From active minority to social movement, and from the father to the daughter: the story of the Front National.
Forty years ago, the Front National (FN) emerged on the French political scene and became the black sheep within the French political system. French voters, however, did not react to the FN in 1972, but in 1983 during local elections in Dreux, and then at the 1984 European elections. From hereon, the FN became an active minority party, and started seducing sections of French society.
The leader of the party was Jean-Marie Le Pen, who throughout the 1980s turned the FN into a well-developed social movement. The FN used specific styles of behavior to convince and seduce fringe voters and potential members. The party used provocation as its main style, and consistently repeated its claims that immigration, insecurity and unemployment were damaging French society. Economics were also important, while the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led the party to increasingly replace anti-communism with a stronger emphasis on morality. Today, the discourse of the FN has not changed, as its new leader -Marine Le Pen- argues that the veil and kippa should be forbidden on the streets and in public areas.
To achieve social and political change, the FN had to become visible, and adopted a peculiar position with regard to its own identity and opposition to other parties. A concerted attempt to increase membership transformed the FN from an active minority, into a social movement (Orfali, 1990). Any action chosen by the minority needs to be visible and to present itself as a possible alternative in the social or political field. The “social construction of reality” (Berger and Luckmann, 1966) integrates this possibility of opposed points of view, building on the recognition of conflicts within society. The minority may not be relevant for another minority, or for the majority, but the “problem of relevance” (Schütz, 1970) becomes obvious once social/political visibility and social/political recognition are engaged.
Visibility must be socially recognized by the majority in order to be successful: it is a pre-condition for the success of behavioural styles, requiring action and response to take place between minorities and the majority. The most important step to influence is social recognition: it takes place both within the interpersonal space and the social/political space. Once the majority responds to the minority’s speech and/or action (either positively or negatively), the minority is visible.
This happened easily with the FN, when it started to argue against immigration, insecurity and unemployment, and today argues in favour of laïcity. Its action as well as its discourse is evaluated and evaluation sets the minority in the space of interaction. As Moscovici (1976) explains: recognition is the main aim of the minority, hence the choice of the effective style(s) of behaviour to secure this recognition. Minorities can choose provocation to achieve social recognition, they may even accept stigmatization or resentment in order to be recognized.
Though the party has become a social movement -some 20% of the voters agree with its program- it still uses the style of behaviour which worked in the seventies. Provocation has become a necessity for the FN through time, and the story of the party can be read through the ‘witty’ remarks of the father and the daughter.
Marine Le Pen’s success at the last Presidential election is due to both continuity and modernity. The process of influence rests on this dichotomy: both modern and traditional. The FN is understood as an alternative choice. Neither leftist nor rightist, the party has introduced a conflict within society which still persists: the fact that Jean-François Copé quotes “anti-white racism” in his campaign to become the new leader of UMP clearly identifies the roots of influence from one party onto another one and from an active minority on society.
Birgitta Orfali is an Associate Professor Faculté des Sciences humaines et sociales at Sorbonne Université Paris Descartes, she is also an Associate Researcher at CEVIPOF.