On the brink of power: how France’s National Rally reinvented itself

<span>In 2015 Marine Le Pen (right) excluded her father (left) from the party he co-founded, after he repeated comments about Nazi gas chambers being a ‘detail’ of history.</span><span>Photograph: Valéry Hache/AFP/Getty Images</span>
In 2015 Marine Le Pen (right) excluded her father (left) from the party he co-founded, after he repeated comments about Nazi gas chambers being a ‘detail’ of history.Photograph: Valéry Hache/AFP/Getty Images

Political opponents of Marine Le Pen’s poll-leading National Rally are seizing on the far-right party’s history to try to mobilise voters against it in the run-up to France’s snap election.

Leftwing and centrist politicians have sought to remind voters that when Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, co-founded the party – originally named Front National – in 1972, its ranks included former members of a Waffen SS military unit under Nazi command during the second world war.

Pierre Bousquet, a former member of the Waffen SS Charlemagne division, was the party’s treasurer for its first nine years. Another early member had been in the paramilitary militia under Philippe Pétain, leader of the authoritarian, reactionary puppet Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis and ensured the deportation of one quarter of France’s Jewish population.

Sarah Legrain, of the left’s La France Insoumise party, told French TV at the start of the snap election campaign that “of course” the party was an heir to Vichy. Valérie Hayer, who led Emmanuel Macron’s centrists in the European elections, has also called Le Pen’s party “political heirs” to the Vichy era.

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The president himself has, however, previously cautioned against this approach. When his former prime minister Élisabeth Borne, whose father survived the Holocaust, told a radio station in 2023 that Le Pen’s party were heirs of Pétain, Macron appeared exasperated.

He warned that “history and morality” would no longer work to hold back the rise of National Rally (Rassemblement National – RN), which was already the foremost working-class party in France, and expanding its vote among young people and public sector workers.

“You will never make millions of people who have voted for the far right believe they are fascists,” Macron was reported to have told a 2023 cabinet meeting, suggesting that challenging the party must focus not on its past but its policy platform.

“We are not the heirs to Vichy, contrary to what everyone says …” Louis Aliot, a senior National Rally official, told Europe 1 radio at the start of the snap election campaign. “Mitterrand is the heir to Vichy, not us,” he said, referencing the former Socialist president whose earlier work for the Vichy regime became public in the 1990s.

The Front National was co-founded in Paris in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former paratrooper who had served in Algeria and previously been elected to parliament in 1956 as a supporter of Pierre Poujade’s anti-taxation protest movement. After his stint as the national assembly’s youngest MP, he founded a company that sold recordings of Nazi speeches and German military songs.

The Front National’s creation was intended to give the far right – which comprised several disparate groups including neo-fascists, militants known for street violence and those nostalgic for French Algeria – a more presentable, unified and electable face.

At the time Jean-Marie Le Pen was seen as a comparative moderate within the broader extreme right, presenting himself as holding a nationalist-populist line, which he later called the “popular, social and national right”.

The Front National made little impact in the 1970s but in the 1980s increased its scores, winning 10 seats in the European parliament, and, through proportional representation, 35 seats in parliament.

In 1987, Jean-Marie Le Pen described the Holocaust as a “mere detail” of the second world war. In the decades that followed he was convicted more than 15 times for hate speech and contesting crimes against humanity as he repeated negationist comments, including saying the Nazi occupation was “not particularly inhumane”. In 1996, he said he believed in the “inequality of the races”. He was fined by a court in Nice and convicted of “provoking hatred and ethnic discrimination” for telling a public meeting in 2013 that Roma in the city were “rash-inducing” and smelly. In 2015, he defended Pétain, whom he said he didn’t consider a traitor of France. He said France should get along with Russia to save the “white world”.

When, in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen made the second round of the presidential election, it sparked mass street demonstrations and tactical voting for Jacques Chirac, who won with more than 82% of the vote.

Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s youngest daughter, took over the anti-immigration party in 2011. She led a communications effort to try to normalise and “detoxify” it from the antisemitism and jackbooted imagery of the past, seeking to position it as a potential governing force, rather than a protest vote. In 2015, after her father repeated his comments about Nazi gas chambers being a “detail” of history, Marine Le Pen excluded him from the party, saying he was committing “political suicide”.

In 2018, she changed the party’s name to National Rally. The party recently took a case to France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’État, arguing that it should no longer be labeled far-right by the interior ministry, but its case was dismissed and France officially classes the party as far-right.

Marine Le Pen has kept the party’s essential doctrine, which under her father was known as “France for the French”, or “national preference”, and which she has renamed “national priority”. It means French citizens would be given priority over non-nationals for jobs, social welfare assistance and housing – a policy of “putting our own before others”.

Rights groups and constitutionalists say the doctrine is discriminatory and anti-constitutional. Last week, a court in Nanterre heard a case for incitement to discrimination brought by an anti-racism organisation and several rights groups against four party figures over a handbook for municipal councillors published in 2014, which recommended that “national priority” be applied to social housing.

The public prosecutor requested suspended prison sentences and large fines, saying there had been “a clear incitement to commit a distinction” between French people and foreigners. He added: “Politicians must be particularly attentive to the defence of democracy and its principles.” A verdict will be returned on 3 September.

Jordan Bardella, the National Rally party president, who hopes to become prime minister if the party wins an absolute majority in parliament on 7 July, wrote on X that the case and the state prosecutor’s recommendations were “a serious attack on the freedom of expression” over what he called a “commonsense measure, largely supported by the French”.

The party also seeks to tighten rules on French citizenship and remove the right for children born to foreign parents on French soil, who are raised and schooled in France, to later claim French nationality.

It has kept its long-running hardline on law and order, arguing that crime is linked to immigration. Despite dropping calls for a return of the death penalty, Marine Le Pen, who won the vote of 51% of police and military in the 2022 presidential race, wants to introduce a presumption of “legitimate defence” for police officers firing weapons.