The French Front National (FN) is considered by many analysts to be the prototype of the modern radical right party family in Europe. Founded in 1972, the FN is currently preparing to mark its fortieth anniversary, and so Extremis Project is publishing a series of expert posts that examine the party’s past, present and future. The latest post comes from Professor James Shields.
In the first rounds of the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections, the Front National (FN) under its new leader Marine Le Pen attracted a combined total of ten million votes, an achievement unprecedented in the party’s 40-year history. Of some 60 million votes cast over both elections, one in six went to the FN. Moreover, of all the political parties contesting these elections the strongest upward momentum was recorded by the FN- which added a combined 5 million votes to its tally from the corresponding elections of 2007.
Despite her record score for a far-right candidate of 17.9% in the presidential poll, however, Marine Le Pen had to settle for a third-place ‘bronze’, failing to match her father’s qualification for the head-to-head final in 2002. Furthermore, despite its 13.6% of the national vote in the parliamentary elections, her party won only two seats out of 577 (0.3%) in the National Assembly. So is it business as usual again in French politics, with the mainstream parties’ duopoly reasserted over government and opposition and with the FN safely returned to its institutional irrelevance? Here are some reasons for looking more closely at the FN’s significance and resisting any such complacent conclusion.
The first is the critical role played by FN voters in determining the outcome of every presidential election in France since 1988. In 1995, 2.3 million vote transfers from Jean-Marie Le Pen secured Jacques Chirac’s run-off victory against the Socialist Lionel Jospin. In 2002, Le Pen’s ousting of Jospin and qualification for the run-off assured Chirac’s landslide re-election in a contest he had been uncertain to win against his Socialist opponent. In 2007, 2.5 million vote transfers from Le Pen provided Nicolas Sarkozy’s margin of victory against the Socialist Ségolène Royal and, in 2012, Sarkozy’s inability to rally enough Marine Le Pen voters consigned him to defeat. That this decisive role in the election to France’s highest political office should have been consistently played by a party with almost no institutional recognition is a singular anomaly at the heart of representative democracy in contemporary France.
The second point that should give pause for reflection is the slow but sure geographical extension of the FN vote, from the former bastions of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Languedoc-Roussillon in the south-east to a mosaic of departments across the north and north-east that are increasingly becoming strongholds; along with the gradual extension of support through the centre and west of France and across north-west coastal departments. In only two of 96 metropolitan departments did Marine Le Pen’s score drop below 10%, and it exceeded 20% in 43 of them. The FN vote has extended out from the old urban locations in which it first took root into la France profonde – and some examples are arresting: like the village of Brachay in Haute-Marne, where some 70% of residents’ votes went to Marine Le Pen, or the nearby village of Flammerécourt with its Le Pen vote of 55%. These are typical of so many recondite localities hit by cuts in services where Marine Le Pen’s invectives against Parisian elites and Berlin-inspired austerity are finding increasing resonance.
The third reason for paying close heed to the FN’s significance within and beyond these elections lies in the complex nature of its political appeal, with the party challenging hard on the centre-right but also being the major threat to the Socialists and Communists in many former fiefdoms of the left. Blending protectionist economics with welfare chauvinism, Marine Le Pen has made her personal base in the old mining town of Hénin-Beaumont in the Pas-de-Calais coalfields – a million miles from her Saint-Cloud family home and a base from which she seeks to build a dominant FN presence in the post-industrial heartlands of the north and north-east of France. Though the FN electorate contains a majority of committed right-wing sympathisers, it continues to attract many politically alienated voters with no real affinity to right or left, a largely ‘left-wing’ socio-economic profile, and an inclination to protest voting or abstention. The 56% of first-round Le Pen voters estimated to have voted for the Socialist François Hollande, spoiled their ballot or abstained in the presidential run-off attest to the complexity of this electorate (CSA polling).
The fourth point to ponder is how the discourse and policies of the FN have permeated parts of the wider right in France. Sarkozy’s presidential campaigns of 2007 and 2012, together with his five years as president, shifted the boundaries between ‘moderate’ and ‘far’ right. Sarkozy did much to legitimise the FN with his unabashed courting of FN supporters, his assertion that there are ‘too many foreigners’ in France, his scaremongering over threats to the ‘civilisation of the French Republic’, his flirting with the policy of ‘national preference’, and much more. The condition in which he leaves the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) is an ideologically compromised one as it now prepares to elect its new leader and reset its policy course.
Does all of this mean that Marine Le Pen has succeeded in her mission to ‘de-demonise’ the FN and bring it mainstream acceptability? Yes and no. Yes, in part, if we consider the growing support in public opinion for the FN’s ideas (37% in April 2012), the drop in those viewing the party as dangerous (51%), and the rise in those judging it to be ‘a party like the others’ (51%) (TNS-Sofres polling). No, if we consider the continued ostracism of the FN by all other parties, or the difficulty encountered by Marine Le Pen in securing the required 500 sponsors’ signatures from over 47,000 public office holders (barely 1%). No, too, when we see that 44% of her electorate voted for her in order to ‘oppose other candidates’ and that only 36% did so in order to ‘elect her president’ (CSA polling).
Such findings speak of a still deeply negative protest tendency in this vote.
So ‘de-demonising’ the FN is still a work in progress. In the end, however, the degree to which the FN brand is or is not detoxified will depend neither on its leader nor on its supporters. Until the FN is more widely seen as a normal party, it will not be one and, while the mainstream parties and institutional hurdles like the prohibitive two-round majority voting system combine to maintain that exclusion, no effort by the FN leader will bring the political opportunity she seeks. The examples of Austria and Italy show how radical right-wing parties can gain mainstream acceptability – but for that the complicity of the conservative right is crucial. One of the biggest challenges facing the UMP in the post-Sarkozy era is how to continue its resistance to doing a ‘deal for power’ with the FN while at the same time resisting the urge to compete with the FN on its own terms. For how long might we be confident that the UMP will prove up to that challenge?
James Shields, School of Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University