Le Pen's announcement Sunday came a day after a visit to a National Front conference in Lille by former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who encouraged the party to stick to its nationalistic roots.
“Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists,” he told an audience Saturday as Le Pen stood alongside. “Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”
Le Pen — whose father co-founded the National Front in 1972 — is seeking a new image for the party in hopes of staying relevant as populist movements make gains elsewhere in Europe. In elections in Italy earlier this month, the insurgent Five-Star Movement broke into the ranks of the top vote-getters and earned a seat at the table in forming a new government.
“The nation is the heart of our commitment and our project,” Le Pen said. “The new name I want for the National Front should express our support for the nation and the call to the rally.”
But her attempt at looking ahead only served to dredge up memories of past anti-Semitism and Nazi ties.
In 1941, the “Rassemblement National Populaire,” or Popular National Rally, became a major collaborationist party in support of the Vichy government, a regime that controlled France’s “unoccupied zone” but was allied with Nazi Germany, which occupied northern France.
At the party congress in Lille on Sunday, Le Pen suggested that changing the name would help change the party’s image from a fringe faction of extremists into a more powerful bloc with a real chance to grab power. In May 2017, Le Pen was soundly beaten by Emmanuel Macron in the presidential runoff. A month later, the National Front took its biggest haul of seats in France's Parliament, winning eight spots in the 577-seat assembly.
“It must become clear to all that we have become a party intent on governing,” she said Sunday. “More than a project, this name must be a rallying cry, a call to join us.”
“De-demonizing” the National Front has long been her aim. In 2015, she formally expelled her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the party he founded, after he repeated — yet again — his remark that the Nazi gas chambers were merely a “detail” in the history of World War II.
Over the weekend, the elder Le Pen was formally stripped of his title as the party’s honorary president. Yet she borrowed a bit of his old strategies. The phrase “Rassemblement National” was already used by the National Front in 1986 during a parliamentary campaign.
Like other Nazi-allied parties during World War II, the “Rassemblement National Populaire” saw the war — and the experience of occupation — as a chance to cleanse and purify France from within. It was no stranger to overt anti-Semitism and open admiration for Nazi Germany.
The party used a logo featuring elements of the Nazi swastika, displayed on a similar red backdrop. One of the earliest members of the “Populaire,” Roland Gaucher, went on to co-found the National Front with Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Observers across the political spectrum immediately recognized the connection.
“A desired reference? Who knows,” Alexis Corbière, a parliamentary deputy from the leftist France Unbowed party, wrote on Twitter.
But in her speech, Marine Le Pen made no mention of the history behind the label she picked.