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France’s Far Right Seeks Reboot Through Name Change, Unity Push

Marine Le Pen, National Front political party leader, attends a news conference, during the party's convention in Lille, France, March 10, 2018.

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon’s surprise address Saturday at a key far right party meeting in France gives a boost to its struggling leader, Marine Le Pen. While other European far-right movements are surging on anti-immigrant platforms, France’s National Front is weakened and divided. Le Pen hopes to rally supporters around a new party name - and possibly a new direction.

Far-right parties in Austria and Italy may be celebrating recent polls, but France’s National Front shows how fast politics can change. Less than a year ago, National Front leader Marine Le Pen came in second in France’s presidential election against current leader Emmanuel Macron, capturing a record one-third of the vote.

But today, the National Front is in disarray. Some of its top officials have quit. Some members have not paid their dues - and the new head of the more mainstream Les Republicains party is tilting rightward to lure others away. A recent poll shows the majority of French don’t want Le Pen to run for president again.

But Le Pen is betting this weekend’s meeting in the northern city of Lille will be a turnaround - partly by rebranding a party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the 1970s. National Front members get to vote on a new name for the party, which will be announced on Sunday.

"The National Front has grown up," Le Pen told French TV Friday night. "It has gone from a party of protest in its youth, to a party of opposition and now a governing party. Changing its name is one way to show this," she said.

The rebranding is part of a long effort by Le Pen to give the National Front a softer, more mainstream image since taking over leadership from her father seven years ago. The two have since fallen out, and the elder Le Pen was expelled from the party in 2015 over inflammatory remarks. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen hopes to strike alliances with other nationalist parties before European Parliament elections next year.

Some are not convinced her strategy will work.

Critics include Le Pen’s former right-hand man, Florian Philippot, who quit the National Front last year to form his own party. In a TV interview, he said nobody believes in the National Front anymore - not even Marine Le Pen. He said the party has abandoned its social fight and anti-Europe values.

But analysts believe the anti-immigrant, anti-globalization platforms that resonate in Europe today will continue to give the National Front meaning and votes - under whatever name it adopts.