The Guardian believes she is ‘the most dangerous woman in France’, and less than a hundred days before the 2012 presidential election, Marine Le Pen appears to be the best contender the extreme right Front National has ever put forward. A sign of changing times, she is also only the second candidate the party has ever put forward for presidency in France. In a party like the Front National (FN), where tradition is a core value, there can only be so much change, and it is not surprising that it was the daughter of the old chef who was voted president of the party in January 2011. Nor is it surprising that, despite an effort to modernise and moderate aspects of the party, the broad lines of the programme remain unchanged, still based on a strong anti-immigrant sentiment and exaggerated nationalism. Right-wing populism, which made Le Pen senior a serious candidate for two decades, remains central to the politics of the party. In 2012, Le Pen’s success will be decided by her ability to broaden her appeal and reach new voters. Many commentators argue that her party has already become the main workers’ party and that this will deliver the Front’s best score ever. However, like her father and in a manner traditional to the extreme right, Le Pen has openly targeted the middle class and lower-middle class, those she feels are the most highly disillusioned with politics and ready to vote for anyone in order to vent their frustration. It is their degree of dissatisfaction that will be central to the success of the FN this year.
From fascism to neo-racist populism
To fully understand the impact of the modern FN on French politics, to see the continuity in the family’s struggle, and to weigh its chances in the next election, one need only look at the origins of the party and its development. Created in 1972 by the fascist Ordre Nouveau, its first leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was entrusted to gather the various families of the extreme right under one banner. Humiliation followed humiliation, and it took over ten years for the party to register its first breakthroughs in local elections thanks to the support of the moderate right. Without the assistance of the mainstream right and left, it is unlikely the FN would have managed such a rise. During Mitterrand’s 14-year presidency, the right borrowed Le Pen’s rhetoric to scare part of its middle class and rural electorate, while the left, which had by then abandoned any pretence it was waging a class struggle, used the FN as a scarecrow, gathering its voters behind an over-blown and hollow anti-racist vote. Meanwhile, the fate of the FN became linked to the Nouvelle droite (French New Right). In the mid-1990s, its think-tanks succeeded in centralising their right-wing Gramsciism in the party’s strategy. No longer would Jean-Marie Le Pen and the FN limit themselves to extreme racist rhetoric. Instead, they would rely on neo-racist populism to appeal to a growing audience of discontented who felt let down by mainstream parties and politics.
This shift away from racism was crucial for the long-term success of the Front. Instead of relying on crude biological racism and the hereditary inequality and inferiority of certain groups, Etienne Balibar (as well as Martin Barker) noted that the new neo-racist discourse insisted on the ‘irreducibility of cultural differences; a racism which, at first sight, does not imply the superiority of certain groups or peoples over others, but “only” the noxiousness of the removal of borders, the incompatibility of ways of life and traditions’. (Balibar, 1997) With this, the extreme right began to defuse attacks that it was traditionally racist on two counts: it is not exactly the ‘Other’ who is to blame, but rather its impact on us and our society; ‘We’ are not racist, we have just been taken advantage of for too long. With neo-racism, the concepts of superiority and inferiority are sworn to have been abandoned. The ‘Other’ is not lesser than ‘We’, ‘They’ are just innately and irreducibly different, a difference we should respect. The logical conclusion to this? They stay away and let ‘Us’ be different.
This extreme-right populist rhetoric added to the FN’s neo-racist strategies, and allowed the party to gain pseudo-democratic legitimacy: with the current neoliberal hegemony, the extreme right has become a visible and credible option, offering real change and hope. No matter how flawed, this alternative has been appealing precisely because it has been the only one. The extreme right does not need to provide any concrete solution; it can offer contradictory or incompatible propositions (anti-communism, ultra-liberalism, anti-capitalism, protectionism, etc.) leaving as its only coherent point its claim to be the ‘party of the discontented’. For French extreme right expert Erwan Lecoeur, the growing section of the population to which the extreme right appeals suffers from ‘the inability to give meaning to life and to the world’ and ‘the loss of collective and individual identity’ which can be argued to have been caused by a feeling of uselessness in the ‘post-political’ democratic machine. The success of right-wing populism has then been the direct consequence of the death of alternative ideologies, Castoriadis’ ‘second disenchantment of the world’: liberal progress has become emptied of any meaning while communism is represented as a form of hell (Lecoeur, 2003).
Through the exclusion of minorities with neo-racist and populist discourse, the Front National was able to create its own people (the ‘true French’) and to portray itself as the real defender of the people, true democratic sovereign, in contrast to the ‘establishment’ accused of having sold the country off to both immigrants and capital. To seduce part of the population which felt abandoned by the major parties, the French extreme right therefore attempted the uneasy mix of pseudo-social and ethno-exclusivist politics, while reassuring its traditional supporters of its old capitalist, corporatist and racist credentials.
The 2002 ‘earthquake’?
This double play, attempting to appeal to both its traditional electorate and the broader discontented showed its first signs of success during the 1995 presidential elections when Le Pen received 15.3% and more than 4.5 million votes. Despite internal dissensions which led many commentators to believe the 1998 split might be the end of the Front National, Le Pen sent a shockwave within the ‘establishment’ when he reached the second round of the presidential elections in 2002. Yet in light of previous elections, the results of 2002 were not so much of a surprise, and certainly not an ‘earthquake’, as advertised in the media. In the extremely favourable circumstances, Le Pen’s progression from 4.5 million votes in 1995 to 4.8 million is of consequence, yet probably much less than expected.
Despite the passion triggered by the results of the first round, the second round was a mere formality for right-wing candidate Jacques Chirac, who won with 82% of the vote. Le Pen’s score increased only marginally, laying bare the limits of the extreme right during elections. Further lessening the groundbreaking character of the Front National’s result, between 1988 and 2002, Le Pen’s vote in the second round increased by less than half a million votes in an electoral register comprising more than 41 million people in 2002. In fact, trends clearly showed that it was the declining support for mainstream parties that was responsible for the Front National’s ‘success’. Of little interest to the mainstream media compared to Le Pen’s ‘victory’, Jacques Chirac had qualified with the approval of only 13.75% of those registered to vote. He became the worst-performing first-round candidate to be elected president during the Fifth Republic, and yet the elected president with the highest majority in French history.
When a Le Pen falls, another rises
In the 2007 presidential elections, the memory of 2002 remained vivid in the minds of the French electorate. Mainstream parties were successful in convincing many of those who had strayed to protest voting and abstention to make a vote utile (useful vote) to keep the extreme right at bay. Le Pen received ‘only’ 10.44% of the vote (3.8 million). This was also a direct a result of Sarkozy’s populist ethno-exclusivist campaign which made him appear a credible alternative to many who had voted Le Pen in the past. Many former Le Pen supporters switched sides as they believed Sarkozy represented their chance to finally see their ideas in power.
Today, with Sarkozy’s approval ratings at an all-time low, the extreme right electorate appears to have deserted the copy and moved back to the original. In March 2011, before the Socialist candidate was chosen in very successful primaries, a poll suggested that Marine Le Pen would even lead the first round of the elections with 23%. Even taken with the caution that must be afforded electoral polls, her appeal within the most alienated part of the working class should not be downplayed. Clearly, Marine Le Pen is the partial beneficiary of the recent failure of the left to offer the working class a real alternative. It is with this in mind that she has continued the FN’s infiltration of the growing part of the population which feels constantly exploited by the ‘establishment’. Shameless, she even compared some mainstream French parties to the collaborators of the Second World War.
In her pursuit of credibility, the new president also managed to gain the support of respectable figures such as former head of secret services Yves Bertrand. While he has so far declined to participate in Le Pen’s campaign, Bertrand has played a part in her legitimisation by hoping for ‘her integration within the [mainstream] French political sphere’. Prominent polemical lawyer Maitre Collard, who claims to have represented the deported children of Izieu during the Klaus Barbie trial, also helped raise Le Pen’s respectability: his position as advisor has lent credibility to a candidate trying to distance herself from the anti-Semitism of her father. This former left-wing supporter also provided a more human face to the neo-racist anti-immigration programme of the FN.
Different name, same politics
Yet Le Pen’s mainstreaming and growing appeal within traditional left-leaning classes should not be exaggerated or twisted. While there is a worrying number of voters who have turned towards the extreme right as an alternative to the current hegemonic neo-liberalism, most working class voters remain with the left or increasingly tend toward abstention. Further, while Marine Le Pen wants to be the ‘candidate of the forgotten and the invisible’, of the ‘farmers, unemployed, workers’, of all those ‘betrayed by the left’, much of the discourse within the FN tends to demonstrate that the real target electorate is similar to that traditionally chased by the extreme right. Recently, Marine Le Pen’s strategic director Florian Philippot noted that the middle classes were the most important in the election, and that it is this part of the population that would be targeted, for it was this ‘traditionally right-wing electorate’ who had given Nicolas Sarkozy his 2007 victory. Le Pen also insisted that the population in the suburbs (predominantly unemployed or working class) was not of interest to the FN, and that instead she would focus on the conveniently undefined ‘silent majority’. The new rhetoric sympathetic to the pleas of the working class appears to be just that.
It would be a grave mistake to assume that the FN has become just another party and that its campaign to attain legitimacy and credibility is anything more than a façade. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s recent denunciation of Norway’s naivety, which he believed was more concerning than the massacre itself, showed the true face of the party. The new president’s reaction demonstrated the continuation of his extreme right legacy: while many urged Marine Le Pen to sanction her father for his comments to prove her ‘moderate’ and respectable credentials, she announced that she was ‘not in disagreement’ with what he had said. Nor was it surprising that both father and daughter asserted that Anders Breivik was a ‘madman’ rather than an extreme right terrorist. More recently, in one of her campaign speeches, Le Pen made it clear that she targeted the Muslim population and that her republican and secularist stance was just a palatable veneer to single out a particular minority. Le Pen stated that with her election ‘street prayers […] would come to an end’ and no more money would go towards assisting in the building of mosques. Warning a blurry category of ‘integrists’, she proclaimed that they would be facing for the first time in decades ‘an extremely determined power’. Whether Le Pen meant the decades since the early 1940s is unclear, but her choice of words is telling.
What are we to expect?
Despite the party’s disturbing behaviour, and a hundred days to the election, Marine Le Pen’s popularity remains as high as ever. A recent Sofres/Le Monde survey found that a record 31% of respondents agreed with FN ideas and that only a record low 35% entirely rejected them, striking figures compared to those recorded by Jean-Marie Le Pen throughout his career. However, it would be wrong to assume that it was the mere change of leadership that legitimised the Front National in the eyes of many respondents. As previously mentioned, the rise of the FN has coincided with the lack of trust given to the parties in power. The less the electorate trusts them, the more abstention and alternative parties rise. In the current state of politics in France, where the two main parties are divided and their most likely candidates appear to be less than trustworthy in the eyes of the electorate, any alternative is certainly appealing. This high level of distrust in mainstream parties is not likely to benefit the Socialist left for two main reasons. First, recent elections, particularly those of 2002 and 2007, have led to a populist race which has turned inclusionary programmes into political suicide. In France as in many other parliamentary democracies, it has become impossible to treat immigration as anything but a problem during a campaign. Second, the formerly powerful Communist party, its new ally the Front de Gauche, and the Greens party have had their reputation tarnished by their past or present alliances with the Socialists. While this will not necessarily put off an electorate traditionally anchored on the left, it is unlikely to sway the growing number of those who have little political loyalty and an extreme distrust of politicians in general. In fact, in the current setting, bar the irrelevant parliamentary extreme left unable to shake the demons of its past, only the extreme right can proclaim to have its hands clean and to not be responsible for the widespread disillusionment within contemporary French politics.
As it stands, the only conjecture which could prevent the extreme right from achieving a new record in the 2012 elections would be the success of a second vote utile strategy. It is striking to note that Le Monde has already begun its campaign against the FN in an editorial entitled ‘Unreal Figures and Real Threat’ denouncing the costing of the provisional budget offered by the party. In the 2012 French political landscape, only the powerful memory of 2002 could prove lethal to the hopes of the extreme right. While Marine Le Pen was certainly successful in transforming her party into a more respectable one, pursuing the strategy put in place by the New Right in the mid-1990s, her rise could be broken by the revival of the fear of fascism by mainstream parties in the second round of the elections and calling for a ‘useful vote’ as they did in 2007. While this could quash the hopes of the extreme right of facing either Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande in the second round, the respite would only be brief for democracy. Replacing the fear of the future central to the extreme right programme with the fear of the extreme right would only delay the reaction of an increasingly disillusioned and alienated population, a population the left has failed and keeps failing.
First published in the March edition of Z magazine