'No going back': Le Pen stands by bid to sanitise French far-right

·4-min read

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen on Sunday stood by her bid to make her party more respectable at a National Rally congress dominated by the party's drubbing in recent regional polls, ten months from presidential elections.

Le Pen's National Rally (RN), which had been tipped for strong gains in last month's elections, was left floundering after failing to win any of the 13 regions in mainland France.

The results raised questions about Le Pen's strategy of trying to tone down her party's anti-immigration, anti-EU rhetoric and position it as a more mainstream force -- at the risk of losing anti-establishment votes.

Addressing a party congress in the southern city of Perpignan, a combative Le Pen insisted she had made the right choice in trying to turn a movement once synonymous with racism and anti-Semitism into a "responsible" party that was ready to govern.

"We will not go back to being the National Front," she said, referring to the party's old name, which she changed in 2018 as part of an image makeover.

Polls show the presidential election coming down to another duel between Le Pen and centrist President Emmanuel Macron, who faced off in the final of the 2017 election.

Macron, 43, has yet to announce whether he will seek a second term but is shown as comfortably beating Le Pen in a runoff if he does.

- 'We were right' -

Le Pen, 52, who is making her third bid for the top job, argued her greatest success so far had been "ideological".

"We were right about immigration, about society's descent into savagery, about globalisation and so many other subjects that dominate the political debate," she said triumphantly, noting that many rivals from the mainstream right now shared the RN's diagnosis.

On crime, Le Pen painted a dark picture of a country infested with "crime bosses, Islamists and mafias" and vowed to restore the authority of the state.

She also promised to hold a referendum on immigration if elected, to allow voters decide who they wanted to allow into France.

In a sign of party backing for her strategy of trying to make the RN more respectable she was re-elected unopposed Sunday to a fourth term as party leader.

One of her proteges, Jordan Bardella, was chosen to stand in for her as party leader during her presidential campaign.

The media-savvy 25-year-old, who flopped in the regional elections in the greater Paris region, is currently the RN's deputy leader.

- Protest vote dwindles -

Analysts say the key challenge for the far-right will be to get voters increasingly turned off by all politicians, including those on the fringes, to turn out on election day.

"They no longer go to vote just to say they are not happy," sociologist Erwan Lecoeur told France Info radio.

Le Pen made a special appeal to the anti-elite "yellow vest" protesters who staged often-violent demonstrations in Paris and other cities week after week in 2018-2019, winning several concessions from the government.

Many yellow vests saw the protests as a vindication of the power of the street over the ballot box.

"The only winner of Yellow Vest abstentionism is Macron," Le Pen warned.

It was Marine Le Pen's unabashedly extremist father Jean-Marie who sent shockwaves through France in 2002 when he beat a Socialist to land a spot in the run-off of the presidential election against the ultimately victorious Jacques Chirac.

Jean-Marie Le Pen was thrown out of the National Front (later renamed the National Rally) in 2015 after a series of anti-Semitic remarks.

- Macron dusts off pensions bill -

The most likely scenario of a rematch between Le Pen and Macron is by no means a foregone conclusion.

The regional election also shone a light on the weakness of Macron's fledgling Republic on the Move (LREM) party, which finished last with seven percent of second-round votes.

Both Le Pen's and Macron's parties have downplayed the significance of the regional election and attempted to regain lost momentum.

Macron is reportedly planning to resurrect a controversial pensions bill that he put on the back burner during the Covid-19 crisis, in an attempt to buff his credentials as a reformer.

The emergence of a strong candidate on the traditional right could sap him of support among centre-right voters.

Former minister Xavier Bertrand, who won re-election as head of the northern Hauts-de-France region last month, is among several current or former members of Nicolas Sarkozy's Republicans party aiming to turn the vote into a three-way race.