France’s far-right National Front held a much-anticipated “refoundation congress” over the weekend to tout a new party name intended to downplay its anti-Semitic history and present a fresh start after months of internal chaos.
Instead, the divisive name offered by National Front leader Marine Le Pen is almost identical to a French Nazi-collaborationist party from World War II.
Le Pen proposed on Sunday the party should rename itself “Rassemblement National,” which translates to “National Rally.” Almost immediately after the big reveal, French media and experts on far-right groups noted the similarity to a party founded in 1941 to work with with the Nazis ― “Rassemblement National Populaire.”
As HuffPost France notes, Rassemblement National Populaire was an avowedly racist, fascist party with a symbol that closely resembles the Nazi’s swastika flag. Party founder Marcel Deat fled France as Allied forces liberated the country in 1944, and died as a fugitive hiding in Italy in 1955.
It’s unclear how Le Pen settled on the name, which bears some similarity to a political organization she started in 2012 called “Rassemblement Bleu Marine.”
Not Exactly New
Another issue with “Rassemblement National” is that a smaller French right-wing party already has that name, and its leaders accused Le Pen of “astonishing amateurism” for trying to steal its banner. An official from the Rassemblement National trademarked the name in 2013 with The National Institute for Intellectual Property, according to HuffPost France.
Le Pen, in turn, claimed that the National Front will sue Rassemblement National for copying her party’s red-and-blue flame logo in its materials. She tweeted Monday that the media should apologize for broadcasting Rassemblement National’s statements, and called the allegations ”#FakeNews.”
The Rassemblement National name was also previously used for a far-right party in the 1960s.
Le Pen’s ‘De-Demonization’ Effort
Going into the congress, Le Pen argued that French voters had a mental block against voting for the 45-year-old National Front because the name was so closely associated with its past leadership under her openly anti-Semitic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Since Marine Le Pen took over the party presidency in 2011, she has pursued a policy of “de-demonization” to mainstream the National Front. While still espousing anti-immigrant, anti-Islam views, Le Pen has sought to present a less abrasive facade for the party and has ostracized her father.
The refoundation congress was meant to be a culmination of these efforts, stripping Jean-Marie Le Pen of his honorary presidency and any negative connotations associated with the party name.
But Marine Le Pen’s plans haven’t gone as smoothly as she hoped, and the National Front was divided over whether to rename itself even before she announced her choice of Rassemblement National.
In a party poll on the name change, only 52 percent of members supported ditching the National Front title in favor of something new. They now will vote on whether to confirm Rassemblement National as the party name.
The National Front Struggles
The uproar over Le Pen’s proposed new name is yet another controversy for the party and underscores what experts describe as its debilitating lack of professionalism.
Despite being firmly entrenched in France’s politics and reaching record high levels of support in the 2017 presidential election, the National Front still struggles with building internal institutions, operating with an efficient bureaucracy and avoiding embarrassing blunders.
Since losing to centrist Emmanuel Macron in the final round of last year’s vote, Le Pen has failed to get the party back on track and capitalize on the over 10 million votes she gained. Key members of the party quit, including chief strategist Florian Philippot, and it performed poorly in parliamentary elections.
Le Pen’s answer to the party’s troubles has been to shift away from its contentious calls for France to return to its own currency instead of using the euro, while focusing on its core issues of opposing immigration and embracing nationalism. Le Pen hoped the refoundation congress would allow her to present her vision for the party’s future, but now she’s once again forced to distance herself from a dark past.