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Reframing Radicalism: Le Pen’s Chance to Change France

In the 2012 presidential election in France, furor and excitement surrounded the National Front (FN, after the French name for Front National) candidate Marine Le Pen. The FN has come to be known for its radically conservative views — feeding on resurgent feelings of xenophobia and racism. In 2014, in a shocking upset, the FN swept in and won many municipal elections throughout France. More notably, during the 2014 elections for European Parliament, FN won 24 of France’s 74 seats, the greatest number of seats of any individual party at the time. But now, with the FN truly a force to be reckoned with, it faces a crisis of identity.

Created in 1972 and initially lead by Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of Marine Le Pen, the FN was created in order to reconcile the various nationalist movements into one, unified force. For much of its history, the party ran primarily on anti-immigrant and anti-EU fervor, which, while gaining the support of many within France, attracted the disdain of those who viewed it as supporting anti-Semitism and racism. When Marine Le Pen came to rule the party in 2011, she led a massive effort to temper its rhetoric in an attempt to make it a legitimate conservative, nationalist force. This led to the party’s success in 2014, but it also coincided with a variety of expounding factors. In 2012, and even more so in 2014, French society has seen a growing resentment of its ties to the European Union.

Spurred by a continually dismal economic situation, the growing calls to disband or at least denature the EU’s power have caused “Euroscepticism,” to become a dominant ideology across the EU. But while the FN has gained from the rise of Euroscepticism, this support can only last so long; at the first sign of economic improvement or waning EU power, parties like FN and UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party, UK’s Eurosceptic party) will run out of steam. So now, the FN must establish itself as a political force instead of just as a temporary movement in order to have long-term success.

Marine Le Pen is trying to take the first step on this road to rebrand the party. In the minds of most French voters, no matter what the party now stands for, the name Front National will forever be associated with racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. As a natural remedy, Le Pen is planning to poll FN’s biggest supporters about a potential name change. While this may seem like it is simply sticking a new sticker on the party, it may very well signal to the French electorate that the FN is not Jean-Marie Le Pen’s old FN, but is a party which has undergone a permanent tempering of ideology. However, a new name is not enough alone to build a legacy for the FN. In addition to the ideological cooling that a name change may indicate, the FN must continue cutting ties to any politicians (including Jean-Marie Le Pen) who do little more than spout slurs in the name of “nationalism.” The FN has always walked a fine line between nationalism and xenophobia, and while the anti-EU policies have largely stayed on the side of public decency, the overt racial connotations of their anti-immigration have stretched past the aegis of simple nationalism. Nationalism is a potent force in politics, but the FN’s reforms must address more than just its message: they must also address the culture of blind emotion that seems to underlie their ‘nationalist’ policies.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for the FN is the performance of its own politicians. The FN’s biggest successes have been in local municipalities. However, the 14 mayors who were elected earlier this year have not presented a flattering image for the party. As reported by the New York Times, many of the actions by these mayors have been largely xenophobic. In one town, a mayor insisted upon town hall workers only speaking French, another forced a halal butcher to close on Sundays while not enforcing this rule on any other businesses open on Sundays. When not establishing xenophobic policies, several of the mayors have been involved in several high-profile acts of incompetence: Painting without consultation of the original artist, as well as passing huge tax cuts which throw budgets out of whack and raising their own salaries while cutting free lunches for poor families. While many of these mayors have, at least, lived up to the xenophobic promises of the FN, the party cannot afford the tide of negative publicity that has precipitated from these mayors’ administrations.

The mayors highlight another shortcoming of the FN: its lack of scope. As evidenced by the mayors’ policies and overall party rhetoric, the FN harps on its anti-immigration and anti-EU policies. However, a party must be more than a singular idea. Because of this focus, the FN is a very strong movement, but not yet a strong political party. On the national level, the FN has used its nationalist-centered ideology to establish other policies, including both economics and foreign policy. In the world of economics, the FN is a strong supporter of the welfare state, but also of state protectionism. In contrast with President Francois Hollande’s socialist policies, which have driven away established business and entrepreneurs alike from doing business in France, the FN aims to encourage French business to stay in France and to prevent foreign businesses from easily entering. As for foreign policy, the FN stands for isolationism, again following from its nationalist ideology. The FN has a coherent political platform, yet the more legitimate and the more boisterous members of the party continually crowd out reasonable aspects of the platform. At a time when Hollande’s approval rating is at a dismal 13 percent, Le Pen could easily capitalize by establishing the FN as a more reasonable, legitimate party, should she have the will to act.

Despite being over 40 years old, the FN is still very much in its infancy. Only recently has it truly begun to emerge as a legitimate political force. On the one hand, the FN is becoming a key part of the French political scene. But, on the other hand, this widespread support has led to increased coverage and increased scrutiny of the party. Le Pen and her party have the chance to reframe themselves from France’s  party of racist anti-Semites to a party of strongly nationalistic politicians striving to change France. In this reframing, the FN may be able to gain mainstream legitimacy, therein enabling itself with the ability to truly change France.

About the Author

Matthew Dudak '18 is the Data Editor for Brown Political Review.