Steve Bannon – the man who helped Donald Trump ride a populist wave to power in the US – has backed the struggling French far-Right leader Marine Le Pen at a key conference aimed at giving her Front National party a new name and a new direction.
“History is on our side and it will take us from victory to victory,” he told thousands of FN supporters gathered in Lille in the hope of reviving a party battered by electoral failures, defections, and vicious infighting.
“You are part of a worldwide movement that is bigger than Italy, bigger than Poland, bigger than Hungary,” Mr Bannon said, referring to the electoral successes of far-Right and nationalist parties in those countries.
The former White House adviser and ex-head of Breitbart News, who has repeatedly expressed support for Europe’s far-Right movements, was a surprise guest at the FN conference, with his speech only being announced late on Friday.
"The king of fake news and of white supremacists at an FN summit… why am I not surprised? Change of name (for the Front National) but not of the political line," said the head of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche party, Christophe Castaner.
But Ms Le Pen will be hoping that Mr Bannon’s presence in Lille will give her a badly-needed boost, after a slump in popularity since her disastrous finale in the presidential campaign, where she lost to Mr Macron in the run-off despite taking more than 10 million votes.
She is due to make a speech at the conference on Sunday.
A poll out this week suggested that almost three quarters of French people think she would make a bad president. More than half said she was incapable of uniting her divided camp and that the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic FN would never win power.
Ms Le Pen has been at the helm of the party since 2011, gaining more electoral ground than her father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen ever managed by “de-demonising” the FN and winning local and European elections.
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But her anti-euro stance and threats to take France out of the European Union damaged her appeal to older voters in particular.
She now plans to focus even more on immigration in the hope of garnering extra support from voters in France, where polls have consistently shown a majority of people believe there are too many migrants in the country.
Her touted shift to place immigration at the heart of her policy comes in the wake of successes enjoyed by far-right parties in Holland, Austria, Germany and most recently Italy, where anti-immigration policies have been championed.
She is the sole candidate for leader of the party and will no doubt be re-elected on Sunday behind the slogan “get established, forge alliances, govern” and with promises to create a joint list of “nationals” against “globalisers” at European elections next year.
She told Le Figaro newspaper this week that those elections could see Eurosceptics win a majority in the European parliament.
But even staunch Le Pen supporters are starting to doubt whether she can take the party any higher, with many placing their faith in her young niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, who returned to the political fore after addressing conservatives in America last month.
Ms Maréchal Le Pen will not attend the conference in Lille, nor will Ms Le Pen’s firebrand father, who she has thrown out of the party and who is due to be stripped of his title of honorary party president at the congress.
He remains a thorn in his daughter’s side, slamming the prospect of a party name change as “suicide”.
On Friday, he questioned the “transparency” of the internal survey on the issue, saying: “Who was sent the questionnaire? What was the participation level? How and by whom was the count conducted, nobody knows.”
Mr Le Pen has also returned to the media spotlight after releasing the first tome of his memoirs, Son of the Nation, which became a bestseller with a fresh print run of 50,000 after the first sold out.
Gilbert Collard, an FN MP who is close to Ms Le Pen also said he was against a name change. “That’s not what will de-demonise us," he said.
Ms Le Pen is facing an assault on her usual stamping ground of immigration and security from the leader of the mainstream Right-wing Republicans, Laurent Wauquiez, but he remains an unpopular figure for now.
This week she warned France "don’t bury us", pointing out that Eurosceptic far-Right came top in Italy.
Political analyst Bruno Cautrès said: "The socio-economic situation of the working class remains unchanged (in France) since the election of Emmanuel Macron.
The question of the European Union, its project, the integration or not of other countries remains in limbo. This fertile ground for the FN is still there."