Right-Wing Makeover: The Spindoctor Behind the New Front National

France’s right-wing populist party Front National stands to make significant advances in upcoming local elections and in the European vote in May. One reason for its current success is 32-year-old chief strategist Florian Philippot.

It is a cold, icy day in winter and Florian Philippot is strolling through the streets of Forbach, the town where he would like to be elected mayor. People hurry up to shake his hand, a store-owner hands him a cookie and the woman at a café next to the train station offers him a coffee. An old Tunisian man puts his arm around Philippot’s shoulders.

Philippot is the candidate for Front National (FN), a party designated as “extreme right” in France, but he is received with open arms on his walk through Forbach. Nobody blocks his path, nobody insults him. Who, after all, should be afraid of this nice young man?

“This is the first time I’m going to vote extreme right,” says the slightly over-exuberant woman behind the counter of a shop Philippot visits. “It’s not extreme right,” says Philippot. “Let’s just say it is a coherent choice.” A look of dismay falls over the shopkeeper’s face. “I didn’t mean it derogatorily. I just mean — it is certainly more extreme than anything that I’ve voted for before.”

Florian Philippot is a calm 32-year-old who is not particularly tall or handsome. His youth, however, lends him a trustworthy appearance. His polished shoes and well-tailored greatcoat makes him look like the elite-school graduate that he is. Philippot isn’t just any candidate. He is the deputy head of the Front National, the party’s chief strategist and the most important advisor to his boss, Marine Le Pen.

French voters will go to the polls for local elections in March, and Philippot hopes to win in Forbach, a town of 22,000 located on the German border. And his chances are decent. Behind Marine Le Pen, Philippot is the Front National’s most visible politician. He makes almost daily appearances on radio or television, where he comments on the political developments of the day and criticizes both the leftist government and the conservative opposition. When he isn’t being interviewed, he resorts to Twitter to spread his message.

Until just a few years ago, the Front National was considered to be little more than a collectino of unelectable, racist outsiders. Now, though, it is seeking to establish a reputation as a professional movement with friendly candidates and operatives. More than anyone else, Philippot is symbolic of the change. The party has never had a figure quite like him: He has been a high-ranking official in the Interior Ministry’s inspector general’s office and he is a graduate of the top schools HEC and ENA, where many of the country’s elite are educated.

Talking about ‘Real Problems’

Front National, by contrast, would like to withdraw from the euro zone and limit free trade, Philippot explains. It wants to reintroduce border controls and establish a process for holding referenda. “We are the only ones who are talking about real problems: unemployment, security and immigration.”

In its campaign platform, the FN promises to limit immigration to just 10,000 per year and to give precedence to the French over foreigners on the job market. But Philippot avoids that issue on this evening. Rather, he demands “intelligent protectionism” and calls for resistance to the austerity policies prescribed by Germany.

Applause erupts at the end of his speech and followers surround him in the hopes of getting a picture with their idol. A welder, who calls himself Eddy, won’t let go of his hand. He says he voted for François Hollande and can’t believe his stupidity.

There are two major reasons for the current popularity of the long-scorned Front National. The first has to do with the societal and political climate in France. The country is suffering from a widespread despair, with many people having lost faith in the elites. They fear economic decline and their country’s slide into political irrelevance. The FN understands these fears, and knows how to profit from them.

Just how explosive the mood in the country is can also be seen in the radicalization of the Catholic right. More than 100,000 people again took to the streets earlier this month to demonstrate against Hollande and gay marriage.

The second reason for Front National’s success is that it seems no longer to be the party that it once was. The party’s co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen once shocked people with the statement that the gas chambers were but “a detail of history.” Since January 2011, when his daughter Marine was elected party head, the Front National has undertaken a “dédiabolisation” — a “de-demonization.” They got rid of vocal anti-Semites among their members, instead focusing on the fight against the alleged dangers presented by Islam. And they have moved to attract left-leaning voters with welfare chauvinism.

Marine Le Pen is targeting the mainstream as a path to power. The country’s voting system makes it unlikely that she will one day become the president of France, but she could soon have control of more French European Parliament delegates than any other party.


Spiegel.de has the full article

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