Former White House senior staffer Stephen K. Bannon addressed France’s far-right National Front on Saturday, heralding the global populist tide and attacking the “opposition party media.”
Bannon’s surprise visit to the party’s conference in Lille — announced via Twitter late Friday — was his most recent stop on a European tour that has included Switzerland along with Italy, where last week, voters abandoned establishment parties and opted for a hung Parliament dominated by right-wing anti-immigrant populists.
“I came to Europe as an observer and to learn,” Bannon said, wearing his typical rugged attire before a cadre of the party elite dressed in suits.
“What I’ve learned is that you’re part of a worldwide movement, that is bigger than France, bigger than Italy, bigger than Hungary — bigger than all of it. And history is on our side,” he said. “The tide of history is with us, and it will compel us to victory after victory after victory.”
He also 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 said.
His speech contained a familiar litany of attacks against a global elite, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and journalists. Some of it translated; some of it did not. When Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, mentioned that he once sold a company to the French bank Société Générale, the room erupted in jeers, not cheers. “I thought you might like that,” he said in response.
On some level, the speech presented another development in the relationship between far-right movements in the United States and Europe, particularly in France. Last month, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen — the niece of National Front leader Marine Le Pen — spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Maryland.
Her speech echoed many of the statements of Donald Trump, whom Bannon helped to get elected to the U.S. presidency. “I am not offended when I hear President Donald Trump say ‘America first,’ ” she said. “I want Britain first for the British people, and I want France first for the French people.”
But in general, the meeting between Bannon and the party of Marine Le Pen came at a particularly fraught moment for Bannon himself and the National Front, with each trying to remain relevant in an unforgiving political environment.
During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Bannon was a close ally and confidant of Trump’s, and he joined the West Wing staff as Trump’s chief strategist. But he was forced out of the White House last August.
Likewise, Le Pen was a prominent contender for the French presidency in May 2017, but she suffered a landslide loss to Emmanuel Macron. Her party — widely seen as the alternative to Macron during the election — then fared poorly in France’s legislative elections: In a parliament of 577 seats, the National Front now holds only eight. That figure presents a striking contrast with the 34 percent of the popular vote that Le Pen won in the presidential election, and her party cannot be labeled the opposition.
To that end, rebranding the National Front’s image is the primary purpose of the “party congress” in Lille this weekend. Le Pen and her allies are also expected to announce a new name for the party that they hope will appeal to more voters in the future.
Le Pen has long sought to “de-demonize” her party by distancing it from its origins.
The National Front was co-founded in 1972 by her father, the convicted Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen, who continues to refer to Nazi gas chambers as a “detail” in the history of World War II. Last week, he published the first volume of his memoirs, “Son of the Nation,” which feature an empathic defense of Philippe Pétain, the leader of France’s Vichy government, a body that willingly collaborated with Nazi Germany after Germany’s invasion of France during the war.
Although several of Marine Le Pen’s aides were also accused of Holocaust denial during the recent election campaign, she claims to be estranged from her father. The party conference in Lille also will feature a vote on whether the elder Le Pen can keep his title as the party’s honorary president. His daughter officially expelled him in 2015 for repeating the remark about gas chambers.
Bannon had some advice for those who might be embarrassed by such a history: “Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”
In French media, Jean-Marie Le Pen — noting that Bannon was widely perceived as the “most radical” of Trump’s advisers — cast doubt on the value of his daughter’s American guest.
“I think this is not exactly the definition of ‘de-demonization,’ ” he said.