By Justin Wong

Before the National Front’s (FN) Marine Le Pen advanced to the second round of the 2017 presidential election, philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote in 2010 that she was “far-right with a human face”, and “this metamorphosis” would transform “the factious organization of the past into a possible party of government”.[1]

Lévy was right. Even though Le Pen lost the race for the Élysée against Emmanuel Macron, she received a record 7.7 million votes and her vote share of 34.5 percent surpassed her father Jean-Marie when he reached the second round of the presidential election in 2002, the last time the far-right managed this feat.[2]

This is a far cry from the French far-right of the 1940s after the end of the Second World War when it was ostracised from politics altogether. How did it change its fortunes in seven decades?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the far-right was seen as a collaborator of the Vichy regime and marginalised.  L’épuration (the purification) saw many collaborators tried, imprisoned or shot “in search for justice with an equal desire for revenge”.[3]

However, this did not last long. By the early 1950s, it was suggested that what happened during the war should be forgotten altogether for the sake of national reconciliation.[4] Many of those imprisoned were released and the Occupation became “shrouded in a purposeful cloak of obscurity”.[5]

What’s left of the far-right then sought to regenerate. Publications such as the Défense de l’Occident and the Rivarol, which were written by individuals associated with the Vichy regime, spread the far right’s message to a new generation of activists.[6] Meanwhile, France’s colonial struggles in Algeria in the 1960s also helped the far right to mobilise public support for their concerns, such as their claim that France’s “historic destiny was being undermined”, to push for a stronger military response to keep Algeria under French control.[7]

The National Front was founded in October 1972 under Jean-Marie Le Pen, uniting a collection of far-right groups, ranging from supporters of the Vichy regime, neo-fascists, royalists who wanted to restore the Bourbon line, and Pied-Noirs, who were Europeans (mostly French) born in Algeria during the colonial rule and opposed Algerian independence.[8]

For the first ten years of its existence, the party was “literally absent from the media”, as the political elite refuse to give a platform for far-right messages, including Jean-Marie calling the gas chambers “a point of detail” in 1987.[9] [10]

However, Jean-Marie’s charisma and good oratorical skills eventually broke through the media exclusion, and he became a regular on news programmes, which gave the far-right public attention, even though the media attempted to portray him as adhering with racist ideology.[11]

Moreover, Le Pen’s strategies of straight-talking and using more ‘street-friendly’ language contrasted themselves against the elite professional politicians, who FN claimed were “too intellectual” and “too removed from ordinary people”, resulting in the party gaining electoral support in the early 2000s.[12]

It was highlighted by the first-round result of the 2002 presidential election, in which Le Pen advanced to the second round and eliminating the Socialist Party’s incumbent Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who was described as “lacking media personality”.[13]

The rise continued when Jean-Marie passed on the control of FN to his daughter Marine in 2011. Even though under Marine’s leadership FN maintained the same policies as Jean-Marie in the 2012 and 2017 elections, including imposing more regulations on immigration or getting France to leave the European Union, the party took a more liberal stance on women and LGBT rights.[14]

It also downplayed its xenophobic character and distanced itself from its anti-Semitic past, by expelling Jean-Marie in 2015 after he repeated the view that the Holocaust was “a detail of history”.[15] Marine also became an aggressive spokesperson for the FN, but she did not use provocative words that could cause media scandals, and the party built better relations with the media.

Compounded by events such as the Global Financial Crisis, various terror attacks in France and the European migrant crisis, FN’s populist, nationalistic yet not racist image attracted the support of young individuals, disillusioned with globalisation and European integration, and led to Marine Le Pen’s record vote in 2017.

Le Pen has already announced her bid for the presidency in 2022. With France having one of the highest numbers of positive coronavirus cases in Europe and a sluggish response from Macron and the European Union, the sense of holding China accountable growing around the world and the prospect of economic recession could push more support towards Le Pen, fulfilling a National Front dream of more than seven decades.

References:

[1] Lévy, ‘Maintemant, Marine Le Pen’.

[2] ‘Marine Le Pen: Taking France’s National Front out of the shadows’.

[3] Marcus, The National Front and French Politics, 13.

[4] Gildea, France Since 1945, 77.

[5] Marcus, 13.

[6] Ibid, 14.

[7] Ibid, 15.

[8] Ibid, 18.

[9] Stockemer, The Front National in France, 52.

[10] Gildea, 80.

[11] Stockemer, 53.

[12] Fieschi, ‘Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Front National: Crisis and Recovery’, 177.

[13] Ibid, 176.

[14] ‘Marine Le Pen: Taking France’s National Front out of the shadows’.

[15] ‘French National Front expels founder Jean-Marie Le Pen’.


Justin Wong is a post-graduate student in Politics & International Relations at the University of Auckland and a journalist at 95bFM. 

See Also:

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Is patriotism the solution to nationalism?