The Front national (FN) is broadly considered to be the prototype of the populist radical party, the main right-wing challenger of contemporary European liberal democracies. It is also the oldest continuing radical right party in the region, celebrating its 40th birthday this week. In light of the fundamental changes the party underwent in its first three decades, the recent leadership transition, from Jean-Marie to Marine Le Pen, is fairly cosmetic. And while Marine might have rejuvenated the party, it is doubtful that she will be able to bring the FN back to its influential heydays of the late 20th century.
The FN did not start out as a modern, populist radical right party. When founded in 1972, it was a coalition of a broad range of traditional extreme and radical right groupuscules, deeply connected to France’s (pre)war and colonial past. Deeply divided internally, the groups were kept together by the towering figure of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who integrated and personified the various strands of the French postwar radical right. Le Pen was considered a hero within the broad radical right subculture after giving up his parliamentary seat (for the Poujadists) and joining the French army to fight in the Algerian struggle for independence.
During its first decade, the FN remained a mere shell, depending organizationally on the distinct infrastructures of its constituent parts. Slowly but steadily, Le Pen developed an independent party ideology and organization, helped in particular by Bruno Mégret and his network of highly educated former Gaullists and nouvelle droite sympathizers. Profiting maximally from the political opportunism of President Mitterand, the party established itself in the French political system in 1986, when its first and only significant faction entered parliament. The FN had successfully modernized the radical right agenda, exchanging colonial racism with ethnopluralism, elitism with pluralism, and coterie politics with media-savvy campaigning. While a return to the old electoral system and the cordon sanitaire would keep the FN from a strong presence in parliament, the party remained a force in the electoral and political arenas.
The next ten years were the heydays of FN influence. With virtually no MPs in Paris, the party was nevertheless able to dominate the political debate, forcing leaders of all mainstream parties to copy important parts of its authoritarian and xenophobic discourse – even if the changes in legislation showed the limits of its influence. On top of its national importance, the FN was an inspiration to radical right activists around Europe. Parties like the Belgian VB borrowed heavily from the FN and Le Pen was the main event at radical right events from Britain to Poland. The party’s many attempts to bring about a European populist radical right alliance were unsuccessful, however. Le Pen clashed with many other leaders, not in the least Jörg Haider, and his scandals kept more successful PRRPs from (open) collaboration. Despite sensationalist accounts by journalists (and some scholars), the FN provided little tangible support for parties in other countries and was, in the end, only driven by its own interests; its international activities were aimed at enabling a populist radical right faction in the European Parliament, which is a crucial source of finance for the FN.
The late 1990s saw the long-anticipated split between Le Pen and Mégret, a consequence of different personal ambitions and strategic decisions, rather than ideological differences. Yet, while the party lost a majority of its cadre, it held on to most of its electorate. Mégret’s MNR proved an irrelevant electoral force and the FN was able to rebuild within a couple of years. The 2002 presidential elections saw both the high and the low of FN influence. The high was the first round, in which Le Pen won a (then) record 16.9 percent of the vote. The low was the second round, in which Le Pen was the surprise run-off candidate, but gained a mere 17.8 percent – a gain of less than one percent compared to the first round, despite facing one of the least popular sitting presidents in the history of the Fifth Republic. In the end, the 2002 presidential elections had shown, for the first time, the limits of the FN’s appeal. As with most new parties, the FN’s power had been largely based on its continuing growth and the mystique of its natural boundaries. Now the other parties knew where these limits were -around 20 percent- and that most of the other 80 percent would rather ‘vote for the crook, not the fascist.’
When Jean-Marie finally handed his party over to his youngest daughter, in 2011, many (including me!) expected internal divisions and consequent electoral defeat. Instead, Marine Le Pen had an extremely successful first electoral test, breaking her father’s 2002 record in the presidential elections (17.9%) and leading the party to its second highest result in the parliamentary elections (13.6%). Moreover, sitting president Sarkozy’s desperate re-election campaign, with increasingly sharp authoritarian, Eurosceptic and xenophobic discourse, was reminiscent of the heydays of FN influence (with similar statements by politicians like Chirac, Cresson, and Pasqua).
This all notwithstanding, there are at least four reasons why I don’t foresee a reemergence of the FN heydays.
First, despite being a new leader, Marine Le Pen is still operating in the post-2002 political reality. This means that the other politicians know that the vast majority of French are anti-FN and that they will mobilize in opposition to a possible FN victory. Also, while many commentators have made a lot of Marine’s allegedly more attractive skills, mostly based on a sexist interpretation of ‘feminine politics,’ they have not led to a significantly larger electorate. In fact, the 2012 results were lower than her support in the polls, showing that at least part of her electorate is not as loyal as the FN electorate of the pre-2002 period.
Second, the FN has lost much of its old-fashioned membership base, i.e. the various old-school radical right groups, which provided the party with significant financial support and organizational stability. The neo-fascists left already in the 1970s, the former colonials are increasingly dying out, and the neo-Gaullists and nouvelle droite split off in the late 1990s. The only remaining subculture is the fairly affluent and well-connected orthodox-Catholic bloc, which supported Bruno Gollnisch in the 2011 leadership race, and is not charmed by the ‘modern’ politics of Marine Le Pen, a twice-divorced mother of three. Much of the new party cadre consists of less entrenched political professionals, who have little loyalty to Marine Le Pen. Moreover, her father (at 84) will not have her back much longer.
Third, the FN has become an almost irrelevant player within the European populist radical right. Marine has little experience with (or interest in) likeminded foreign parties; contacts are mostly maintained through the European Parliament faction of Gollnisch. But some of the new populist radical right parties also show little interest in the FN. In the post-9/11 world, Islamophobia is the new xenophobia of choice, and this had led to new political alliances. Politicians like Geert Wilders look to neoconservatives in Israel and the United States, not to the FN. This is even increasingly the case for parties like the FPÖ and VB, traditionally part of the (FN-led) axis of European PRRPs.
Fourth, and final, Marine Le Pen is increasingly confronted with potentially divisive choices. In an attempt to increase the party’s electorate, she has to embrace policies that are unpopular among the old base (i.e. white working-class males and traditional radical right-wingers). For example, in trying to win over more women, which constitute only one-third of the FN electorate, Le Pen has modernized the party’s old-fashioned ethical policies (notably on abortion), invoking the rage of the orthodox Catholics. And in an attempt to broaden the basis for the party’s Islamophobic policies, she has reached out to Jews and non-Muslim non-whites. While these challenges are not unique to the FN, and were already partly started under her father, Marine Le Pen doesn’t have his stature to expect a similar unyielding loyalty.
In short, while Marine Le Pen’s results in the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections look like she will eclipse her father’s impressive achievements in the near future, she is facing a much less favorable political context than her father. Moreover, while these great results have given her time to breath, and shape the FN more in her image, it has also raised the bar for the future. And next time the internal opposition will still be around, but her father will not (at least not as the ultimate arbitrator).
So, while the FN might be around for another 40 years, its heydays are behind it.