After unprecedented success at both the municipal and European elections in spring, France's far-right party, the Front National (FN), broke another record on Sunday. The FN won representation in the senate for the first time in its history, and two seats in France's upper house are another step in the party's establishment in the country's political landscape.
Two days after his election, with a smile high on well-rounded cheeks and a sparkle in his eyes, David Rachline walks towards the pack of journalists waiting for him in front of the senate. The battle for the presidency of this house is still raging inside but this new senator is answering questions with the confidence of an experienced politician.
Rachline also has a catchy line on his resume. Also the mayor of Fréjus in southeast France, Rachline is only 26, the country's youngest senator ever, when his colleagues are usually in their mid 60s.
Passing the massive doors of the Palais du Luxembourg (a.k.a. the senate) for the first time, the two new senators represent a party that actually wants to abolish the upper house. Yet Rachline told reporters today: "There has always been an interest from the Front National in the senate. This doesn't mean that we can't start a debate on institutional reform. Marine Le Pen [the FN leader] is asking for such reform. We are not in government yet. But it will come soon, very soon. And when this time comes we will put an institutional reform to the agenda. What shape will this reform take? This will be in the hands of the President of the Republic."
Are these two seats a real sign that the FN is on its way to the French presidency? Alain Mergier, a sociologist who has studied the party, told VICE News: "There are only two [senators], it won't fundamentally change things. As they won't be able to form a group in the senate, their influence will be really limited. But it's a symbol and an interesting clue. It's symbolic of institutional legitimacy being built step by step. This evolution has to pass through the institutions, this is another institutional element indicating that the FN has become a party like the others, using the same tools of legitimacy."
Stéphane Ravier, the other new FN senator, is mayor of the 7th district of his hometown of Marseille. He also told reporters today: "We will come to the senate to work. We will do it seriously." Rachline added that the new representatives want to add to "new debates" and stand for a "political alternative."
Mergier said of the FN's growth: "We've witnessed this rise for a while now. The news event is that this strategy is working. Who can now say that this party is marginal and non-institutional?"
However, Mergier added that the timing is not particularly strange: "Both traditional parties, the UMP and the PS are in a terrible shape, in very deep ideological, political and organizational crisis. The two parties that polarize French politics are in a state of advanced decay. Their ideas are blurred: The right-wing doesn't come up with new ideas and it has become impossible to identify the left-wing's ideas."
In recent years, FN strategy has been to attempt to renew both its ideology and its public figures. This process, launched by Marine Le Pen, runs counter to her father's time at the head of the FN, who founded the party in 1972 and led it until 2011.
This new tactic has been characterized by the media as "__dédiabolisant" or "de-demonizing" the FN. Le Pen has pushed the party's young figures into the spotlight. Jokingly referred to as "the Republic's pension," the senate also lowered the minimum age of eligibility in 2011 from 35 to 24.
But while 26-year-old Rachline is France's youngest ever senator, he is not new to the FN and has been a member of the party since he was 15. Fréjus, the town that elected him mayor in March 2014, is currently the biggest city ruled by the FN. This gave him a new public stature, but a profile in the newspaper Liberation tells many chapters of his career as a young active member of the far-right movement. He was a big fan of Jean-Marie Le Pen (and now Le Pen the daughter), and was once close to Alain Soral, the polemical far-right essayist.
Pascal Perrineau, political science professor at Sciences Po in Paris, told VICE News about the effects of these new tactics: "Thanks to this strategy shift, Le Pen has changed her party and focused on local officials, something her father did not do. She realized that in France no political force could neglect a strong local presence. Until now, the FN was mainly a protest party, but now it shows its capability to be rooted locally, in little-known territories and small villages. The FN is starting to look like a respectable, local and 'de-demonized' party."
Mélodie Bouchaud and Virgile Dall'Armelina also contributed to this report.