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The bulletproof brand of Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen is president of the Front National

Marine Le Pen is running for the French presidency as leader of the Front National (FN) party, but you might not know it. Where current frontrunner Emmanuel Macron manages his campaign directly from his own party’s website, Le Pen’s homepage screams ’Marine Présidente’ around a long-stemmed rose, throws up many, many photos of her face and speaks of ’my project’, ’my pictures’ and ’my books’.

The omission of Le Pen’s surname and the name of her party from campaign materials is undoubtedly a tactic to distance herself from her father’s own political ambitions (Jean-Marie Le Pen was one of the party’s first leaders in the 1970s) and from the far-right’s aggressive image. It’s also a hallmark of a slowly humanising French election process.

“It is not in the French culture to ’market’ politics, and it’s a delicate maneuver for politicians to do so,” explains Tom Ollivier, a French freelance senior creative. “However, like pretty much everything else, the American model has been influencing the approach to running campaigns in France.

“I will not be surprised if the candidates will learn from Trump and the success of populism, and try to humanise their image as much as possible in order to reconnect with the people. To me, Macron is the candidate who seems to play most on that strategy, which can be questionable in terms of authenticity.”

Le Pen’s authenticity in terms of image is certainly one that could be contested; the powder blue, soft-focus imagery, a floral logo and an Instagram feed full of Le Pen smiling, laughing and meeting children clashes with a less-than-sympathetic approach to asylum seekers, refugees and non-French nationals, and an aggressive interview style on- and off-camera.

The latter is perhaps why the BBC has interviewed her no less than three times in the past six months. And nothing sums up the oxymoron of brand Le Pen like the transferrable tattoos supporters can purchase on her online boutique – advertised as being worn on the neck.

“The difference this time is the dominance of one name, one candidate and one issue,” says Ogilvy & Mather London's chief strategy officer Kevin Chesters, a lover of the political who is married to a French national. “This is the Le Pen election, whether you like it or not. That is the difference. This is the Byron Sharp [the marketing academic] election. Everything and everyone is defined and judged against what she is and says. She has the brand awareness and saliency.”

The 2017 French presidential election falls in the shadow of the United States’ own, which, as the world is aware, was fought onlineon platforms such as Twitter. This should work in favour of all candidates, who have grown up in a country where, DigitasLBi’s Sebastian Cuturi Cameto explains, elections are as much about politics as they are about rhetoric: ”French politicians, and French people in general, love to solve their differences through the power of communication, with a jest of bon mots [witty remarks].”

The social is political

Le Pen’s social media strategy is slick, blue and exhaustive, covering Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as well as YouTube and Snapchat. The addition of the latter two aligns with a vague strategy to appease France’s youth; she recently outlined her plans to build more student accommodation and improve housing benefits for under-27s.

However, by centering the entire campaign around herself Le Pen’s social channels come across as somewhat dull. The YouTube channel, for instance, hosts videos with repetitive, worn titles (‘Marine Le Pen travels through Brittany’, ‘Marine Le Pen meets Idriss Déby, ‘Summary of Marine’s meeting in Bordeaux’ etc), save for an interesting series entitled ‘The True Macron’, which characterises her rival as an evil cartoon.

Yet Le Pen is not alone in her professional handling of social media. Most candidates have an array of meticulously managed platforms at their disposal and, so far, none seem to have made any Trump-esque gaffes in using them.

“Digital, mainly social media, is playing a very important role in this election,” says Cameto. “It is considered now as the second-most influential media in these elections behind TV. At the last presidential debate, the monitoring platform registered 1.5m tweets around the event.

“Candidates use Twitter to communicate with the electorate, as a gateway into the emotional, personal space of voters. Having said that, unfortunately, candidates use Twitter to address the unique context of this election. Instead of focusing on promoting ideas, creating a community and boosting the voting rate, it is still mainly used as a broadcast channel to either refute any criticism or to spread attacks.

“They are using it quite selfishly to either protect themselves or attack their peers, instead of using it to elevate the debate and ensure a positive future for France. They share articles, send bons mots and create trending hashtags to propagate the affaires of others.“

He adds that, while we might not be seeing as much fake news as in the US elections (“sometimes reality is newsworthy enough”), the way digital is being used is “a missed opportunity”.

“I haven‘t really seen a great embracing of social media from any candidate,” agrees Chesters. “Macron has probably embraced it more than most in an appeal to attract a younger voter, but I think we‘re still seeing a dominance of local, boots-on-the-ground campaigning in France.”

One candidate who has arguably just as much as an image problem as Le Pen is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the 65-year-old socialist running ‘outside the frame of political parties’. His website may not look as expensive as his rivals’, but his social channels tell much more of a story with unedited photos of crowds, grassroots campaigners and the occasional protest.

“He is famous for having held a ‘hologrammed’ meeting and having quite a successful YouTube channel (20m views in total) where he explains his policies and thoughts to connect with his electorate,” says Cameto. “He also has an effective email strategy.”

The possibility of ‘Frexit’ may be too salient in this election for a politician’s campaign brand to sway the electorate, but among the usual line-up of white men in suits proclaiming customary vague slogans such as une volonte pour la France [one will for France] and la France doit être une chance pour tous [France must be a chance for all], Le Pen, with her smiling eyes and thornless blue rose, draws headlines, attention and, somewhere along the line, support.

“Without considering hot topics like scandals, immigration or the economy, the candidates’ brands overlap and resonate with people in two main ways: desire for political change and level of openness,” says Cameto. “Therefore, their tone of voice is quite different.

“Macron fully embraces the concept of change, trying to appear hopeful and opportunistic, while sometimes seeming confused and unclear on the plan – ‘I don't know how, but we will prevail’. Le Pen also fully embraces change, but with a high level of negative dramatisation – ‘We are lost and dying, only my party can save you’.“

There is not much drama in her official slogan, Au nom du people [For the people], however the phrase La France au Francais [France for the French] has tailed around her campaign trail. It’s a simple tagline but one that in today’s world is unambiguous, blunt and dramatic; a cousin of Make American Great Again.

“With François Hollande not going for a second round, newcomers, and the current global context, there is a lot of pressure on the result of this election,” says Ollivier. “After Brexit and Trump, we are forced to think that the impossible is possible.

“Perhaps because of Nicolas Sarkozy’s huge scandals about the hidden cost of his campaign, the current election doesn’t feel extravagant or like it’s pushing the limits of the regulations. But one thing is sure: the politicians seem to be forced to humanise their language and image in order to reconnect with the people, and I don’t think this is purely a bad thing.”

Chesters concludes: “It’s all about brand saliency and awareness to dominate the news agenda, and that’s why all we hear about is Le Pen.

“But I believe that her impact will not be as great as her column inches. She might be box office, but she won't walk away with the gong... I hope.”

Additional reporting and translation by William Rowe