Right-Wing Makeover: The Spindoctor Behind the New Front National

Mathieu von Rohr, Spiegel, February 14, 2014

It is a cold, icy day in winter and Florian Philippot is strolling through the streets of Forbach, the town where he would like to be elected mayor. People hurry up to shake his hand, a store-owner hands him a cookie and the woman at a café next to the train station offers him a coffee. An old Tunisian man puts his arm around Philippot’s shoulders.

Philippot is the candidate for Front National (FN), a party designated as “extreme right” in France, but he is received with open arms on his walk through Forbach. Nobody blocks his path, nobody insults him. Who, after all, should be afraid of this nice young man?

“This is the first time I’m going to vote extreme right,” says the slightly over-exuberant woman behind the counter of a shop Philippot visits. “It’s not extreme right,” says Philippot. “Let’s just say it is a coherent choice.” A look of dismay falls over the shopkeeper’s face. “I didn’t mean it derogatorily. I just mean–it is certainly more extreme than anything that I’ve voted for before.”

Florian Philippot is a calm 32-year-old who is not particularly tall or handsome. His youth, however, lends him a trustworthy appearance. His polished shoes and well-tailored greatcoat makes him look like the elite-school graduate that he is. Philippot isn’t just any candidate. He is the deputy head of the Front National, the party’s chief strategist and the most important advisor to his boss, Marine Le Pen.

French voters will go to the polls for local elections in March, and Philippot hopes to win in Forbach, a town of 22,000 located on the German border. And his chances are decent. Behind Marine Le Pen, Philippot is the Front National’s most visible politician. He makes almost daily appearances on radio or television, where he comments on the political developments of the day and criticizes both the leftist government and the conservative opposition. When he isn’t being interviewed, he resorts to Twitter to spread his message.

Until just a few years ago, the Front National was considered to be little more than a collectino of unelectable, racist outsiders. Now, though, it is seeking to establish a reputation as a professional movement with friendly candidates and operatives. More than anyone else, Philippot is symbolic of the change. The party has never had a figure quite like him: He has been a high-ranking official in the Interior Ministry’s inspector general’s office and he is a graduate of the top schools HEC and ENA, where many of the country’s elite are educated.

Full of Excitement

No matter where one goes in France these days to visit a Front National office or to accompany a candidate on his rounds, one encounters a movement full of excitement. The year 2014 is a decisive one for the party: It expects strong showings in both the local elections and in the European Parliament elections in May.

The party already won a symbolic victory back in October when it emerged victorious in an essentially meaningless regional election in the southern French city of Brignoles. In the run-off election, the FN contender beat a candidate who was backed by both the Socialists and the conservatives. It was seen as an indication that the alliances of convenience between the left and right, which has long kept the FN at bay in run-off elections, are no longer working.

According to a recent survey, the Front National could end up with 23 percent of the vote in the European election in May, which would make it the strongest party in the country, ahead of both President François Hollande’s Socialists and the conservatives. Philippot is also a candidate for the Europe vote, heading up his party’s list for the eastern part of the country.

On a recent winter evening, Florian Philippot is sitting in Les Bons Amis, a restaurant in Geispolsheim, a tiny town in the Alsace near Strasbourg, about 90 minutes from Forbach by car. Some 150 people are packed inside, along with a handful of journalists.

He waits patiently for the local party leader to finish her remarks on Kosovars loitering around town and then he takes the floor. “Something great is taking place,” he says. “We are experiencing a popular momentum. You can feel it and the powers that be can feel it too. That is why they are so uneasy.”

Philippot’s speeches are rhetorically outstanding, but his personality isn’t particularly charismatic. He presents an image of a country in which immigrants establish parallel societies while the common French are at the mercy of globalization. He says that Socialists and conservatives–under the diktat of Brussels–pursue the exact same policies: They favor large companies at the expense of the people. Philippot quotes Marine Le Pen: “Globalization means using slaves to manufacture products that are then sold to the unemployed!”

Talking about ‘Real Problems’

Front National, by contrast, would like to withdraw from the euro zone and limit free trade, Philippot explains. It wants to reintroduce border controls and establish a process for holding referenda. “We are the only ones who are talking about real problems: unemployment, security and immigration.”

In its campaign platform, the FN promises to limit immigration to just 10,000 per year and to give precedence to the French over foreigners on the job market. But Philippot avoids that issue on this evening. Rather, he demands “intelligent protectionism” and calls for resistance to the austerity policies prescribed by Germany.

Applause erupts at the end of his speech and followers surround him in the hopes of getting a picture with their idol. A welder, who calls himself Eddy, won’t let go of his hand. He says he voted for François Hollande and can’t believe his stupidity.

There are two major reasons for the current popularity of the long-scorned Front National. The first has to do with the societal and political climate in France. The country is suffering from a widespread despair, with many people having lost faith in the elites. They fear economic decline and their country’s slide into political irrelevance. The FN understands these fears, and knows how to profit from them.

Just how explosive the mood in the country is can also be seen in the radicalization of the Catholic right. More than 100,000 people again took to the streets earlier this month to demonstrate against Hollande and gay marriage.

The second reason for Front National’s success is that it seems no longer to be the party that it once was. The party’s co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen once shocked people with the statement that the gas chambers were but “a detail of history.” Since January 2011, when his daughter Marine was elected party head, the Front National has undertaken a “dédiabolisation“–a “de-demonization.” They got rid of vocal anti-Semites among their members, instead focusing on the fight against the alleged dangers presented by Islam. And they have moved to attract left-leaning voters with welfare chauvinism.

Marine Le Pen is targeting the mainstream as a path to power. The country’s voting system makes it unlikely that she will one day become the president of France, but she could soon have control of more French European Parliament delegates than any other party.

Philippot the Riddle

Should the anti-Europeans in France–one of the two core countries in the euro zone–achieve such a success, it would be a blow for the already fragile European project. And France isn’t the only country where populist, anti-European and anti-immigration parties are finding success. Indeed, the FN plans to form an alliance in Brussels with some of them, such as Austria’s FPÖ and Geert Wilders’ PVV party in the Netherlands.

On the day after his appearance in Geispolsheim, Philippot is sitting in a flat on the third floor of an apartment block in the center of Forsbach. The flat serves as his campaign headquarters, the center of his efforts to win political control of the city. His staff pores over campaign fliers; a large portrait of Marine Le Pen hangs on the wall.

There is much about Philippot that remains a riddle. Nothing he says is imprudent and he provides no insight into his personal life. He is an introvert who is no doubt good at what he does–but it is difficult to say what he really believes in and who he really is.

When the first mass demonstrations against gay marriage took place in France in January 2013, Philippot said that he wouldn’t take part. As a consequence, a radio station asked him about his sexual orientation. His response: “I never talk about my private life. You will never know.”

His hero is General de Gaulle, a man who did all he could to protect French sovereignty. “De Gaulle would never have agreed to the euro and certainly not to the fiscal pact,” Philippot says and calls his party the “true successors” to the general. Not surprisingly, his relationship to party co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, a life-long detractor of de Gaulle, is considered to be problematic.

Indeed, Philippot likes to recount how he never voted for Le Pen senior–not even in 2002 when, to the horror of many in the country, he advanced to the run-off in presidential elections. At the time, Philippot was a supporter of the left-wing nationalist Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a former interior minister.

Even then, he says, it bothered him that French leaders were so homogenous in their thinking. At his university, he says, 90 percent were in favor of the European Union constitution–a document which 55 percent of the French went on to reject in a referendum. “This divide between the elite and the people can’t work,” he says.

He first heard of Marine Le Pen in 2009, when he was working in the Interior Ministry. She hadn’t yet become chair of the party but he wanted to meet her; a friend they had in common arranged a meeting. What then happened sounds a lot like love at first sight. “We immediately found a common wavelength, on both a human and political level,” he says. Marine Le Pen gushed later that she and Philippot had finished each other’s sentences.

Philippot became something of a shadow advisor to Le Pen for media and strategy. When he spoke to journalists for the first time in 2011, she introduced him under a pseudonym so that he wouldn’t run into problems at work. It was only in that year that he joined the party. That October, she named the unknown 30-year-old as her chief strategist for the presidential election campaign. In July 2012, after she led her party to the best result in its history, she made Philippot deputy party head.

Now, Philippot is facing his next challenge: the election in Forbach. At the moment, the party doesn’t have a single mayor in all of France. Philippot, though, believes that the Front National could win thousands of city council seats and cites estimates that it could take over leadership in five to 10 city halls this spring.

For Philippot, Forbach is a rematch. During parliamentary elections a year and a half ago, he won 46.3 percent of the vote and just barely lost against Laurent Kalinowski of the Socialist Party, who is also mayor. This year he wants to beat him. Indeed, Forbach could prove to be a strategic gateway for the party in an area where it hasn’t had much success in the past. That’s also why Manuel Valls, the popular interior minister, came for a visit in October with political reporters from Paris in tow.

Feelings of Insecurity

Forbach is an armpit of a small town with a major industrial past. A statue next to city hall depicts three miners and commemorates a time when coal mining was in its heyday. The last mine here closed in 2004. Thousands of unemployed miners are now in something of a permanent state of vacation. They still receive 80 percent of their former salaries, but they aren’t allowed to work. Forbach’s problems are also representative of those in many other parts of France: deindustrialization, above average unemployment and growing feelings of insecurity.

In his book “Fractures Françaises,” social geographer Christophe Guilluy writes that Front National is gaining the most voters in the so-called peri-urban areas. Located outside of major cities, these once rural areas are often struggling today with very urban problems. They’ve also lost the most economically.

The longing that the Front National seeks to fulfill is that of the France of the 1960s, a time when the country was governed in an authoritarian manner, was self-sufficient, had few immigrants and a vibrant, government-controlled economy.

The fact that Philippot is a carpetbagger candidate is his greatest handicap in the election. He grew up in a suburb of Lille and has lived for years in the chic 6th arrondissement of Paris. Even though he has a second apartment here, he sometimes comes across as a tourist in Forbach. It turns out that local politics are a lot more difficult for him than his appearances on television. He’s not a natural at it, and colleagues often have to remind him to greet people on the street and make small talk with them.

Philippot is quite proud of his campaign platforms, comprising pages of proposals. He wants to establish a pedestrian zone downtown; he wants to install more CCTV cameras; he wants to promote “French culture” rather than Islamic cultural associations. He says there’s a difference between the “new, unchecked immigration” and the “sons and daughters of a successful immigration,” who could also be his voters. He reads the passage out loud and grins.

He prefers visiting voters in their homes and likes it when his supporters introduce him to their neighbors and friends. Soon, he says, he even plans to be the guest of a black woman in a social housing complex. But on this particular evening, at the home of the Caps family, Philippot is coming face to face with Front National’s traditional constituency. They are old people with the kind of thick German accents you often hear around here. And they would rather talk about incorrectly parked cars and foreigners than the euro. Mrs. Caps laments the fact that one can find a doner kebab anywhere these days, but not a grilled sausage.

‘I Think of 1933’

Another says that it’s not safe to go out after 6 p.m., and all seem displeased by the presence of asylum-seekers in the town. What are we supposed to do with the naturalized citizens, asks one? It’s clear what he means, but Philippot deftly ignores the most rabid statements while at the same time giving people the impression that he understands them.

As he drives by city hall on the same evening, the lights in the mayor’s office are still on. “They’re holding a war council,” Philippot says, clearly amused. “A war council against the Front National.”

Laurent Kalinowski, the mayor of Forbach, is 58 and wears a thin gray moustache. He sits in a large space on the top floor of city hall, a long and narrow concrete building dating from the 1970s. The designer furniture in the room is also from the same period. Kalinowski is angry. He won’t even utter the name of his challenger, just calling him “le parachuté”–a guy who just parachuted in. It’s a term regularly applied to politicians in France who are dispatched from Paris to the provinces–a common but often unpopular practice.

Kalinowski speaks distinguished French, but local inflections often slip in. His father was a miner and the family spoke a local German dialect in their home in Lorraine. He first learned French at school. Later, he became a teacher himself. “The Front National is and remains right-wing extremist for me,” he says. “It can put on any guises it wants, but when people talk to me about this party, I think of 1933.”

He says FN politicians don’t know a thing about the region and claims they only became interested through voter analysis conducted in Paris. “They’re surfing on the wave of problems we’re having here,” he says. “An anti-European position is absurd in a border area like this!”

Access to More Funds

Kalinowski is also a member of national parliament, but he isn’t a known personality in Paris. Philippot, on the other hand, is a media star. In that sense, it’s not an even fight. “Let’s remember history,” he says. “Who shared his position 70 years ago?” He doesn’t say Goebbels, but that’s clearly who he means. The problem is that many people have already been hearing these kinds of warnings so often throughout their lives that they no longer take them seriously.

Philippot and his people say that the mayor avoids them, that he didn’t make an appearance at a Lion’s Club dinner when he found out Philippot was coming and that he steers clear of him as a matter of course. They seem amused by this. For his part, Kalinowski says he refuses to have his campaign strategy dictated to him by a perfect stranger.

Recently, Philippot has been visiting business owners in downtown Forbach who are sympathetic to his politics. They include a hair stylist who wants to organize a campaign party for him, a boutique owner who wants to connect him with other business owners–“but super discreetly,” he says, before proposing that the meeting be held in Germany just to play it safe. Even though doors are open to Phillipot in Forbach, few are public about their support for the Front National.

Despite its “de-demonization,” the name Front National still carries an unpleasant odor. There are rumors that Marine Le Pen is thinking about renaming the party, which would mark a further step away from the legacy of her father and towards electability. She’s already brought professionalism to the party machine. And thanks to FN’s strong showing in the 2012 election, it also has access to greater funds than ever before. The party is now represented by local associations in every French Département, with 125 new Front National offices established in the past year alone. The party’s membership has also swelled since her election as FN chief from 12,000 to 80,000.

Compared to the party’s old guard, Philippot and the troop of smart young men he has brought into the FN still seem like a party within the party. This includes, for example, his personal staff, which always seems to be at his side. They include Julien Rochedy, the handsome head of Front National’s youth wing and Bruno Clavet, a former underwear model and contestant on the French version of the “X Factor” who is one of the party’s candidates in Paris. The Internet is littered with images from his past career.

A ‘Casting Error’

Most of the candidates the party is fronting in local elections are political newbies. The national party even created a “small guide for Front National candidates” for them. It includes lines like, “Knowing the city in which you are running is decisive for your credibility.”

In addition, Philippot began sending out a weekly list of talking points, complete with ready-made phrases and sentences on current issues to be used by candidates, representatives and party leaders. The list also includes counter-arguments that might be raised. Philippot likes his role as spin-doctor; it sometimes seems as though he views it all as a game, the object of which is to be the most astute. It is like in the American television series “House of Cards,” where politicians need tactics and rhetorical expertise rather than principles and convictions.

Not everyone in the FN is as quick-witted as Philippot and Marine Le Pen. Which perhaps explains why mistakes continue to be made that cast doubt on the image of a changed movement. One candidate, for example, compared Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who comes from French Guiana, with a monkey. Other FN candidates have likewise attracted unwanted attention for racist utterances.

The party leadership was quick to suspend all of them and to distance itself from their comments. That is one significant difference between the new Front National and the old. Back then, such gaffes were a characteristic of the party, but there is no longer room for them in the world of Florian Philippot.

When asked about the suspended candidates in his Forbach campaign headquarters, he grimaces. A “casting error,” Philippot says, was to blame.

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