On November 10th, two days after the election of Donald Trump, a Reddit user posted an image to a subreddit for supporters of Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader running for president of France. “I understand you require memes,” the user, globalism_sux, wrote. “I bring you Pepe Le Pen. Rare, from across the pond.” The image attached to the post portrayed Pepe the frog as Le Pen — with long blond hair and a dark blouse — against a tri-color, French flag backdrop. In a comment on the post, the Reddit user called on others to “spread it far and wide.”
As French magazine Les Inrocks reported last month, Pepe Le Pen has since spread across social media and forums like Reddit and 4chan, marking yet another permutation of what began as a harmless internet meme. During last year’s US presidential election, Pepe the frog became a mascot for the alt-right: the pro-Trump online movement that has been linked to white nationalism and anti-Semitism. Now, with their own presidential election on the horizon, far-right groups in France are embracing and adapting the meme to galvanize online support for Le Pen.
“I don’t think they all know the background or the cultural history behind Pepe the frog,” says David Doucet, editor-in-chief of Les Inrocks and co-author of a recent book on the fachosphère, the French far-right online community often compared to the alt-right. “But I think they use it as a way of telling themselves that what Trump did is possible in France.”
In the US, members of the alt-right frequently portrayed Pepe as Trump himself, with several illustrations underscoring his hardline approach to immigration. In one image, the Trump frog holds a machine gun on top of his proposed border wall with Mexico; in another, he’s smiling in front of a border fence as two Mexican figures look on from the other side. The fachosphère has taken a similar approach with Le Pen, though the meme has been modified to incorporate political issues that are specific to the candidate’s anti-immigration platform. In one illustration, Pepe Le Pen is smiling in front of a border fence with Algeria, with two cartoon Muslim figures on the other side.
Not all French Pepe memes personify Le Pen. Some portray the frog as her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the far-right National Front (FN) in 1972. Another photoshopped image shows Le Pen’s niece, the FN parliamentarian Marion Marechal-Le Pen, cradling Pepe like a baby animal. Others incorporate more generic French stereotypes — Pepe in a beret and striped T-shirt, for example, or Pepe sipping a glass of red wine and smoking a cigarette — and some include Nazi iconography. (The Anti-Defamation League classified Pepe as an anti-Semitic hate symbol in September last year.)
In a report last month, BuzzFeed detailed how Trump supporters have created fake French social media accounts to spread pro-Le Pen memes and coordinate online trolling campaigns. The “meme bank” on the r/Le_Pen subreddit includes several Pepe memes, as well as others — Star Trek’s Captain Picard, passive aggressive Willy Wonka, the “this is fine” dog — that will be familiar to American online audiences. Notably, most of the top posts on the Le Pen subreddit are written in English or link to English-language sources.
Much like their alt-right counterparts, members of the fachosphère frequently use Pepe to troll political opponents online. Les Inrocks’s Doucet says the seemingly harmless image of a cartoon frog allows FN supporters to soften their “pretty radical” political views, and to defuse any criticism they receive. He also believes it enables them to reach a younger, more meme-savvy audience that can help amplify their message.
“The idea is to present themselves as more modern, more advanced than the French media,” Doucet said in an interview last week. “To show their cultural modernity and their ability to reappropriate American cultural symbols... and their mastery of technological tools.”
The FN has long been at the forefront of digital campaigns — it was the first French political party to launch a website, in the mid-1990s — and it has intensified its efforts ahead of this year’s election, which will be held in April and May. As Politico reported last week, the party has a team of about 15 full-time employees dedicated to developing social media campaigns and memes, which are then spread among a network of volunteers.
Fachosphère websites have certainly latched onto the Pepe meme. FDesouche, one of the largest fachosphère news sites and the closest approximation to a French Breitbart, currently uses a Pepe illustration as the background of its homepage. The site’s founder, Pierre Sautarel, has also begun selling Pepe T-shirts on a site called “Bonne Dégaine.”
Others in Europe have sought to capitalize on the trend, as well. A Twitter user who goes by @pepeclothing claims to have sold more than 300 shirts, stickers, and other Pepe-related merchandise on the site Redbubble over the past two months. The anonymous user, who claims to be a 23-year-old male in Berlin, sells some France-related Pepe shirts on their website, though other top-sellers include a Union Jack Pepe and an illustration of a squatting Pepe in a Poland hoodie.
“I was inspired by the sudden popularity of far right wing attitudes in Europe and America and basically saw a market to capitalize on,” @pepeclothing said in a message over Twitter. The vendor claims to have once been “part of the antifascist movement,” but says they were converted to the far right (“red pilled,” in their terms) after “reading up on things.” In their view, it “makes sense” that European audiences would gravitate to Pepe following Trump’s election, in part because the meme lends itself to adaptation.
“You can do whatever you want with Pepe,” @pepeclothing said. “He does not symbolize anything specifically. He can be whoever you want him to be. That's his charm.”