The first blow came when the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, lost the presidential election to Emmanuel Macron by a landslide in May. The second was when the party did not win more than eight of 577 seats in parliament in June’s legislative elections.
But the proverbial nail in the coffin may well have come Thursday, when Le Pen’s top aide, Florian Philippot — the man widely credited with bolstering the party’s image as much as was possible — resigned. His reason: sparing himself what he couched as the humiliation of continuing to work for his boss.
As Philippot, who had long served as the National Front’s savvy second-in-command, said in a candid interview on France 2 television: “I was told that I was vice president in charge of nothing. I do not have a taste for ridicule, and I have never had a taste for doing nothing, so of course I am leaving the National Front.”
On some level, the move did not come as a surprise for politicians and analysts in Paris. Le Pen had stripped Philippot of his duties on Wednesday, and some believed his departure was only a matter of time. But the question now is: How will the party fare in his absence?
Philippot had essentially run the National Front’s communications and branding since 2012, and he oversaw the oft-cited attempt at “de-demonizing” the public image of a party co-founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a convicted Holocaust denier, in the early 1970s. The elder Le Pen is famous for repeatedly referring to the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail in the history of World War II.”
Philippot’s was no small task: Throughout the recent election campaign, repeated revelations of Holocaust revisionism kept appearing in investigations into the party’s elite.
In the spring, Benoît Loeuillet, a local National Front official in the south of France, was caught on camera in a documentary about the party disputing the facts of the Holocaust. “I don’t think there were that many deaths. There weren’t 6 million,” Loeuillet was quoted as saying. “There weren’t mass murders as it’s been said.”
Months later, when Marine Le Pen temporarily resigned as party leader to focus on the final days of her presidential bid, her appointed successor, Jean-François Jalkh, came under fire for having questioned, in a 2000 interview, the Nazis' use of Zyklon B in the gas chambers.
Most damaging, however, was Le Pen’s own comment, made in the early stages of the campaign, that France could not be held responsible for an infamous roundup of Parisian Jews in the summer of 1942. “If there were those responsible, it was those who were in power at the time. This is not France,” she said. It is a well-established fact that French police carried out this roundup, for which numerous French presidents, including Emmanuel Macron, have publicly atoned.
Philippot’s mission was to repair the National Front's toxic image and move it more toward economic protectionism and against the European Union, focusing on national sovereignty. Judging from the course of the campaign, he had some success, particularly among the legions of younger voters who backed Le Pen without necessarily being bothered by her family’s history.
For the moment, Philippot has emphasized that although he is leaving the National Front, he is not leaving public life. Analysts expect he will try to siphon away National Front voters who care more about economic protectionism and less about immigration and identity politics into a new coalition of his own design.
As Philippot wrote on Twitter on Thursday: “My political commitment to France is intact.”