Surprise: Marine Le Pen steps down as head of the National Front as runoff approaches

I don’t get it. Maybe there’s a quirk to French election law that makes it strategically sound, but as a PR move it seems goofy.

“I have always considered that the president is the president of all the French,” she said. “Under this banner, he or she must unite all the French.

“Tonight, I am no longer the president of the Front National. I am the presidential candidate.”

“I will be above partisan considerations,” she added.

Ms Le Pen had already airbrushed out her party’s name, and her own surname, from campaign posters in a bid to woo voters from the Left and Right, as well as in recent years “detoxifying” her party’s racist, anti-Semitic image.

In February, when she rolled out her platform, she made a point of noting how it differs from the National Front’s. She’s in the middle of a months-long “rebranding,” in other words, hoping to shed some of the heavy baggage of the FN but … not shedding enough of it, including in some of her own public pronouncements. To make things harder for her, how do you scrub your brand when it’s been cemented by three generations of politicians? Her father, Jean-Marie, headed the FN before her and her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, is waiting in the wings to take over eventually. This is like a Kennedy deciding a week before a national election that he didn’t want to be thought of as a Democrat anymore or a Bush declaring that he didn’t want to be seen as a Republican because the party itself was polling badly — except the Le Pen example is even more far-fetched, given the infamy that’s attached to the FN brand for decades. Partisan affiliations are hard to scrub under the best circumstances and she’s trying to do it under the worst.

If she really wanted to rebrand in time for the 2017 vote, the obvious move would have been to leave the party a few years ago and start her own nationalist group, declaring the FN to be too reactionary or whatever. Failing that, if she was set on distancing herself from the movement on the eve of the runoff, she should have withdrawn from the party entirely today. I don’t know what she gains by stepping down as president but apparently remaining a member in good standing. She’s no longer partisan enough to head the party but she is partisan enough to continue to belong to it? It stinks of desperation in the aftermath of the so-called “Republican Front” uniting against her. And of course it risks annoying FN true believers who are excited to see the party enjoy a rare moment of glory, only to have the Le Pen family suddenly doing what little it can to disclaim association. The only strategic benefit I can imagine is if Le Pen had quit the party altogether this afternoon so that she could be listed on the French runoff ballot as an independent rather than a member of the FN. Low-information voters who’d otherwise never vote for the candidate of the National Front might consider her in that case — but as I say, she’s apparently not quitting the party, just the presidency of the party. And again, how many French voters don’t know by now that the Le Pens are the first family of France’s nationalists? If ever a candidate’s name was synonymous with partisan affiliation, it’s hers.

Exit question for French politics nerds: What am I missing here? Why does Le Pen think this stunt will help her?