LILLE, France (WASHINGTON POST) - Former White House senior staffer Steve Bannon addressed France’s far-right National Front on Saturday (March 10), 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 on Friday – marked the most recent stop on a European tour that has already 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 party elites 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.”
His speech contained a familiar litany of attacks against global elites, 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 Societe Generale, 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 transatlantic relationship between far-right movements in the United States and Europe, particularly in France. Last month, Marion-Maréchal Le Pen – the niece of the National Front’s leader, Marine Le Pen – spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Her speech echoed many of the statements of Donald Trump, the man Bannon helped get elected to the US 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 a particularly fraught moment for them both, with one and the other trying to remain relevant in an unforgiving political environment.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Bannon was a close ally and confidante of Trump, 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 lost to Emmanuel Macron in a landslide vote. 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 per cent of the popular vote that Le Pen won in the presidential election, and her party cannot be labelled 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 defence of Philippe Petain, the leader of France’s Vichy government, a body that willingly collaborated with Nazi Germany 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 will also feature a vote as to 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 gas chamber remark.
Bannon had some advice for those who might be embarrassed by such a history.
“Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists,” he said. “Wear it as a badge of honour. 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-demonisation,’” he said.