The man who could make Marine Le Pen president of France
The Long Read: Florian Philippot is the strategist behind the rebranding of the extreme right Front National as a populist, anti-elite movement. But dont mistake him for a moderate
On the night of the US election, Florian Philippot, the closest adviser to the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, was watching the results from his apartment on the Left Bank in Paris. Before dawn, when Donald Trumps victory was not yet official but the liberal establishment was beginning to panic, he tweeted: Their world is crumbling. Ours is being built.
Around 8am, Philippot phoned Le Pen to discuss the good news. She was in a jubilant mood at the headquarters of her party the nationalist, anti-immigration Front National preparing to deliver a speech congratulating Trump. His victory, on promises of trade protectionism and the closing of borders, looked like a major boost to her presidential campaign. Meanwhile, a car arrived to take Philippot, the partys vice-president, to the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, 250km from Paris, to lay a wreath at the tomb of Frances great postwar leader, General Charles de Gaulle.
Trumps victory happened to coincide with the anniversary of the death of de Gaulle, who led the French resistance against Nazi Germany. Philippot idolises de Gaulle: his office, which adjoins Le Pens, is plastered with de Gaulle memorabilia one of many things that sets him apart as an oddity in a party that has long regarded de Gaulle as a traitor for allowing the former French colony of Algeria its independence.
Philippots elite credentials should have been another strike against him within a party that proclaims its loathing of the establishment. A graduate of the exclusive Ecole Nationale dAdministration, which produces presidents and prime ministers, Philippot didnt start out in the Front National in the traditional way driving around the countryside sticking election posters to fences. Philippot is also gay, in a party whose co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen once called homosexuality a biological and social anomaly. And yet, at 35, he has become the voice of the party, its media star, and the first to claim Trumps victory as a sign of a new world order.
After the wreath-laying at de Gaulles tomb, Philippot hosted a dinner for 100 party workers and supporters in a nearby restaurant. At the end of the meal, with crumpled paper napkins strewn across the table, he told his guests that Trumps win proved that the people were throwing off their chains. France would be next, he said, promising that Marine Le Pen would win the French presidential election in May.
Everything that yesterday was said to be impossible or improbable, has today become highly possible and highly probable, he said. The polls showed that even if Le Pen reached the final run-off, she could never win, but that didnt matter. Chants of Marine prsident! rang out around the room. Le Pen would make France great again, Philippot promised, and everyone stood up to sing the Marseillaise.
If Le Pen is now the closest she has ever been to the French presidency, it is in large part down to her working partnership with Philippot, whose judgment she trusts so completely that she rarely takes a decision without consulting him. They have an intellectual bond; they are in complete agreement on basic principles, said Bertrand Dutheil de La Rochre, an adviser to Le Pen who is also close to Philippot.
It is Philippot who is credited with executing Le Pens plan to sanitise the Front Nationals image, tone down its rhetoric and widen its electoral support banishing open expressions of anti-semitism, racism and xenophobia, even if those old obsessions still bubble away under the surface. Philippots single-minded mission to control the party line and root out dissenters has led his rivals inside the party to liken him to Robespierre, the ruthless French revolutionary leader.
So zealous was Philippots drive to transform the partys image that he encouraged Le Pen to expel her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the party he co-founded in 1972. If the outspoken, racist, Holocaust-denying 83-year-old Papa Le Pen was a blight on the Front Nationals electoral prospects, Philippot styled himself as its salvation. But as the Front National attempts to take the presidency, the adulation, fear and controversy that Philippot provokes have opened new rifts inside the party.