Monday, March 12, 2018
Steve Bannon, the Front Nationale, and the Le Pen Family Feud
THE REAL NEWS TODAY IS STEVE BANNON IN FRANCE. He was in France last weekend to speak to the annual Congress of the Front Nationale in Lille, a region where the populist-nationalist FN has a lot of support. • • • BANNON SPEECH REPORTED BY BY FRANCE 24. The largest round-the-clock news outlet in France reported on Sunday that : "Former Trump aide Steve Bannon's shock cameo set the Front Nationale (FN) convention abuzz on Saturday. Leader Marine Le Pen is assured of re-election, running unopposed -- if not undisputed. Can Bannon's pep talk tame the 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 9:35 pm tweet Friday night by party executive Louis Aliot, Marine Le Pen’s companion -- that 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." • France" 24 reported that : "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 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!' ” • Steve Bannon was at his best on Saturday in Lille. He slammed central banks and central governments, Davos devotees, and crony capitalism. Bannon twice called Trump “our beloved President.” He touted cryptocurrencies as tools of freedom for a global populist revolt. Bannon, the co-founder of Breitbart News, described by France 24 as a "hard right-wing" news outlet, sought and received loud boos and whistles for the reporters present when he blasted the “running dogs” in the “opposition media” who were shocked by Hillary Clinton’s defeat. He urged the Front Nationale assembly to embrace the labels globalists hurl at them : "Let them call you racist, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it like a badge of honor. Because every day we get stronger and they get weaker.” Bannon concluded with “God Bless America. And Vive la France,” sending FN supporters leaping to their feet to cheer. • • • FRONT NATIONALE AT A PIVOTAL POINT. Bannon's speech was, according to France 24, "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." Marine Le Pen was described by France 24 as "hellbent on 'de-demonising' the Front Nationale in the public eye. She snubbed the shaved-head and bomber-jacket types who loved her father and set out an economic program that vilified the Euro as a currency and advocated a state that protects the vulnerable ["at least the ones who hold French passports," said France 24 in reference to the nationalist principles of the FN]. Reaping the rewards of 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 coined by Jean Marie Le Pen is a necessary next step, the last obstacle to political alliances that would finally carry the FN to power, said his daughter." She suggested the new name "Rassemblement National," that translates into English as "National Rally." But FN members seem skeptical. The party’s own unverifiable results show that only 52% of FN members bothered to return a questionnaire approving a name change. • France 24 paints a somber picture of the FN under Marine Le Pen : "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% score nearly doubled the result Le Pen père managed in his shock 2002 presidential run-off challenge. 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 appeared rattled against a cooler Macron -- has come to bear the brunt of the blame, shorthand for the collapse of her fortunes." Her answer to her critics is simple : "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." But, legislative elections last June saw the FN fall short of its objective of winning enough MPs to form an official group in parliament, demoralizing yet again. • Polling in the week ahead of this 2018 Congress, says France 24, "gives every impression that Marine Le Pen’s credibility bubble has burst. Only 16% of those polled nationally -- down from 24% a year ago -- think she would make a good president, according to a Kantar poll. In February 2017, 69% professed faith in her capacity for decision-making; just under half still do today. Only 8% 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. Front Nationale supporters, certainly, are keener on their party’s leader. But while 74% last year believed she had a handle on France’s troubles and how to fix them, only 57% still think so today." • Yet, perhaps the visible fall of Marine Le Pen reflects the meteoric rise of centrist Emmanuel Macron as he was elected French president last year, pulling moderates on the left and right alike on side and reshuffling the French political spectrum. As a result, Les Républicains, the country’s main conservative party, recently chose a new hardline leader, Laurent Wauquiez, who is "eager to attract FN voters, but has turned doan all prospects for a party alliance." While the French conservatives have always tried to woo the far right side, the ascendance of Wauquiez gives Marine Le Pen today "less political space to work with than she ever had before," according to France 24. • And, in addition to Wauquiez to her center, Le Pen has a fresh problem on the right, where politicians who have broken with what they see as a softened FN under Marine Le Pen are making more headlines than she is. 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 unruly niece, stole the spotlight with her star appearance at the CPAC convention in Washington, DC, following no less a conservative leader to the podium than US Vice President Mike Pence. Marion was elected France’s youngest parliamentarian at just 22 in 2012, but has occasionally clashed with her aunt on policy. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is a social conservative and devout Catholic and is said to be her grandfather Jean-Marie’s true protégée. Marion officially stepped away from party politics last spring, but France 24 says "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 stroll into the Trump Tower food court. Even party heavyweights seem to make little secret of the hope that Marion might pick up the torch someday, should Marine falter." • Family patriarch Jean-Marie Le Pen, meanwhile, is incensed that his daughter Marine would dare contemplate erasing his legacy with a party name change, and has called the move "treachery." After years of legal wrangling with his daughter after the FN expelled him for his continuing controversial remarks about the Holocaust, he finally backed down from threats to attend this Congress, by force if necessary. Ultimately, he said he didn’t want to “be an accomplice to the murder of Front Nationale.” Instead, France 24 says : "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 daughter 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 AND TRUMP IN FRANCE. The France 24 assessment is that Bannon was a "curious choice for a convention conceived to modernise the FN’s image and lure aboard the additional 16% 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." • It is true, as France 24 points out, that "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% of French voters viewed the Republican billionaire unfavorably, making the US President France's lowest-ranking foreign leader, 11% less popular than Vladimir Putin. Latching onto a Trump crony, even an ousted one, is hardly likely to stoke new alliances in France." • In addition, according to France 24 : "Bannon 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 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. 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. 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, without a word for Marine, who felt the need explain to her alt-right guest that French media were looking to foment rivalry between the two Le Pen women. To which Bannon replied, deadpan, 'We call that ‘fake news.’ ” • But, overall, even France 2' had to admit that, although far from a perfect fit, "for a party rank-and-file smarting from a disastrous year, just when they had gotten used to the Front Nationale punching above its weight, the burly interloper may have been just the cheerleader they needed, for now." • • • DEAR READERS, the Front Nationale, now the Rassemblement National, is going through a bad patch. It has not been easy for Marine Le Pen to fight off her iconic father and at the same time modernize and de-demonize the party she inherited from him. Jean-Marie Le Pen is a figure larger than life, brilliant intellectually, and often despicably anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi. But, he has been a dominant figure in French politics since World War II. Marine Le Pen looks and sounds a lot like her father, but she has scrupulously scrubbed his party clean of his hate, something the French press and other politicians will not give her credit for. She wants to be president of France and she recognizes that she must have the people who supported her father but all polished up and in fresh clothes to have any chance. • And, whatever fate awaits Marine Le Pen and the Rassemblement National, one thing is certain. She is a leader of the populist-nationalist wave sweeping over Europe. The European Union elites are terrified and divided by these 'upstarts' who call for the same changes that catapaulted Donald Trump to power in the United States. The 'upstarts' love him. • Tomorrow we will look at Italy -- the wayward elephant that the EU cannot ignore, and the probable consequences of the Italian March 4 election for the future of the EU.