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 Prof. Jocelyn Evans.
In the 40 years since its launch, the Front national (FN) has moved from a motley assortment of neo-fascist malcontents, former Poujadist populists, Royalists and Algérie française nostalgics to the established third party of the French political landscape. A party whose grandees promoted Jean-Marie Le Pen as the reasonable face of the Far Right – a view which demonstrates how much both French society and the Far Right itself have changed since the 1970s – nonetheless remains largely a pariah in the French political system, tentatively acknowledged by the harder Right elements in the UMP, but still beyond the pale for the Left and Centre-Right.
Evidently, the same cannot be said of the French electorate, some 3.5 million of whom voted for the FN in the 2012 legislative elections in June, with an additional 3 million grosso modo having turned out for Marine Le Pen in the Presidentials six weeks earlier. Many of these were first-time voters, others stable supporters of the Far Right party over many years. Yet more will have decamped, disillusioned, from mainstream parties, principally of the Right but also from the Left, to endorse a protest candidate and her party who claim to oppose both Left and Right.
Such shifts in electoral support have always informed analyses of the FN.
By 2007, this electoral flux narrative was describing the move of voters away from the FN to the newly ‘hardened’ UMP. Five years later, it depicted the return to the FN of a similar group of voters let down by Sarkozy, and thereby instrumental in his loss to Hollande. From the party’s ideological roots and anachronistic social bases of the 1970s, one can trace clear shifts in the composition of its contemporary electoral support, both as a party with a core electorate as stable as the mainstream’s, and amongst the more fickle voters attracted to the party – and more notably, its presidential candidate – through their protest appeal.
The FN’s flirtation with hardcore laissez faire Reaganomics in the 1980s -for instance proposing the abolition of income tax- served the party well in attracting the businessmen and other self-employed occupations that had turned to Poujadism in the 1950s. However, the ethnocentric and reactionary rhetoric, which today epitomises the party for most observers, appealed not just to an authoritarian conservative petty bourgeoisie, inexorably Right-wing in its outlook, but during the 1990s attracted the so-called couches populaires in ever greater numbers.
My own doctoral research, synthesised into this article in the Revue Française de Science Politique, explored the notion of traditionally Leftist voters moving to the FN as an aberrant phenomenon. The concept of gaucholepénisme, coined by Pascal Perrineau, provided the clearest roadmap of such voter displacement.
Yet by the 2000s, the gaucholepéniste model had largely fallen out of use, simply because the FN now consistently appeals to the working and routine non-manual classes as strongly as the Socialist Party, and more strongly proportionately than any other political group. Thirty years since any Left- wing party has realistically been able to claim definitive dirigiste solutions to social precarity, there is no awkwardness in the Left’s former chasse gardée voting once, or often, for the FN. As Gilles Ivaldi described in his blog on the Extremis Project this morning, the ideological shift of the party towards the welfare chauvinism position identified in Kitschelt’s famous ‘winning formula’ (1995) recognised the value of such an electorate, not just in terms of numbers – after all, the blue-collar class constitutes a shrinking segment of the employment sector – but as a symbol of their beleaguered petit blanc in French society.
The FN has always revelled in portraying itself as “the party of” specific sectors of society. In 2012, the self-styled parti des ouvriers has been joined by the parti des jeunes. In the early years of its success, as Le Front national à découvert showed, the youngest tranche of voters was not significantly over-represented – rather, the oldest tranche was under represented. By the mid- to late 1990s, Ces Français qui votent FN were increasingly seeing their cohorts repopulated by the young – and especially young workers. In 2012, however, claims to represent the young in particular do not appear quite as sustainable: in the first round of the Presidential elections, the 18-24 group appeared to vote in much higher numbers even for Sarkozy than Marine le Pen. Greater strength now appeared in those nearing middle age – many of the youngsters of the 1980s and 1990s.
Still, the clearest mark of FN support to date – those with low education – is not a label the party has chosen to pursue, perhaps because “the party of the unqualified” sends mixed messages. Yet, in keeping with other Extreme Right electorates in Europe, it has been the most consistent predictor of support.
Nevertheless, in 2012 one of the more striking aspects of Le Pen’s voters in the Presidential elections was precisely the relatively high levels of support across a large number of social strata. Some case studies have already highlighted this new diffusion of the Mariniste phenomenon. Most strikingly, Nonna Mayer sees the accretion of female working-class voters as reducing the previously ubiquitous gender divide. We now need to go either up – to constituency and regional level – or down – to individuals’ attitudes – to find clear differentiation. Electorally, the Gard, which elected Gilbert Collard as a constituency deputy, and parts of the Parisian conurbation represent the two extremes of frontiste support. At the other end, a eurosceptic, culturally parochial and politically alienated mindset is the Extreme Right electorate’s badge. Variants on that psychological theme are what the party attempts to identify and mobilise – to instil, even – to push it closer to the multiple seats it requires to force its agenda further into national policy.
The FN’s appeal to youngsters, to workers, to the ‘true French’, lies not simply in its own electorate, but in the non-electorate – those who did not and do not vote. Yet, these disenfranchised sections of French society are pickings for the FN only in the presence of endorsement, or at least tolerance, of the scape-goating ideology of that party. In its absence, abstention persists, or other movements present more attractive and inclusive radical solutions, such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche.
Last month’s FN université d’été demonstrated how FN supporters still openly resent diversity. Exemplifying this, the audience acclaim for Marion Maréchal Le Pen’s deriding of the term LGBT. One can certainly find similar attitudes elsewhere, particular on the conservative Right, which will not shy away from reactionary rhetoric when useful – most recently, the straw-man of ‘le racisme anti-blanc’ (incidentally, an almost identical concept was deployed in 1985 by Jean-Marie Le Pen). FN supporters, however, thrive on such machinations.
So, and 40 years on, the party continues to convene those disgruntled with the status quo. Their targets remain similar, their sense of no longer belonging in contemporary France likewise. France’s ethnic and cultural composition is a given, whereas it is instability which persists in the European economy – conditions for such reaction remain fertile, then. At this point in time, it would be difficult to conceive of a 50th anniversary which marked any significant decline in this party’s fortunes.
Jocelyn Evans is a Professor of Politics at the University of Salford. He edits the Palgrave Macmillan “French Politics, Society and Culture” monograph series.