances in France.
Meanwhile, Bannon has shouted from the rooftops his admiration not for Marine, but for Marion, calling the youngest member of the Le Pen political dynasty a rising star as early as 2016. On Saturday in Lille, the assessment proved awkward. Standing next to Marine, Bannon was asked in a press conference after his speech whether the FN leader was herself similarly a star rising or one on the decline. Possibly misunderstanding the question, Bannon again showered Marine’s would-be rival for the party’s future in all-new superlatives.
Marion “gave, I think, except for the President of the United States, the best speech [at CPAC]. It was absolutely electrifying,” he said. “She is not simply a rising star on the right in France. She is one of the most impressive people in the entire world. And I can only see great things in her future,” he continued. “And France would be very lucky if sometime in the decades ahead she would come back and dedicate herself to get back into politics,” he finally concluded, full stop, without a word for Marine, who felt the need explain to her alt-right guest that French media was looking to foment rivalry between the two Le Pen women.
To which Bannon replied, deadpan, “We call that ‘fake news’.”
Far from a perfect fit, then. But for a party rank-and-file smarting from a disastrous year, just when they had gotten used to the National Front punching above its weight, the burly interloper may have been just the cheerleader they needed, for now.