The 2012 harvest was a good one for Extreme-right party the Front National (FN). In April, the first round of the presidential election saw its leader, Marine Le Pen, win the highest percentage ever for the party at 17.90%. And later, in June, the legislative election witnessed the party winning its first two seats in the National Assembly through a single-constituency majority rule. Even if the gain is modest for the third French party, it nevertheless validates the strategy set up by Le Pen.
After taking the leadership of the party from the hands of her aging father, she followed the trend in Europe and moved the ideological line towards a more populist and nationalist approach. This tactic had already permitted the victory of Extreme-right parties in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, to name a few. In France, Le Pen turned her back on the hard, almost fascist, rhetoric of her father – he had declared that the Death Camps were “a detail in History,” banned the most turbulent and non-respectable supporters in favour of a nationalist discourse, and opposed the “Brussels dictatorship” that the EU represents.
In the year before the election, she amended the traditional platform of the FN to make it less outdated. She abandoned the anti-Jewish rant to denounce what she calls the “islamisation” of France. She retained a very conservative social ideology based on such values as life, family and authority, but she logically left off the vision of male supremacy of her father. She emphasised the isolationist creed and wished to get the country out of the Euro-zone and the Schengen-zone to build a Europe of nations with customs tariffs rather than a free-market integrated Europe. Finally, she criticized Nicolas Sarkozy pro-US foreign policy and pledged to come back to an independent strategy that would surprisingly remind us of Charles De Gaulle’s (1958-1969).
This ideological evolution has made Mrs. Le Pen a few enemies – her father, supporter of a harder line, recently spoke of her as a “petite bourgeoise”. However, they have been compensated by large gains in some parts of the electorate that did not traditionally vote in favor of the FN. For example, the 2012 general elections revealed that the party had gained ground in middle class families that were forced to move to the suburbs due to sky-rocketing housing prices. For these constituents, inflation has undermined their purchasing power, particularly with increasing gas prices, and they cannot see any brightening in the near future. Also, the economic and institutional crisis in the European Union has strengthened the success of the FN among the popular classes, and generally among people who feel left out of the globalization dynamics. In rural and industrial parts of the country, the FN rhetoric grew as many people saw jobs relocated abroad or revenues lowered by the international competition.
The success of the FN was also amplified by the media whose sales benefit from covering the populist remarks of the party establishment. During the last campaign, candidate Marine Le Pen managed to create a buzz around her platform on abortion. She promoted the exaggerated idea that many girls were using what she called “comfort abortion” as a contraceptive, thus taking advantage of Social Security. Though this rant shocked a large part of the public opinion, the other candidates failed to argue a more realistic point of view and demonstrated one more time how hard it is to deal with populism. Four years of crisis and forty years with massive unemployment have undermined the trust in traditional parties and diminished their capacity to forge the public opinion.
So now, what are the perspectives for the party? In the short term, the party will likely benefit from the deepening of the Euro-zone crisis. The situation of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain is gold for the Euro-sceptics and Le Pen will surely not pass on the opportunity. The European Union is now at a decisive crossroad between further integration and the downfall of the common currency and the FN will weigh-in with all its strength against new measures of austerity aimed at saving the Euro. The party is also likely to gather the support of many Christians that will disagree with the social measures of the Socialist Party and who have not yet found any solutions in a divided UMP. The FN will also capitalize on the opportunity if Parliament moves on the legalization of gay marriage and adoption next year.
Thus, we can legitimately expect the FN to poll a good score in the 2014/2015 local elections. Though they are disadvantaged by the mode of election, they might expect to gain a few seats in the regional assemblies (Conseil général and Conseil régional). The local election could be even better for them as Le Pen is expected to win the municipality of her Northern hometown, Hénin-Beaumont. Finally, in the midst of the Euro-zone crisis, it will be interesting to see how high the Euro-sceptics are polling in the European Parliament elections.
In the long run, the FN perspective might not be as bright. Contrary to her father, Marine Le Pen is determined to seek victory in a national election. Her success in this will depend on her capacity to integrate the traditional right. How the UMP is restructured will be crucial on the FN positioning. If the new leader of the UMP does not manage to keep his party united, the FN is likely to promote itself as the most legitimate conservative party in the country and thus the most legitimate opposition to the PS. However, if Jean-François Copé or François Fillon (who are likely to win the UMP Presidency) were to gather their camp, then Marine Le Pen would still be confined in a position of contestation that is not suited to win the Presidency in a two-ballot system.
The future of the FN will depend on the capacity of its main figure, Le Pen, to establish the party as a respectable opposition party, particularly while the UMP leaders are stuck in their internal debate. Nevertheless, she may not succeed as many of the radicals supported by her father still remain in the party, degrading its image. The FN is thus likely to remain a party in transition, restricted to a disruptive role in the elections.
This article is part of an Opinion series on the state of French political parties. The first part discussed the ideological dynamic of the Left and the second part was on the challenges to come for the UMP.
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For a sociological approach to the FN successes, see Camille Duponteil’s previous article on FN.