PARIS (AP) — What’s in a name? For French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a lot.
Len Pen wants to change the name of the National Front, the party co-founded by her father in 1972. The proposal she plans to make at a party congress Sunday symbolizes the ongoing makeover to rescue the National Front from the political netherworld it plummeted into after Le Pen lost last year’s presidential election to Emmanuel Macron.
A new name, a new leadership structure and new bylaws are being unveiled at the two-day congress in Lille with the hope the anti-immigration party can become relevant again.
And they’ll have a special guest: Steve Bannon, former Donald Trump strategist and architect of the U.S. president’s nationalist, anti-immigrant campaign platform, which echoed ideas that Le Pen has long championed.
Le Pen’s partner and National Front vice president Louis Aliot tweeted that Bannon will come to the congress and meet Le Pen.
Le Pen, the only candidate for National Front president, says the changes amount to a “cultural revolution” so the reshaped party can “implant itself, create alliances and govern.”
“We’re at a turning point … don’t bury us,” she said in an interview with France’s Le Figaro newspaper published Friday.
The new moniker, if approved by members during a mail-in vote, will mark the ultimate break with Le Pen’s father, who has called the idea a betrayal. Jean-Marie Le Pen also is to be scratched from the party’s books along with his title of honorary president-for-life, formally closing, if not ending, a bitter father-daughter feud.
The changes pave the way for a younger leadership circle to emerge, even if the party’s ideological foundation remains unchanged: nationalist, identity-driven, anti-European Union, according to Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far-right.
Since taking over the National Front’s presidency in 2011, Le Pen has worked to erase the footprint of her father — who has convictions for racism and anti-Semitism — to broaden the party’s appeal. Minutes after her May election loss to Macron, she announced plans for a full “re-founding” of the party.
Now, she must backpedal to undo errors of her own. Le Pen’s performance in a pre-election debate with Macron was widely seen as a decisive factor in her defeat, along with the party’s focus on abandoning the euro currency instead of core themes such as cracking down on what she calls “massive and surging immigration.”
The outcome of Italy’s election last weekend has energized France’s far right. The populist 5-Star Movement and the anti-immigration League both outdid traditional parties. The showing of the League, a National Front ally, “is a new step in the awakening of the people,” Le Pen tweeted.
An election next year for members of the European Union’s lawmaking arm will be the National Front’s first chance to test whether its rebranding strategy leads to a comeback. It won more seats in the European Parliament than any other French party in 2014.
“Since last Sunday, there really is the impression that the victory of the League gave new confidence, new hope to Marine Le Pen and other leaders who see a favorable historic tendency,” Camus said, citing Britain’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s presidential victory in the U.S. as similar guideposts.
However, Len Pen’s credibility is among the potential obstacles to a possible far-right comeback.
An annual poll published this week by the Kantar-Sofres-One Point firm showed Le Pen scoring lower on numerous questions. The percentage of respondents who agreed she would make a good president fell to 16 percent, an eight-point drop from 2017.
The National Front’s right and left flanks hemorrhaged after Le Pen’s presidential defeat. Her top lieutenant, Florian Philippot, who appealed to the euroskeptic contingent, departed to form his own party. Le Pen’s niece, former lawmaker and rising far-right star Marion Marechal-Le Pen, who attracted traditional Catholics and other social conservatives, dropped out of politics, at least temporarily.
The weekend congress is expected to erase one persistent problem for Le Pen — her unpredictable, bombastic father — by eliminating his title of honorary president-for-life from party statutes. The move is designed to skirt a court’s ruling that the title allowed Jean-Marie Le Pen access to high-level party events — even if he was legally removed from membership rolls.
After threatening to crash the congress, with armed guards if necessary, the elder Le Pen said he would skip it.
“I won’t go to Lille because I don’t want to become … an accomplice to the assassination of the National Front that will be underway there,” he told RTL radio.