When the Front National (FN) was created 40 years ago, it could hardly have expected to reach its 40th birthday in October 2012. Throughout an initial decade of ‘crossing the wilderness’, it functioned and survived, but only as a tiny groupuscule in the political landscape and it could not always even claim to have been the largest party on the far or extreme right.
Moreover, such parties in France had tended to have a very short shelf life.
But, guided by Jean-Marie Le Pen, and from 1983 onwards, it went from strength to strength, surviving a raft of challenges such as a leadership bid by his right-hand man in the late 1990s, political gaffes by its leader, intermittent election setbacks, and persistent opposition from political opponents, the media, and much of public opinion. As Pascal Perrineau (2011) has pointed out, the Front National turned French political life upside down for 25 years, operating as a veritable third force in French politics. However, so dominant had been Le Pen’s monopolistic hold on the party that it was hard to see how the FN might survive intact when faced with the inevitable problem of genuine leadership succession. The 2007 presidential election though can be said to have served as a make or break event for the future and longevity of the FN.
Le Pen’s loss of close to a million votes, compared to the high water mark of 2002, when Le Pen achieved his historic 4.8 million votes, could have signalled the downward trajectory of the party on an even greater scale. However, keeping the party leadership in the family domain has proven, at least in the short term, to be the key to unlocking the logjam in the party’s survival as a movement able to attract a sizeable share of the vote in major elections. Marine Le Pen has been able to offer the electorate both change and continuity. Indeed, whilst political commentators have pointed to only cosmetic change in the party’s discourse under her leadership, many voters in the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections – with 17.9% for the FN in the former and 13.6% in the latter – have perceived the ‘new’ FN to be a changed and more attractive force. As James Shields has pointed out on the Extremis Project, polling suggest that the FN under Marine Le Pen is perceived by voters to be a less dangerous and more acceptable political animal than its predecessor.
So, is the cup half-full or half-empty as the party celebrates its fortieth birthday? Undoubtedly, Marine Le Pen has been able to benefit from campaigning on the same issues as her father did – immigration, Europe, security, Islam, globalisation, the nation, and so forth. She has also arguably benefitted from the perennial tendency of the mainstream right to steal FN clothes. This latter trend is surely destined to continue as the mainstream right tries to pick up the pieces from the Sarkozy era and heavy losses at the 2012 elections. Indeed, Marine Le Pen’s future success will be tied up with the political capacity of the mainstream right to provide a viable alternative to the left in office and (as ever) the concomitant conjugation and positioning of its relationship with the FN.
The Front National has many reasons to be joyful at present: a buoyant electoral force; a raft of campaigning issues that are unlikely to dissipate; a capacity (under Marine Le Pen) to extend its electorate into the hitherto distant, female vote (see Nonna Mayer’s Extremis Project contribution on the gender gap), whilst simultaneously hanging onto and even enhancing its working class vote; the longevity and apparent intractability of the economic and Eurozone crises; and a managed leadership succession.
Undoubtedly, under its new leader the FN at 40 will remain a key player in French politics, keen to draw on its attributes and exploit the political opportunities that come its way. The loss of an FN ‘old guard’ too may not be such a blow to the party if it makes the party more able to play the modernisation card. Notwithstanding the changes at work though, this is a party still not perceived to be one ‘like the others’. It still lacks friends or influential allies who might – as has happened in Italy or Austria in recent years, for instance – pave the way for such a party to reach the upper echelons of public office. Moreover, it operates within bipolarising political/electoral structures that are hardly conducive to winning seats and office by the FN at such levels.
Paul Hainsworth is a political consultant and formerly Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Ulster.