Washington Post, June 20, 2022
“Le Pen’s promise to reverse a decline in living standards and boost wages found a receptive audience in deprived provincial areas during the presidential campaign.”
Only once has France had a far-right government — in the dark days of Nazi occupation during World War II. That lingering association with a period of national calamity confined extreme conservative groups to the margins of politics for the rest of the 20th century. Now they’re making a comeback, exploiting economic insecurity to peddle a narrative of a proud nation in decline, besieged by alien cultures. In an April presidential election, far-right figures secured the most votes since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Two months later, France’s largest far-right party hit another milestone by winning a record number of seats in parliament.
1. What is the French far-right?
The term encompasses various populist groups that have come and gone since the late 19th century. They tend to promote conservative values and favor tough enforcement of law and order. Some are monarchists and traditionalist Catholics and many hold extreme, racist and anti-Semitic views. Right-wing dissident paramilitaries fought against Algerian independence in the early 1960s, committing attacks that caused hundreds of deaths. The most successful far-right party today is the National Rally, founded as the National Front in 1972 and led for almost four decades by Jean-Marie Le Pen before he was replaced by his daughter Marine.
2. Who are its main players?
Le Pen, a former French paratrooper during the Algerian war, has been convicted of racism and anti-Semitism and once claimed the Nazi gas chambers were a “detail” of history. He ran for president four times and only once reached the second-round run-off, in 2002, where he was dealt a crushing defeat by Jacques Chirac. Marine Le Pen took over in 2011 and began trying to soften the party’s image, changing its name and later ejecting her father from the movement. She ran for president three times and made it to the run-off twice. Le Pen is now progressively handing over the party to her deputy, Jordan Bardella, a fresh face from the suburbs of Paris. Le Pen’s niece Marion Marechal, often described as a rising star of the far-right, defected from her aunt’s camp in March and is now vice president of Reconquest, a newer group led by writer and media pundit Eric Zemmour, who has been convicted of hate speech and stoked controversy for comments seen as denying the basic facts of the Holocaust.
3. What are their policies?
The National Rally wants to cut immigration and asylum, bar families of foreign nationals from joining them in France and expel undocumented migrants. Zemmour called for the deportation of a million illegal immigrants and foreigners who have committed crimes or are suspected of terrorist sympathies. He called for a ban on Muslim names, Islamic veils and mosque minarets, and said Muslims should give up their faith and beliefs, seeing them as incompatible with French republican values. The far-right wants to increase legal protection for police officers accused of violence, halt European Union integration and reimpose border controls. Le Pen said France should leave NATO’s integrated command, a structure described as the military alliance’s “backbone,” and has cultivated ties with authoritarian leaders including Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
4. How close did she come to the presidency?
Le Pen sought to moderate her views for her third presidential run in April, dropping a plan to ban dual citizenship — a calling card of the far right — and scrapping an explicit pledge to pull France out of the EU. She courted younger voters with promises of tax breaks and tried to soften her image — sharing personal stories about her life as a single mother with three children. She polled just behind incumbent President Emmanuel Macron for part of the 2022 campaign before losing to him in a second-round run-off, securing around 41% of votes, an improvement on her 34% score last time around in 2017.
5. Is the far-right influencing mainstream politics?
Rattled by the electoral success of Le Pen, Zemmour and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon in April, Macron redoubled a commitment to improve living standards and household purchasing power. He also sharply reduced the number of visas granted to Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian nationals. In June, historic gains by the National Rally helped to deprive Macron’s centrist movement of its majority in parliament, and Le Pen vowed to use her party’s new legislative clout to influence government policy and block his reforms. Ideas that emerged on the far right have become dominant themes within the traditional center-right Republicans party. Even some leftist figures like Arnaud Montebourg have said things that were unthinkable in his sphere of politics a few years ago. Montebourg has proposed blocking cash transfers to countries that refuse to take back their undocumented nationals caught in France, an idea long advocated by the far right.
6. Who are the far-right’s new voters?
A decline of France’s old establishment parties has left more wavering voters to be courted by the far-left and far-right. Le Pen’s promise to reverse a decline in living standards and boost wages found a receptive audience in deprived provincial areas during the presidential campaign. Zemmour used a slick social-media strategy to lure wealthier and younger people, promoting the so-called Great Replacement theory, which argues that White, Christian Europeans are being supplanted by Muslim immigrants who want to change the culture from within. The sense of an existential threat was sharpened by a succession of deadly attacks by Islamist militants over the past decade.
7. What are their slogans?
Marine Le Pen has softened her father’s rallying cries of “France for the French” and “The French first” to “The France we love.” Her supporters chant “this is our home” during rallies. Some of the far-right’s tropes have seeped into mainstream politics. The concept of “ensauvagement,” the idea that the nation is turning savage, struck a nerve with voters alarmed by crime rates in areas with large immigrant populations. A line was crossed in 2020, when Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who has responsibility for the police, said: “Personally, I use the word ensauvagement and I repeat it.”
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