How Marine Le Pen's Right-Hand Man Helped Make the National Front a Presidential Contender

Le Pen Philippot
It was "love at first sight" between France's far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen (L) and vice-president Florian Philippot, Paris, November 15, 2016. Benoit Tessier/REUTERS

Florian Philippot doesn't have the name recognition of a Le Pen, but for the French National Front (NF), he is almost as important in increasing its influence and appearance of electability as the family at the heart of it.

For the far-right party's leader Marine Le Pen, running for president in April and currently joint with Emmanuel Macron for first place in the polls, meeting Philippot was "love at first sight." The 35 year old is now her party vice president, heading up strategy and communications, and she has him to thank for the NF's leap into mainstream politics. Philippot was the driving force behind an impressive PR campaign from 2011 onward, and he had a key role in the expulsion of founder Jean-Marie Le Pen from the party in 2015.

However, though his efforts have met with success in the polls, his work faces suspicion within the party itself. Marion Marechal Le Pen, niece to Marine and grand-daughter of Jean Marie, for some the blonde, blue-eyed legacy of the party, opposes him on several political issues. Will internal divisions affect the NF's chances at this year's presidential elections?

Since joining the National Front in 2011, Philippot has reinvented the party's way of doing politics. Before he arrived, the NF was an ultimate antagonistic force in French politics, with weak media relations and poor scores at national elections to match. Philippot, as Marine Le Pen's adviser, helped turn the party into a political player, and made sure she made frequently appearances on French breakfast shows in 2016.

In charge of communication and aware he had to renew the party's image, his first decision as Marine Le Pen's campaign director for the 2012 presidential elections was to remove the name "Le Pen" from the party's posters—the name was too reminiscent of the French father of the radical right. From that moment on, it was only "Marine."

Under Philippot and Marine the party's electoral results kept getting better and better. While they were around 10 percent in 2010, the FN's scored third at the presidential elections of 2012, gathering 17 percent of the votes. Then, in 2014, the party gained even more, winning 25 percent in the elections to the European parliament.

Yet, Philippot's biggest achievement to date was outperforming the Socialist Party—PS—in the northern region of France at the 2015 regional elections ' first round. The de-industrialized region had been a socialist stronghold since 1972. He helped the NF swing the results by giving a new traditionally "lefty" spin to the party's economic program, using the idea of a "strong state" that protects workers and civil servants. That year, in the North, the NF made such a strong score—more than 40 percent—that the Socialist Party had to leave the race in favor of the Republicans to keep the NF from winning the region during a second turn.

A respectable face

Philippot's strategy always lay in distancing the NF from accusations of being neo-Nazi and homophobic. When Jean-Marie Le Pen questioned for the second time whether the Holocaust had happened in a 2015 interview, Philippot did all he could to have the party's founder expelled as a result. It worked. Outraged at being ousted, Jean Marie Le Pen took to the media claiming Philippot had "brainwashed" his daughter. By the time the regional elections came round in 2015, 16 potential NF candidates had been expelled from the party for homophobic, racist, neo-Nazi or neo-colonialist opinions. On the surface, the party seemed cleansed of its less mainstream affiliations.

Marion Maréchal Le Pen and the far-right's return

But Philippot may now have a solid adversary in Marine's niece and Jean-Marie's granddaughter, Marion Maréchal Le Pen. Contrary to her aunt and Philippot's efforts, she stands beside many of her grandfather's extreme beliefs. An member of parliament in the south east of France, the 27-year-old aligns herself with the party's older, harder lines, particularly on LGBT issues and women's rights. The return of old NF values could prove embarrassing to Philippot and his efforts to give the party a respectable face. By positioning themselves at odds with one another, Marion Maréchal Le Pen and Philippot represent two National Fronts inside the same party: the renewed NF of Philippot, aiming for the mainstream of French politics, and the ghost of a more traditionalist, rural and hardline NF from her grandfather.

The pair have already clashed on several issues, including LGBT and reproductive rights. Neither Marine Le Pen nor Florian Philippot took part in the Manif Pour Tous movement that organized events throughout to protest the same-sex-marriage law passed in 2013. Marion, on the other hand, appeared at anti-LGBT demonstrations throughout 2013 and 2014, and took the floor several times at the parliament to denounce the bill. In 2014, French tabloid Closer reported that Philippot was gay, something he said was an invasion of his privacy., He also said that the NF was neither pro nor anti-LGBT. However, in 2016, Marion Maréchal Le Pen reaffirmed her grandfather's anti-LGBT stance, when she said that homoseuality would "open the door to polygamy."

On women's rights too, the pair are at odds. Marine and Philippot seek to present the NF as the defender of women. As a result, their program for the 2017 presidential election does not mention making amendments to abortion rights, traditionally a target for the right wing (and previously on Marine's radar during the 2012 presidential campaign). When Marion argued last December argue that abortion should not to be funded by the state (as it has been since 1982), Marine Le Pen shut her down.

Reproductive rights will likely play a key role for the NF in 2017. The women's vote is important for success, especially for the party with the only female candidate running for president. Marine Le Pen knows it, and targets women more than ever in this presidential race. In early February, she released her official campaign video, where she emphasized her roles as a woman and a mother. In 1965, only 21 percent of women took part in the first round of the French elections. In 2012, they represented half of the French voters, 53 percent, and for the first time that same year, 18 percent of them voted for Marine Le Pen. Marion Marechal-Le Pen's traditional views on abortion and female contraception could turn off some female voters

For the NF, the opposing lines pose a risk for the future. While they could argue that two lines will appeal to twice the voters, a fractured party would be unable to function in the long run. Florian Philippot and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen are both young in the political world—whether Philippot, who has Marine Le Pen's ear, or Marion Maréchal Le Pen, who sees the name Le Pen as a badge of honor, eventually gains the advantage will determine just how far the far-right party will go.

Julia Guggenheim works for several French Broadcast organizations, including the TF1 Group.