Front National leader Marine Le Pen has successfully designed a coherent illiberal political project that may just reach its ultimate goal in the upcoming presidential elections.
Back in 2011, when Marine Le Pen became president of the Front National, she set about an ambitious project of reshaping the party in her image. She aimed to preserve the core elements of national populism that defined FN’s vision under the direction of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, while forging a new balance between identity politics and the defense of the social welfare state, thereby targeting the French working-class and modest middle-class voters.
It seems to have worked. Although Marine Le Pen failed to get past the first round of voting in 2012 and FN was unable to take the lead in any French region in 2015, the party obtained the largest share of the vote. That allowed Le Pen to boast that she had transformed FN into “France’s greatest party” in terms of voter numbers.
At its core, FN is built around a coherent rejection of liberalism, both in economic and cultural terms. The party has always been culturally illiberal, but its new economic outlook is a real evolution from its strongly anti-communist tradition and its support for liberal economic reforms in favor of small businesses. While her father wanted to be a “French Reagan” in the 1980s, Marine Le Pen has embraced a protectionist agenda and Marxist rhetoric. This has also enabled FN to reinforce its opposition to the EU, which is seen as weakening national sovereignty and promoting foreign interests while imposing ultra-liberal economic policies in France.
FN’s program for this year’s vote stems directly from this illiberal vision, with a mix of economic nationalism (the so-called préférence nationale), defense of the French welfare state model, and assertiveness on identity and security issues. A strategic council of 35 personalities works around Le Pen to establish the party’s platform: Some proposed measures to appeal to the aspirations of disappointed left-wing voters, like keeping the 35-hour work week and rolling back the retirement age to 60, while others adhere to the traditional far-right program, and suggest limiting legal immigration to 10,000 people a year (it is currently around 200,000). But the platform could also very well be titled “France first.” There are proposed constitutional reforms to forbid all forms of communitarianism, promote French cultural heritage, and transform French economic and labor laws; social benefits would be distributed to French citizens first, and the government would enforce a three percent tax on imports.
These measures, if implemented, would lead to an open breach with the European Union, not least because some of the reforms violate EU law. As far as FN is concerned, the European project is the main agent of liberalism in France, actively working to diminish the country’s unique character. FN justifies its anti-EU posture as necessary in order to regain political sovereignty and economic prosperity. Le Pen has promised to engage in a complete renegotiation of the European treaties if she is elected and to organize a referendum on a so-called Frexit within a year of her election.
Yet, unity within the party should not be overestimated. The views of FN voters are surprisingly diverse, especially on fiscal and social issues. Interestingly, these divisions are embodied by the Le Pen family itself, as Marion-Maréchal Le Pen, the rising star of the party, is closer to the economic liberalism of her grandfather Jean-Marie than the economic protectionism of her aunt Marine. Similarly, the question of exiting the European common currency has been a thorn as well, because it may not be popular among the middle-class right-wing electorate – and their support will be crucial for victory at the national level. The 2017 program continues to promote a return to national currency, but it stops short of committing to a specific time frame and offers vague alternatives in order to reassure conservative voters. Finally, more symbolic issues such as the death penalty and family planning have been put on the backburner, antagonizing the party’s old guard. Marine Le Pen must turn her program into a real electoral success – at least during the National Assembly elections in June – to prevent these tensions from becoming open fractures.
What could an FN victory in the presidential elections mean for France and Europe? The implementation of its program would have three implications in the relatively short-term future: a constitutional crisis in France, the end of the European project as we know it, and an uncontrolled increase of the public debt that could potentially lead to more economic instability in Europe.
First, the party’s program implies a deep transformation of the French political system and a focus on direct democracy. The use of referendums in order to bypass parliament and all forms of checks and balances would become systematic and call the basis of France’s current republic into question. Second, the FN’s explicit commitment to deconstruct the European Union and fully restore national sovereignty over political and economic decisions would put an end to any future initiatives at the European level. With Brexit negotiations and the migration crisis, the EU may be too weak to survive this additional test. Finally, European partners are likely to be seriously concerned by the implementation of the FN’s illiberal economic program. These doubts would severely aggravate the French public deficit, currently already above the EU limit of three percent of GDP. Implications for the European economy could be disastrous and lead to a new cycle of crisis.
La Dédiabolisation of Le Pen
One of the keys of FN’s rise to national prominence has been the normalization of its image, an effort to break through the “glass ceiling” that has kept the party from winning major elections. When Marine Le Pen took over after her father’s forty-year reign, the FN had a hard-line anti-immigration, anti-Semitic image. She set out to change that by refocusing on economic issues with a pronounced anti-EU bent. This process, known in French as dédiabolisation (literally “undemonization”), also brought in new faces to shift the party away from her father’s numerous and well-documented excesses. The prized recruit was Florian Philippot, trained at the elite École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) like many other politicians. Philippot flirted with the left in his formative years, but is now Le Pen’s lieutenant and one of the few palatable faces FN can feature in the media.
The goal of the normalization process was to widen the electorate, and it appears successful given FN’s various electoral achievements between 2012 and 2015, during which time four separate elections took place (municipal, European, departmental, and regional). In the December 2015 regional elections, FN succeeded in attracting the highest proportion of voters in its history: 6.8 million people voted for the party in the second round of the election, more than in the first round of the 2012 presidential election.
Yet FN has also largely benefited from voter apathy. A closer look at the European and regional elections show historically high levels of abstention, at 57 and 42 percent respectively, with especially high rates of non-voting among 18- to 24-year-olds. That is the very same age group where FN has made the most progress.
In the December 2015 elections, FN attracted about 35 percent of the youth vote, almost 15 percent more than mainstream parties (even if 64 percent did not go to the polls). In 2012, Le Pen only managed to win around 20 percent of young people’s votes. The increase goes hand in hand with rising support among male manual laborers. More than 43 percent of blue-collar workers and 36 percent of regular employees declared their intention to vote for FN. The most dramatic spike can be found among business owners, farmers, and independent workers: 35 percent of them chose FN in 2015.
The gains in these socio-economic segments largely correspond with FN consolidating its vote in its traditional bastions in the southeast, the north, and northeast of France, regions that are still paying the price of deindustrialization. These are the same regions where FN will look to increase its influence, especially by capturing seats in this June’s parliamentary elections. At the same time, FN will have to worry about the risk of hitting its glass ceiling: A poll from February 2016 shows that 63 percent of French disagree with the party’s ideas, and 62 percent have no intention to cast their ballot for FN. Despite its undeniable progress, the party has struggled to broadly widen its electorate and reach a majority in national polls.
The Failure of Mainstream Parties
FN can also thank the failures and shortsighted strategies of recent governments for its rise. Le Pen’s discourse has gained influence because her criticisms of the so-called system increasingly seem to reflect the reality of French politics. In fact, FN’s greatest achievement has been to take advantage of growing resentment toward mainstream leaders to appear the only real option for change. The lack of clear political alternatives has reinforced that anti-system rhetoric.
Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have both, for different reasons, failed to fully embrace the traditional role of the president in modern-day France. The Fifth Republic was meant to provide solutions to chronic political instability by ensuring that the government could rely on strong parliamentary majorities. Yet the constitutional framework and electoral code which limits the multiplication of smaller political movements have helped the consolidation of bipartisanism in France. As a result, the same two political parties have ruled France since 1981, winning every presidential and legislative elections for more than 35 years. The shift of power from the main conservative right-wing party – today’s Les Républicains (LR) – to the French Socialist Party (PS) is increasingly seen as politically irrelevant since both seemed to implement the same liberal policies.
The rising “elections without choice” sentiment has played into FN’s hands. Marine Le Pen and her father before her successfully portrayed all their opponents as one single political entity responsible for France’s stubborn economic stagnation and communitarian tensions. Established parties have also participated in the success of FN’s anti-system discourse. The strategy of the cordon sanitaire, the cooperation between the right and the left to prevent a FN candidate from winning at local and national levels, is perceived as confirmation that the system acts to block the democratic process and the victory of non-established forces.
Mainstream parties have also dangerously fostered anger and disillusionment among parts of their own electorates by campaigning on illiberal measures and failing to deliver once in power. Their use of illiberal discourses can be explained by their need to appeal to the most radical parts of the electorate in order to win elections. For the mainstream right, it is essential to obtain the support of voters who are particularly sensitive to immigration, tradition, and security issues; for the mainstream left, victory can only be achieved with the help of voters opposed to the liberalization of the French economy. The last two presidents provide striking examples of this strategy: In 2007, Sarkozy ran a campaign focused on identity and the fight against crime, while Hollande won in 2012 after claiming to be “the enemy of the liberal financial world.”
Yet right-wing governments have not, in fact, reexamined or amended the decisions of the left on cultural issues, from the legalization of abortion and the abolition of the death penalty in the 20th century to rights for same-sex couples in the 21st. Similarly, criticizing the liberalization of the French economy has not led successive left-wing governments to revise economic reforms ushered in under right-wing governments.
What’s more, the role of the president during the last two presidencies provides a key to understanding how mainstream politics and their representatives have been delegitimized. Sarkozy’s presidency (2007-12) was marked by overcommitment: He was unable to delegate, and his exercise of power, called a hyperpresidency, led to a politicization of presidential functions. Eventually, Sarkozy was seen as solely responsible for the failures of government policies. This created a feeling of general instability and weakened the presidency as well as the entire French political system. In 2012 Hollande came to power with the clear intention of reshaping the presidency and counterbalancing the Sarkozy effect. Yet he failed to embody the leadership expected from this role, and his government suffered as a result from being perceived as lacking authority.
The depreciation of the presidency has made mainstream parties look incompetent, and attacking FN for its lack of experience and unfitness to govern has become more difficult in this context. Le Pen’s discourse, centered on ideas of authority and strength, benefited from popular frustration with failing leadership.
While she has considerably transformed the image of the party, the FN still struggles with translating these changes into a decisive national win that would validate her move toward a structured illiberal platform. A loss in the presidential election would need to be smoothed over by a tally of more than 40 percent in the second round, and at least fifty seats (out of 577) in the June parliamentary elections. It would allow her to consolidate power and ensure that her presidential platform remains the guiding light for the way the party will try to influence policy in the next five years and beyond. After all, a new president who fails to rebuild citizens’ trust in the political system will only strengthen Marine Le Pen’s chances in 2022.