France’s Far-Right National Rally Rebranded Itself. Here’s how. - The World News

France’s Far-Right National Rally Rebranded Itself. Here’s how.

For decades, the National Rally was the pariah of French politics — deemed so dangerous that politicians from other parties refused to engage with its members.

How much that has changed became starkly apparent this month: The R.N., as the party is known by its initials in French, dominated the elections for the European Parliament, crushing President Emmanuel Macron’s party and winning a third of the votes in France. Mr. Macron soon called a surprise snap election for the powerful National Assembly, and polls suggest that the National Rally might be poised to win those, too.

Jordan Bardella, the party’s president, is jockeying to become the country’s next prime minister — something that just 10 years ago would have been unthinkable. He is scheduled to face off against two adversaries, including Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, in a much-anticipated debate on Tuesday night.

If his party manages a big win in the election, Mr. Bardella could become prime minister, name cabinet members and derail much of Mr. Macron’s domestic agenda. (Historically, the president still sets foreign and defense policy.)

How did the National Rally evolve, rebranding itself so fully that it is now closer than ever to such a position of power?

Originally called the National Front, the party was founded in 1972 as the political arm of New Order, whose members believed democracy was doomed to fail. It included former Nazi soldiers, Vichy régime collaborators and former members of a terrorist organization that carried out attacks to prevent Algeria’s independence from French colonial rule.

Its platform called for restoring conservative family values and fighting communism. Later, it became fiercely anti-immigration.

The party’s founding president, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was openly racist, stating that races “do not have the same abilities, nor the same level of historical evolution.” He was repeatedly convicted of making antisemitic comments and publicly diminishing the Holocaust, calling the murder of Jews in the gas chambers a “detail” of history.

Although the party has changed — for instance, by expunging its antisemitism — it still sees being French, or Frenchness, as an ethnicity and makes a stark demarcation between natives and non-natives. It argues that French citizens should have priority over non-French residents in areas like social benefits, subsidized housing and hospital treatment, although many scholars say that runs counter to the French Constitution and republican ideals.

“The Constitution says you can become French if you agree and abide by the laws and legacy of the enlightenment — freedom of speech, civil rights for all,” said Jean-Yves Camus, the co-director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation. “Being French is not an ethnicity. It is values.”

For decades, other political parties formed a “republican front” — appealing to their members to vote strategically against the R.N. The most famous example was in 2002, when Mr. Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential elections and left-wing parties called on their members to vote for his conservative opponent, Jacques Chirac.

Mr. Chirac was overwhelmingly elected, and Mr. Le Pen got less than 18 percent of the vote.

In recent years, these strategies frayed as the party increasingly gained supporters, partly because the country changed and partly because the party shifted its image.

Mr. Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, took over in 2011 and strove to “undemonize” the party. She distanced herself from her father’s antisemitic statements, declaring the concentration camps “the height of barbarity.” Slowly, she has attempted to clean house — even ousting her father in 2015 — although some party members continue to come under fire for racist, antisemitic or homophobic comments.

In 2018, Ms. Le Pen renamed the party the National Rally and broadened its platform to include pocketbook issues.

The party’s roots were economically libertarian — calling for large-scale privatizations and for slashing the number of civil servants and income taxes, according to Gilles Ivaldi, a political science professor at Sciences Po University in Paris. Recognizing that most of its early supporters were from the working classes, the party began to shift — proposing many measures typically associated with the left, like expanding public services.

In an Ipsos Reid-Sopra Steria poll published in October, 44 percent of French respondents said they considered the National Rally capable of governing.

Beyond that, the party’s hard-line positions on immigration and crime have become increasingly mainstream. Last year, Parliament’s immigration bill incorporated many elements from the R.N. agenda, although the country’s constitutional court blocked many of the policies soon afterward.

Some analysts say that despite all of its housecleaning, the party retains a racist viewpoint. “The range of scapegoats have now been reduced to Muslims and immigrants,” said Cécile Alduy, a Stanford University professor who is an expert on the party. “That’s the DNA of this party — to view society and individuals not as free agents entering a social contract with others in a democratic society, but through the lens of origins — what’s in their blood.”

Ms. Le Pen named Mr. Bardella, 28, as the party’s president in 2022. Mild-mannered and impeccably dressed, he embodies the National Rally’s efforts to remake its image. Notably, analysts and many supporters say, he is not from the Le Pen family, which for some voters continues to evoke the party’s racist roots.

The son of Italian immigrants, Mr. Bardella grew up in the projects of the Parisian suburbs, crowded with poor families, often Muslim immigrants and their descendants. He has crafted a narrative — contested by some who note that he attended a fee-paying private school — in which the violence and drug dealing that he says he witnessed in childhood steered him to the party’s tough anti-immigration and anti-Islam policies.

Mr. Bardella has said that if he becomes prime minister, one of his priorities will be to drastically reduce immigration. He also says he wants to tighten security to fight crime and to cut taxes on energy of all kinds — gas, electricity, natural gas.

He has vowed to block access to free medical treatment for undocumented people, except during emergencies — part of the party’s goal of giving preferential treatment to French citizens over foreigners, even those who have lived in the country for years. He has also pledged to end the ability of children born in France to foreigners to automatically qualify for French citizenship when they turn 18.

On security, Mr. Bardella has promised to block people convicted of crimes from access to public housing and to cut state subsidies to the families of young people who are caught reoffending.

Over the past week, Mr. Bardella has deferred some of the party’s more costly or controversial proposals. Although banning Muslim head scarves in public remains a long-term goal of his, Mr. Bardella told the daily newspaper Le Parisien that it was not among the party’s short-term priorities. Also, a pledge to privatize publicly funded media outlets, which the National Rally accuses of being biased against it, has been set aside for later.

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