The French Front National's congress this weekend is an attempt to relaunch the far-right party ahead of next year's European elections. But can the party regain its mainstream appeal? Lisa Louis reports from Paris.
Marine Le Pen's party has rather disappeared off the political radar in the past few months. The Front National (FN) won a few seats in the National Assembly in last June's elections, but failed to get enough members elected to form a parliamentary group and has thus limited rights to speak in Parliament. Le Pen has also given very few interviews — quite a contrast to her normally very frequent media appearances.
The silence is down to what was perceived as a crushing defeat in last May's presidential elections.
The FN's 33.9 percent in the run-off vote against the current centrist president, Emmanuel Macron, was a historic record for the party. But supporters had hoped for at least 40 percent.
Question mark over Le Pen's willingness to govern
What's more, they were deeply disappointed by Le Pen's performance at an election debate with Macron. She appeared out of her depth and badly briefed, especially on economic matters.
"She not only suddenly seemed incompetent — people were also wondering if she actually wanted to be in power," Sylvain Crépon, a sociologist specialized in the far-right at the Paris-based Jean-Jaurès Foundation, told DW.
"And it does make sense when you think about it — after all, she had always refused to become mayor or take on an executive role on a local level," he added.
Yet, this view clashes with the image Le Pen had built up since she took the helm of the party in 2011.
She initiated a so-called de-demonization for the FN to become more appealing to mainstream voters. She gave the party a softer image by moving away from her father Jean-Marie's antisemitic stance and taking on board more social policies.
Read more: Is France ready for Marine Le Pen?
A congress to redefine the party's orientation
This weekend's congress in Lille is supposed to end the confusion after months of soul-searching within the party.
Over the past few months, senior FN members have been touring French regions to meet party activists. The 50,000-plus members also received a questionnaire on the party's future orientation. Its eight pages contain questions on Europe, immigration, social matters, education, family policies, and environmental matters.
The FN will announce the results of the questionnaire at the conference and most likely redefine the party's orientation.
Activists will choose new members of the FN's freshly renamed executive bodies and also vote for a new party name. Marine Le Pen will be re-elected as the party's leader.
"This is an occasion for a fresh start for her. She wants to revive her links with party members and gear up for next year's European Elections," Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Paris-based Observatory for Political Radicalism, told DW.
Relaunch 'comes at a price'
But demographer and head of the Paris-based social sciences university EHESS Hervé Le Bras thinks the relaunch will likely come at a price. He has been watching voter trends since the 1970s, when the FN was founded.
"Le Pen managed to enlarge the party's very stable voter base of around 20 percent to almost 34 percent in the second round of the presidential elections through her de-demonization strategy," he told DW.
"But pressure has been mounting on Le Pen to steer away from this softer image since the elections. The FN would in that case lose that additional voter potential," he added.
Former Vice-President Florian Philippot, and with him the FN's most socially-orientated branch, has left the party and founded his own party, The Patriots.
Marine Le Pen (left) may have to fight off a leadership challenge from her popular niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen
Le Pen also needs to counterbalance her niece's popularity. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is the only one believed to have what it takes – in terms of charisma but also of her last name — to challenge Marine Le Pen for the FN leadership. She represents very much the FN's right wing and is close to her grandfather, who has been convicted several times at home and abroad for xenophobia and antisemitism.
Maréchal-Le Pen has for now taken a break from politics and announced she would not seek to renew her mandate as a member of Parliament. But many believe she will come back before long.
"Marine Le Pen will thus have to talk more about topics like French identity and the fight against immigration and what she calls Islamisation — also to bring Marion's most trusted [supporters] under her control," Le Bras said.
Le Bras also doubts that the FN will be able to equal its score of the 2014 European Elections, when 24 FN candidates were elected as MEPs.
Competition on the euro-skeptic front
The party is now facing stiff competition on its euro-skeptic and anti-globalization stance.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon's far-left party La France Insoumise and the center-right Republican party under arch conservative Laurent Wauquiez are also trying to ride the wave of euro-skepticism and likely to siphon off votes from the FN.
It might just be that the days of the FN as a potential governing force are over — at least for now.