During the 2016 presidential campaign, Breitbart News emerged as a haven for far-right factions that actively pushed for the election of Donald Trump. Its executive editor, Steve Bannon, played an instrumental role as CEO of the Trump campaign, and was recently appointed chief strategist for the president-elect’s administration. Now, the controversial news site is turning its attention to France, where the far-right politician Marine Le Pen hopes to pull off a Trump-like upset in next year’s presidential election.
Last week, Breitbart’s US editor-in-chief, Alex Marlow, told Reuters that the site plans to launch in Germany and France, where far-right political parties have seen a resurgence in recent years. Sources close to Bannon told Reuters that the company wants to boost right-wing candidates in each country ahead of their respective presidential elections.
“We think that France is the place to be,” Bannon said in a June interview with Radio-Londres, adding that Breitbart aims to open a Paris bureau before the presidential election in May.
“almost exactly the same strategy as the alt-right”
The hope is that the expansion will help fuel another political upset in France, following the surprise election of Trump and June’s Brexit vote in the UK. (Breitbart launched a UK site in 2014, reportedly because Bannon saw a “business opportunity” ahead of Brexit.) In an interview with The New York Times on Sunday, Marlow said the site wants to reach an “underserved readership” that feels “ignored” in Europe. But experts say Breitbart will face competition from a slew of other French blogs that traffic in the same brand of xenophobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism that fueled its rise in the US.
“There’s always a space for a site like Breitbart, but I believe it’s already very occupied,” says Patrick Eveno, a professor of media history at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.
In the US, Breitbart has gained notoriety for pandering to the alt-right: a loose online movement that rejects multiculturalism, feminism, and political correctness. The site’s most provocative headlines include, “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy” and “Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew.” A similar movement has arisen in France, Eveno says, pointing to sites like FDesouche, Breizh-Info, and Égalité et Réconciliation as part of the so-called “réinformation” media — a collection of independent outlets that claim to be news sites, but act more as propaganda platforms for far-right groups like Le Pen’s Front National (FN) party.
“It’s the battle against the system, the politicians, the media, against immigration,” Eveno says. “It’s about returning to the old France — white France, with border controls and French currency. It’s almost exactly the same strategy as the alt-right.”
“we remain with the people who no longer want to believe the media.”
FDesouche, which has more than 250,000 followers on Facebook, is among the largest of the réinformation sites. Its headlines aren’t as wildly provocative as Breitbart’s, and although its Facebook cover photo includes the slogan “Peace & Trump,” the site doesn’t publish many editorials. Instead, it cherry-picks and aggregates news items from mainstream outlets — posts about crimes committed by migrants, for example — that are intended to stoke anger online.
“It’s amazing — you publish a story about immigration or Islam, and they will pick two paragraphs and tell people to go and fight. And suddenly the racist comments start coming,” says Pierre Haski, a French journalist and co-founder of the news site Rue89. “This is a kind of war they've been fighting for many years, and they have an army of trolls.”
Alain Soral, a far-right essayist and the founder of Égalité et Réconciliation, concedes that Breitbart may compete with his site for some of the same audience, though he says “We have no reason to be worried.” In his view, Breitbart, buoyed by Trump’s victory, will also bring in new readers from more mainstream news outlets, thereby lifting the tide for alternative sites like his own.
“I don’t think we’re exactly comparable,” says Soral, who has openly espoused anti-Semitic views and was fined €5,000 earlier this year for saying that the Nazis “didn’t finish the job” in a Facebook post. His site, which he created in 2004, describes itself as “left of labor, right of values.” In addition to conspiracy theories and ads for right-wing events or books, the site publishes a weekly series of vulgar cartoons, many featuring Donald Trump and Nazi imagery.
“I think they’re placing themselves more in direct competition with mainstream media, which is to say television and major newspapers,” says Soral. “Whereas we remain with the people who no longer want to believe the media, and who no longer want to hear it.”
Eveno notes Breitbart should have a financial advantage over its alt-right competitors, which mostly operate as amateur publications, and its name recognition has grown in the wake of Trump’s victory. But Haski says Breitbart would have to drastically change its rhetoric so as not to run afoul of France’s strict laws on hate speech and defamation.
“the idea is that anything’s possible.”
“The main challenge is really to understand the French laws and the limits of what’s acceptable and possible as a media outlet in France,” Haski says. “The first hire they should make is a lawyer.”
Le Pen has sought to distance herself from the overtly racist rhetoric of her father Jean-Marie, a former presidential candidate who founded the FN. But the xenophobic baton has been picked up by her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a 26-year-old member of parliament who has become a favorite among Breitbart’s editorial staff. Sarah Palin wrote that she had a “political crush” on the younger Le Pen in a piece for Breitbart last year, days before the site published a profile that declared her “Europe’s new rockstar of the right.” Maréchal-Le Pen welcomed the news of Breitbart’s forthcoming expansion last week, tweeting: “I answer yes to the invitation of Stephen Bannon, CEO of @realDonaldTrump campaign, to work together.”
Marine Le Pen has not openly embraced Breitbart, though she has seized upon Trump’s victory to rally her base. As in Germany and other European countries, France’s far-right have made political gains in the wake of recent terror attacks and the ongoing refugee crisis. And although French opinion polls suggest that Le Pen would lose by a wide margin in a second-round runoff election, Trump’s victory has revived speculation of another upset.
“With the election of Trump, the idea is that anything’s possible,” Soral says. “There are people who are really worried about it, but we are pretty delighted.”