Marie Le Pen’s second place finish in the French presidential election in 2017 with just under 34% of the popular vote was seen as a major victory the Front National (FN). Le Pen almost doubled the number of votes that her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, received in the 2002 presidential election. Furthermore, this election was the first time in the 5th Republic that either the traditional Left or Right-wing parties failed to make it to the second round of voting.
Despite this, the party seems to be struggling to maintain the gains it made in the election, instead becoming increasingly introspective. Self-described as Europe’s premier far-right, populist and anti-globalist party, the FN’s demise reveals contradictions that other current far-right and populist groups may eventually face as they get closer to power. Jericho spoke to Dr Aurélien Mendon, lecturer in French Politics lecturer at the University of Bath and a specialist on the FN.
An Unexpected Rival
According to Mendon, the FN was unprepared for Macron’s victory in the first round of the presidential elections. Having spent five years preparing to face the French establishment, Le Pen “panicked and reverted to cheap personal attacks” during the second half of her campaign. The fallout from this lack of self-control and planning, especially during the Presidential Debate, reminded the French electorate that she was the leader of a far-right party. This became central to a string of FN disappointments that now threaten to tear the party apart.
Only a month after the presidential election the FN faced failure again during the legislative election, held in June. The FN’s gain of six legislative seats was overshadowed by the rise of En Marche. During its first parliamentary election, Emmanuel Macron’s party won 350 seats, crushed the Socialist Party and did serious damage to Les Républicains, the main right-wing party. The FN, in turn, failed to grasp the opportunity to pinch votes from these parties.
This is likely due to the differing campaigning styles employed by Macron and Le Pen in the presidential election. Macron aimed to convince voters that En Marche, though only created a year earlier, was more than a vehicle for his presidential campaign by regularly appearing with candidates and activists. Le Pen, on the other hand, actively hid her FN affiliations, temporarily resigning as leader after the first round of the Presidential election, which only served to remind voters of her family’s iron grip on the party. Her campaign posters lacked FN iconography including the ubiquitous blue and red flame, instead placing Le Pen centre stage at all times. Instead of picking up momentum from the presidential election for the legislative elections, the party struggle to remain relevant.
Marine Le Pen’s populist discourse fits within a worldwide movement. Following the election of Donald Trump, Le Pen positioned herself in this political landscape by tweeting “Their world is crumbling. Ours is being built”. Le Pen’s main international allies, President Trump and President Putin, however, were not equally as well-received by the French. Popularity polls in France gave Trump a mere 13% favourability rating and Putin 20%. As such the accusations of Russia funnelling money towards the FN, as well as supporting Le Pen through hacking, further damaged her image.
Her tweet, nonetheless, shows that she believed that her success was driven by momentum behind populist movements across the Western World. The collapse of trust between elites and the people and the rise of an emotional, rage-based politics drives far-right and populist leaders, and society was becoming increasingly aware of it. However, although 2016 and 2017 saw successes for populists in the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world, far-right parties in other European countries, such as Austria and the Netherlands, failed to capitalise on expected gains and win key votes.
Likely due to higher turnout among liberals and young people, aware that far-right forces had a serious chance of winning, these parties experienced resistance to the effects of what is now being called the ‘Great Regression’. It seems that voters in France were moved by a sense of civic duty and a desire to see the FN fail despite not supporting Macron’s policies. Despite the repeated use of the phrase ‘divided country’ in the media, France remained more or less united on this key issue.
Adapting to the new status quo
Since the election the FN has entered a phase of introspection, abandoning its opposition to the Euro and membership of the EU. Despite this, Le Pen has suggested that a grand relaunch of the party with a new name and possibly a new leader is imminent. Mendon, however, argues that a change of leadership threatens to reduce the party to obscurity as Marine Le Pen and her family have become the identifying image of this far-right party. Any change, therefore, is unlikely to be anything more than cosmetic.
The party has begun a strong campaign to rebrand itself, seeking to leave their toxic legacies behind and target new voters. Since its foundation in 1972, the party has long attempted to escape its original links to anti-Semitism, Vichy collaborationism, Holocaust denial and association with members of paramilitary organisations. The party has been tarred both by its aim to turn France into an ethno-state and the language used by its members. This is why Marine Le Pen made the decision to expel her father from the FN over his holocaust denial. Though it is certainly correct to question the authenticity of the detoxification it is also undeniable that, either due to the passage of time or deliberate choices made by party leadership, the FN’s fascist legacy is slowly fading in the minds of French voters.
But given its internal division, debates about the FN leadership threaten to split the party. The FN is torn between the attempts to make the party a Gaullist movement to appeal to disaffected voters, and Le Pen’s desire to return to its traditional home on the right to try and woo conservative voters. Soon Marie Le Pen must choose to either continue the FN journey towards the political mainstream or double down on her party’s xenophobia.
A missed opportunity
As France braces for Macron’s economic reforms, the FN’s message of redefining French national identity threatens to fall on deaf ears. Irrespective of Macron’s recent poor polling, the FN has been unable to make a comeback, making the traditional left and unions the main opposition to Macron’s plan of economic reform. This could confine the FN to political backwaters until the next election. The FN is by its nature a survivor and will have learnt from its mistakes, however the party has missed a major chance to use favourable international and domestic conditions to solidify its position and whatever movement emerges over the next few months will be weaker for it.