This week, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right party the National Front, failed in her bid to punish a comedian who called her a "fascist" in a 2012 magazine column.
In fact, it went a bit further than that – a court decided that Nicolas Bedos was quite within his rights to refer to Le Pen not just as a "fascist" but a "fascist b----" in his writing. It was quite clear to readers it was a "deliberately provocative" statement, the court decided, according to Le Figaro newspaper, and the same column had also insulted other French politicians.
Whatever you make of Bedos's insults, it's unfortunate for Le Pen. Since taking over leadership of the National Front from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011, she has tried hard to portray her party as a right-wing populist party with a focus on immigration and the economy. To an extent, she's succeeded: The National Front is now seen as the third-largest party in France, and her populist style is being aped across Europe.
But no matter how hard Le Pen tries, her party remains tainted by the links between the National Front and the extreme right that have haunted it since it was founded by her father in 1972. Complicating matters further, Jean-Marie himself was accused and convicted a number of times of xenophobia and anti-Semitism over the years.
It's especially problematic for Le Pen, given France's two-round presidential system. Some polls have shown Le Pen as likely to win the highest number of first-round votes in the country's 2017 election. However, in the French system's second-round runoff, she would almost certainly lose, with her political rivals uniting around whoever ends up facing her. Le Pen may have plenty of supporters, but the majority of mainstream French voters still won't allow a "fascist" to be French president.
This isn't the first time Le Pen has fought against the "fascist" label. Last year, she failed in her attempt to sue French far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon when he referred to her as a "fascist." In that case, the court found that the word had "no insulting character when employed between political opponents on a political subject." Le Pen has also threatened to sue people who called her party "extreme" and got into a protracted spat with Madonna after the American singer portrayed the French politician with a swastika on her forehead during live performances and later, of course, called her a "fascist."
Part of Le Pen's problem might come from the fact that as much as the term is thrown around, there's no single, undisputed political definition of "fascism" out there. As George Orwell put it in a 1944 essay "What is fascism?" it can mean different things to different people. "It is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any color, are willing to make," he wrote. In the end, it seems that the closest Orwell could come to a definition was remarkably simple: A fascist was merely a bully.