Putting it very simply, the first round of departmental elections last Sunday saw a fairly strong showing from the far-right National Front (in French: Front National, or FN), around 25%, just behind the Conservative / Center-Right (UMP / UDI) alliance, and in front of the Socialist / far-Left (PS / FdG) alliance. The second round will occur on Sunday, March 29th and I have no prediction to make about the final outcome, but one thing is clear: the Front National is increasing it’s hold on local elections and that is sending ripples of angst in the establishment and in a sizeable part of the population, to which the FN is presented as a non-republican, racist, irresponsible bunch. There is of course some truth in that, but the reality is a bit more complex.
The FN was born in the early 70s from an extreme-right, neo-nazi faction called “Ordre Nouveau” (New Order) with founders including Jean-Marie Le Pen and François Duprat. The FN began to play a major role on the french political scene in the 1990s, winning a number of town councils. Le Pen’s main claim to fame is making it to the second round the 2002 presidental elections, where he faced Jacques Chirac in a stand-off that Chirac won easily, but the possibility of a FN ruling France became real.
In 2011 the old FN ruler, fond of dubious jokes about foreigners and the Shoah that got him in court a few times, gave way to his daughter Marine Le Pen, and from then on things started to get very serious indeed. The new leader made every effort to reinvent her party, erasing as much of her father’s unpalatable legacy as possible, getting her most extreme far-right neo-nazis members out of the FN, and trying to attract high-level members with more brain power than swastika-tatooed muscle.
One such is Aymeric Chauprade, a lawyer, writer, geopolitical expert who taught at the french Joint Defense College, from where he was thrown out by then-Defense Minister Hervé Morin in 2009 because his views on the 9/11 events were not sufficiently politically correct. Meaning he (Chauprade) did not fully and unquestionnably accept the official version on 9/11 – which nobody having paid some attention to the matter can accept anyway. But 9/11 is a strong taboo within the french establishment. That being said, the courts ruled against Morin’s decision in 2011, on the argument that Morin’s decision resulted from an irregular procedure…
In 2012, Marine Le Pen came third in the presidential race with nearly 18% of the vote. In the 2014 local elections about 10 FN mayors were voted in, and in the 2014 european elections the FN came out on top with nearly 25% of the votes. So last Sundays results are definitely not a fluke.
So, what makes the FN tick?
One has to consider both the official political programme of the FN, and it’s role in the political game. The programme is a mix of measures centered around the preeminence of France and of french nationals (so-called “national preference”), full return to sovereignty and reintroduction of the Franc alongside the common european currency. A number of proposed measures are copied out of the leftist political handbook, such as increase of the minimum wage, increase in pensions, a fiscal system more favourable to middle-class incomes, more help for small companies, some degree of protectionism and a fight against rural desertification.
A number of other measures are taken right out of the nationalist book: Increased spending of defense, opting out of NATO and the Common Agricultural Policy, rewriting of EU treaties, reinstatement of national borders (end of Shengen and free circulation). More police of course, and a promise to flush out illegal residents, migrants and the like.
The FN is technically a National Socialist party, although that terminology is never used for obvious reasons (you could be taken to court for defamation, by the FN, for making a link between the FN and the Nazi party). So mainstream politicians and the media label the FN as “anti-Republican”, meaning that it is supposed to not adhere to Republican values. It’s hard to see exactly in what ways it’s adhering any less than traditionnal parties: a center-left politician recently said that the FN did not adhere to a meritocratic society but to a class-based society, which is basically true, but it is also basically true of the conservative party in general, and is a fact of french society anyway.
The very concept of “Republican values” is pretty hard to pin down, as every side claims them for themselves even when blatantly walking all over them. Even the very worrying and very “wrong” proposal by the FN to criminalise those who help illegal residents and migrants by giving them food, power for phones, tents and the like, is just a rewrite of a law dating from 1938 and applied a number of times against people helping “aliens” with shelter of food. That law was watered down by current Prime Minister Manuel Valls in 2012 to exclude people who help migrants, free of charge, to a slighly better life. Thousands of people, traitors to their country in the eyes of the far-right, are doing that today, especially in the Calais area where between 2000 and 3000 migrants roam in vain awaiting an opportunity to cross over to the UK. And where the FN made big gains on Sunday. It is of course much easier to point the finger at ordinary people with a good heart than to address the root causes of the problem.
Xenophobic, Vichy-style laws are very likely under the FN, but not a whole lot more than under Conservative rule, which had even set up a Ministry of National Identity manned by people taken right out of a casting for Nazi technocrats in a WW2 movie… But even though there is quite some porosity between the conservatives and the FN, there are also major differences. For example, the conservatives, center-right and center-left, are europhiles, free traders, and generally followers of the USA’s foreign policy line – things which are not really compatible with FN philosophy.
If one wanted to know what an FN-idealised France might look like, one needs only look at Russia. Russia is a role-model for the FN politics, and Vladimir Putin a role-model on how to run a country according to nationalist and conservative values. The fact that Russia stands in oppostion to the EU / USA in matters of foreign policy in general, and on Ukraine and Syria in particular, also fuels that goodwill. That is understandable, as EU / USA policies need to be a lot more criticised than they do through traditionnal media. And the icing on the love cake is, of course, the fact that Russian banks lend money to the FN, which finds it hard to get financed by local banks. So if the FN ever took power in France, you would probably see an axis forming between France, Hungary and Russia as all three nationalist governements share a lot of “values”.
But we are not there yet, not by a long way. What makes the FN such a strong player in current french politics is, first of all, it’s inherent appeal to the disenchanted radicals on the left (for its very social and protectionist aspects) and on the rght (for its very conservative and nationalist aspects). So they draw voters from both ends of the spectrum.
Another important element is the “fed up” factor: A number of previously mainstream, middle-class voters are fed up with traditionnal parties both left and right which appear to do little that actually makes a positive difference to their lives, are seen as corrupt (for good reasons) and incompetent, and end up asking themselves why they shouln’t give the untested FN a chance.
The final aspect which, in my view, propels the FN forward is it’s constant demonizing by the mainstream and certain radical left parties. FN is the thing mainstream politicians love to hate, and just prior to the latest elections Prime Minister Manuel Valls did a lot to portray the FN as inherently evil. That kind of posture generally signifies a lack of arguments, and tends to backfire even though it may motivate, in the short term, undecided mainstream voters to go and vote to oppose the “devil”. The fact is that the FN is getting stronger and stronger, and labelling it as “anti-republican” or a bunch of neonazis just isn’t good enough. The proof is in the pudding, as taken as a single party the FN is indeed the biggest party in France today. The “right” still gets more votes but it is made up of a ad-hoc coalition of parties, each of which – even the main one, the UMP – being by itself less representative than the FN. The following diagram represents the actual voter percentages, including non voters (who made up 55% of the total number of registered voters in the last vote), for all individual parties. The FN is the biggest with 11%.
That needs to be reflected on.
My previous french chronicles: