World·Analysis

Marine Le Pen offering French voters a softer, gentler message

National Front leader is dropping both party and family affiliations — or what carried her all the way to the second round of France's presidential election this Sunday — in a last-ditch effort to win.

Anti-elite, anti-immigrant, anti-EU economic nationalism being 'de-demonized' to appeal to both left and right

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, immediately set out to make the far-right party more mainstream after taking over the reins from her father Jean-Marie in 2011. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Marine Le Pen is showing a little leg on her latest campaign poster.

As advertising goes, it's about as stripped down as it gets: "Choisir la France" — Choose France — is spelled out on a simple portrait of a woman in a sober blue suit. Fingers knitted by her side, she looks firm but friendly. In the bottom left corner, "Marine Présidente."

In a country that has a woman as its national symbol, the equation is obvious. But it's what's missing that's glaring.

No "Front National" logo. No "Le Pen."

In an effort to soften her image and appeal to more voters, National Front leader Marine Le Pen is billing herself simply as 'Marine' in the second round of France's presidential election. (National Front poster)

Both party and family affiliations — or what carried her all the way to the second round of France's presidential election this Sunday — have been dropped in an effort to win it.

Such rebranding is nothing new to Le Pen. After taking over the reins of France's far-right party from her father Jean-Marie in 2011, she immediately set out to make it more mainstream and rid it of its notorious anti-Semitic and homophobic elements.

In 2015, she even went as far as expelling her father from the party after he, once again, stated that the Nazi gas chambers were "a detail of history."

It's what has come to be known as the "de-demonization" of the Front National, and now she's doing it to herself.

Almost immediately after qualifying for the presidential runoff, Le Pen made her first bid to bolster the idea that she campaigns in "the name of the people" by temporarily resigning as president of her party.

Not a particularly effective move, according to Jean-Yves Camus, author and expert on France's far right.

Shifting positions

"If you say 'Oh, Marine Le Pen is not the chairperson of the National Front,' no one will believe that. She's been around for more than 20 years, and she inherited the party, and obviously we all know that after the election she will take back her position."

But it is precisely her positions that have been shifting throughout the campaign for the second round.

Jean-Yves Camus, author of Far Right Politics in Europe, says Marine Le Pen's resignation as president of her party was not a particularly effective move. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

The anti-elite, anti-immigrant, anti-EU economic nationalist has been softening, sometimes confusing, her message in an effort to extend her reach to both ends of the political spectrum.

Little talk about a referendum on remaining in the EU. Not a murmur about restoring the French Franc. Instead, accommodations are now apparently possible within the union.

"It's because I'm European that I believe it imperative to renew the European idea," Le Pen told the crowd at a rally in Nice on April 28.

More boldly, she adopted the revolutionary rhetoric of the far left, copping former rival Jean-Luc Mélenchon's motto to declare that she, too, is insoumise, a rebel who refuses to submit.

It was only one of many shout-outs she's made to woo Mélenchon supporters who took 19 per cent of the vote in the first round.

BFM-TV, France's high-octane 24-hour news channel, headlined the move Le grand écart de Le Pen, meaning Le Pen is doing the splits.

However, despite a meeting of minds on economic protectionism, Camus believes her appeal on the left is limited.

"It is very much far-fetched, because the anti-globalization left has an anti-fascist agenda. It has been part of their DNA for decades."

A nod to the right

Le Pen may have more luck mopping up votes on the right.

She's already gained the support of former presidential candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan who took close to five per cent in the first round. This makes him the Front National's first political ally ever (and places him just below the official requirements to have his campaign expenses reimbursed).

But it is with François Fillon's supporters, members of France's traditional right, that Le Pen's chances are perhaps greatest. In a dubious move two days ago, she appealed to them by plagiarizing entire sections of one of Fillon's speeches.

Caught out, Front National vice-president Floriant Philipot recuperated quickly, claiming the copy intentional, a wink to the Fillonistes they're courting.

Despite the cynicism involved, it seems to be working.

The big picture

Latest polls show the gap narrowing between Le Pen and centrist rival Emmanuel Macron. An Ipsos poll released Wednesday by the Le Monde leaves Macron in the lead with 59 per cent, but sees Le Pen gaining ground with 41 per cent.

French polls got the first round right and, despite her gains, Macron still has a sizeable lead. But he hasn't been able to create a "Republican Front" to oppose Le Pen. So many foresee, and fear, the possibility of a Le Pen victory.

Even Camus admits it, despite his firm belief that the math just doesn't add up. 

Looking further ahead, he also has words of caution for his compatriots, and for Macron should he be elected president.

"The big picture here is bringing back employment …. So, if Macron can, how do you say, take the necessary steps to have results quite quickly, positive results, in let's say, one or two years after he is inaugurated. That would be OK."

"If he does not succeed, then we have an election in 2022, and I think that the 'everything but LePen' idea will not work anymore."

About the Author

Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.