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Has Marine Le Pen made France's Front National respectable?
When the votes were counted after the French presidential election’s first round all of Europe was shocked. Socialist François Hollande’s narrow lead over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy was no surprise. But the fact that over six million French people had voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was. Who is Marine Le Pen and has she changed the Front National (FN)?
Thanks to hundreds of reports from France since the 22 April vote, the world now knows that Marine Le Pen is blonde, likes going to discos, has been divorced twice, has three children, is the daughter of FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen and has waged a campaign to clean up the far-right party’s image.
Even before she took over from her father at the helm of the FN last year Marine Le Pen declared that she aimed to lift the stigma hanging over the far-right party, “dedemonising” it as she put it.
She went on to arrive third in the 2012 presidential race with 17.9 per cent of the vote.
That’s not the highest share of the vote that the far right has ever won – that was in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen won 16.86 per cent and Bruno Mégret, who had led a split-off from the FN, won 2.34 per cent.
Nor did she make it through to the second round run-off, as her father did in 2002 only to face resounding defeat at the hands of incumbent Jacques Chirac who took a whopping 82.21 per cent of the votes.
But, turnout in 2002 having been lower than this year, she did win the biggest-ever number of votes - 6.421.773 compared to 5,525 032 for Jean-Marie in the 2002 face-off.
No wonder FN supporters were ecstatic when the results came through and that Marine Le Pen was in combative form at the annual 1 May rally in honour of Joan of Arc. Jean-Marie, for his part, is believed to have mixed feelings about the party he founded scoring its best performance when he was no longer its presidential candidate.
The result has prompted Sarkozy to launch a frantic bid to harvest the FN’s votes. The left, meanwhile, is anxiously asking whether there are six million fascists and/or racists in France.
Has Marine Le Pen chased away the Front National’s demons?
Judging by the fact that her vote was three points higher than predicted opinion polls, some stigma seems still to be there. A certain number of her voters are still not ready to confess to voting FN, unless you believe Le Pen’s assertion that the pollsters are part of the establishment plot against her and her voters.
And the secretary general of Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, was forced to disavow Defence Minister Gérard Longuet who said that "unlike her father" Marine Le Pen was "someone we can speak to", so the mantle of full respectability has yet to fall on her shoulders.
But not much now separates Sarkozy’s statements on immigration, the “French way of life”, Islam and law and order from those of the FN.
So, with their calls to “defend our civilisation”, their accusations that a Hollande victory could mean halal meat in school canteens and women-only sessions in public swimming baths and their declarations that too much immigration is bad for a country, it is perhaps Sarkozy and his allies who have lifted the stigma on much of the FN’s rhetoric.
But the FN has changed, in its language if not in its fundamental intentions.
Founded in 1972 the party’s great success was to bring together the heterogeneous mass of groups and individuals who were to the right of the Gaullists. Some were former resistants, some former Nazi collaborators; some were Catholic fundamentalists, some were pagans; some were intellectuals, other street-fighters in the most literal sense of the term.
They all united under the banner of nationalism, in particular anger at the loss of Algeria. Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former paratrooper who had already been a far-right MP, was their leader.
He stamped his flamboyant and controversial character on the movement, using his considerable rhetorical skills to rally the troops through a bumpy ride of electoral ups and downs and scandals involving racist murders, bitter personal rivalries and shocked reactions to his anti-Semitic sorties.
Now the thugs have been put on a tight leash. Skinheads are no longer welcome in the service d’ordre, which provides security at FN events, and hotheads who start giving the Nazi salute at rallies are rushed away from the cameras.
Marine Le Pen says, Nazism was “an abomination”. No more describing the gas chambers as “a detail in the history of World War II” or asserting that Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist government was not responsible for the persecution of French Jews, as her father did.
In turning away from anti-Semitism the FN is breaking with a long tradition on the French and European right, going back to the 18th century when counter-revolutionaries like Joseph de Maistre blamed the Jews for the spread of the universal ideals of the enlightenment and continuing with the far-right leagues of the 1930s and Pétain’s collaboration with the Nazis.
Today’s most successful European far right parties have dropped anti-Semitism in favour of Islamophobia. Bashing Muslims has paid off for parties like Geert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid (Freedom Party), now the third largest party in the Netherlands, and Italy’s MSI, which became the Alleanza Nazionale then merged into Silvio Berlusconi’s PdL.
Another destigmatising factor has been the economic crisis, which has discredited Sarkozy and led millions of people suffering its effects to look to the fringes rather than the mainstream.
Deindustrialisation and the European financial crisis has caused devastation in parts of France. To capitalise on its effects, the front has had to change its economic programme. Until about 2007 it tended to the neo-liberal. Now it combines Europhobia and protectionism with elements plundered from the anti-globalisation left.
Although this seems to have surprised many French commentators, the far right has never distinguished itself by its originality on socio-economic questions. Not for nothing was the Nazi Party’s full name the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and Benito Mussolini a defector from the Italian Socialist Party. Twentieth-century socialists complained that, in their bid to win a popular base, the inter-war fascists pilfered their propaganda and programmes before sending in the militias to annihilate the left.
To its calls for withdrawal from the euro and a “Europe of nations”, the FN has added selective nationalisation, for example of the French electricity company, and denunciation of global finance and capital.
That in turn leads to a blanket denunciation of Sarkozy’s UMP and François Hollande’s Socialist Party as the “UMPS”, a collective establishment that has sold France to global elites.
It is no accident that the FN has picked up most support in rural areas, denuded of services and facilities, partly thanks to European Union-inspired cuts, and former industrial areas that have seen mines and steelworks closed and manufacturers chase cheap wages abroad, as Alison Hird’s report for RFI from the Front’s new stronghold, Hénin-Beaumont, shows.
Marine Le Pen hopes that a Sarkozy defeat in 6 May’s presidential face-off will lead to the UMP “imploding” and deserters flocking to her party’s ranks.
It’s a winner-takes-all strategy that counts not only on them closing their eyes to the Front’s questionable past but also accepting an economic policy that is unacceptable to most of French big business, the people who control the media, the economy and, arguably, their current party.
Europe’s successful neo-far-right parties have been ready to join coalition governments and even dissolve their parties into broad right formations. Marine Le Pen seems to want more, unless, as the authors of a recent book on her speculate, the family doesn’t actually want power and simply regards the party as a very profitable business.