Since her rise in 2011 to leader of France's National Front, Marine Le Pen has made it a priority to moderate the party's far right image. In 2015, she went as far as ousting her father and the party's famously racist founder, Jean-Marie. Since then, her efforts have proven somewhat fruitful.
In 2017 she made it to the second round of the French Presidential election—since the French use a runoff for the top two candidates—against Emanuel Macron who headed a brand new party, En Marche. Once Macron’s victory became clear, Le Pen declared that the vote had been "between the patriots," like herself, "and the globalizers," like Macron.
While these anti-globalist attitudes were still too controversial to land Le Pen enough support to win—especially some of the more fanatical anti-immigrant stances—moderation had proven effective. In the wake of the election, though, she announced a further complete rebrand of the party.
Now, the National Front is known as National Rally, and it is more moderate than ever, though that sets a low bar, and Le Pen has better odds than ever at winning next year's Presidential election, according to polls. Regardless of the party's rebranding and Le Pen's personal popularity, recent regional elections served stunning defeats to National Rally.
In the wake of these defeats, though, Le Pen has been re-elected as head of the party, and she has her sights set on Macron's seat in Paris. While Macron's approval rating is low, it has improved considerably since its worst at the end of 2019, and he remains the election's favorite. However, another showdown between the two deepens uncertainty in France about the future role of political parties.
This is because parties seem to have little to do with the Presidential race in France now. En Marche was started by Macron in 2017, but it remains largely a political brand created as a symbol of Macron personally. National Rally's failures around France have shown the party's weakness in the country, but Le Pen remains popular, seen as a sort of humane face of a party which may be unable, even after rebranding, to shake the legacy of its founder.
If personality continues to run the political show in France, it becomes harder to know that one's vote is reliable. In office, party-less Macron has shifted rightward, leaving many 2017 supporters feeling betrayed. Le Pen's presidency would be similarly hard to predict. After all, though she has publicly softened, it wasn't long ago that she compared Muslims praying in public to Nazi occupiers.
Given that many members of her party seem to disagree with Le Pen's public moderation, it seems especially risky that French voters might witness a turn toward extremism if Le Pen finds herself in office and no longer needs to compete.
Without clear parties and solid party positions, voters may either disengage or support candidates often less on the basis of ideas than personal brand or image. Time will tell whether France is on course to demonstrate just how dangerous it can be when a democracy lacks strong parties and personality reigns.
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