National Front woos France with furry friends

In the first week of August, the president of France's National Front party Marine Le Pen posted six messages on her Twitter account, including one about turning some mosques into parking lots, another condemning a "burkini" day at a swim park, and another about cats.

The cat tweet featured a photograph of a leopard-like Ocicat with lime-green eyes, and another of a white-grey cat lounging regally next to a kitten.

The feline photos, posted online on the occasion of International Cat Day, are also a sign of the National Front's latest political strategy.

The far-right party, aiming to be a major player after years on the edges of mainstream politics, has refocused its sights on the 2017 presidential race under the direction of Le Pen and taken up the cause of animals along the way.

The charismatic 48-year-old and self-proclaimed cat lover has worked to make the party palatable to a broad base.

Last summer she engaged in a highly public - and ultimately successful - tussle to oust her own father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen over his consistent anti-Semitic and racist remarks. She has also hit back against attempts to paint her party as xenophobic or anti-Muslim.

Part of the younger Le Pen's campaign to reorient the National Front has included the launch of an animal rights organization, which can explain the appearance of cats on a platform she uses mostly for political remarks.

"We are," she said in March at the launch of the organization, called Belaud Argos, "the first - the only - political movement to give it [animal rights] a real importance."

The National Front's increase in support, much of it attributable to the magnetism of Marine Le Pen and her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen, depends on a delicate balancing act.

Its challenge is to retain the traditional supporters who have long subscribed to the National Front's mix of republicanism, anti-immigration rhetoric and euro-scepticism, while diversifying its message to appeal to voters who might be wooed away from the deeply unpopular ruling Socialist party or the recently rebranded Les Republicaines.

Using cats - or animal rights more broadly - may be an unlikely strategy, but as with so many of Le Pen's moves, it isn't based on faulty electoral maths.

"The moment when Marine received the most letters and emails during the 2012 presidential campaign was when she forgot to respond to a 30 Millions Friends questionnaire," National Front vice president Florian Philippot was quoted by Le Monde as saying.

The animal rights organization 30 Millions Friends sent out questionnaires probing the platform of 2012 presidential candidates on issues of animal rights and publicly released the results at the height of the campaign season.

Marine Le Pen was one of three candidates who did not respond.

But the recent animal rights drive hasn't been without stumbles. One of the National Front's most longstanding supporters, former cinema celebrity and French sex icon Brigitte Bardot, turned against a local party mayor in a fury after he organized a hunting event in May.

Notoriously pro-animal rights and with her own foundation dedicated to the cause, Bardot lambasted National Front mayor Marc-Etienne Lansade in an open letter, accusing him of "betraying" the protection of animals in a "disgusting" and "scandalous" move.

"I, who believed so much in you, even planning to associate my foundation to your animal protection plans! What a disappointment!" she wrote.

Lansade defended the event, saying there would be no foxhunt but just a dog run.

The row however prompted the newfound Belaud Argos - named after the cat of a renaissance poet and a faithful dog in Homer's Odyssey - to spring into action.

The party did not oppose hunting generally, just the foxhunt, it said. Running the fox to the edges of fatigue, it said, constituted cruelty.

The National Front's strategy has faced criticism from its usual opponents, who decry the move as blatant pandering from a party that has historically aligned itself with hunters.

Socialist Party lawmakers pointed to ecological and animal cruelty bills that weren't supported by the National Front on the national or European level. They also dismissed Le Pen's objections to "ritual slaughter" as part of her "crusade against Muslims."

Belaud Argos head and National Front parliamentarian in Europe, Sophie Montel, fired back her response shortly afterwards.

In what her party hopes will be a sign of things to come during the 2017 presidential race, she told supporters to "focus on a species in danger of extinction: the Socialist voter!"

Last update: Thu, 11/08/2016 - 15:51

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