Gabriel Goodliffe / Dec 2015
Marine Le Pen, president of the Front National. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In the wake of the horrific November 13 terrorist attacks which claimed 130 lives in Paris, polling indicates that the Front National (FN) is poised to come first ahead of the newly christened former UMP, Les Républicains (LR), and Socialist Party (PS) in no less than six of mainland France’s newly redrawn administrative regions—Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie; Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur; Alsace-Champagne-Ardennes-Lorraine; Languedoc-Roussillon; Normandie, and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté—in the first round of the 2015 regional elections to be held this Sunday. Of these, the party is expected to win control of at least the first two and possibly the third in the second round on December 13, an outcome that would represent the best result achieved by the FN in a regional election. (Since 1986 when these elections were first held, it has never won control of any regional government.)
In the short term, these projections suggest that, despite the boost in personal support afforded President François Hollande by French voters following his forceful response to the Paris attacks, it is the FN that has been the prime political beneficiary of the latter. For many voters, the attacks validated the party’s political discourse conflating Muslim immigration, crime and now terrorism, and its consequent calls for an exemplary crackdown on delinquency and expulsion from the body politic of those who, as a function of their religious and ethnic appurtenance, fail to conform to fundamentally “French” political and cultural norms.
Yet, the FN’s electoral breakthrough in the upcoming regional elections, though certainly abetted by the bloodbath in Paris, must also be seen as part of a longer-term process of political rejuvenation that has been undergone by the party since the election of Marine Le Pen as FN president in January 2011. Were the FN to win control over two regional governments over the coming week, this would represent the seventh electoral contest in which the party exceeded its performance in an election of the same type since Le Pen’s succession to her father as its leader. This chain of unbroken electoral successes is simply unprecedented in the FN’s history. Thus, beyond politically transformative yet isolated events like the November 13 attacks, it is important to understand the deeper underlying causes for the party’s unchecked electoral resurgence.
Political Demand: A Persistent Economic and Social Crisis
At a socio-structural level, the FN’s advance can be read as a political response to the economic malaise that has bitten particularly hard in France since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, which in turn materialized on the back two decades of anemic growth and high unemployment dating back to the late 1980s. Unemployment today remains steady at over 10% and disproportionately affects blue collar and service sectors workers as well as the young, the most important demographics within the FN vote. Similarly, it is most highly concentrated in the country’s Northern, Eastern and Southern quadrants where the FN vote has been consistently strongest, areas that have been hardest hit by deindustrialization and currently evince the highest degrees of poverty.
Finally, there is an important spatial dimension to this distribution of economic hardship, since the worst-affected strata tend to live in areas on the outer fringes of urban areas, the so-called peri-urban gray zones inhabited by economically vulnerable groups who have been priced out of the real estate market within the cities and/or departed the inner suburbs in reaction to the perceived threats of immigration and social mixing.
Not surprisingly, within the regions where it does best, the FN attracts its greatest support from the overwhelmingly white ‘autochtonous’ populations of these peri-urban areas, who have felt the brunt of production outsourcing and factory closures and endured the steepest reductions in state funded public services and administrative capacities. Given that the current mix of austerity and structural reforms pushed by governments of both the Left and the Right and promoted and enforced by the European Union does not look like changing, the structural conditions underpinning the country’s economic malaise are likely to remain, thereby sustaining the reservoir of socially vulnerable people who are receptive to the FN’s populist and nativist message.
Political Supply: The FN’s Discursive Aggiornamento and Favourable Partisan Context
Yet, this alone cannot explain why the FN has been winning such a high proportion of these voters, let alone its advances across all types of elections since Marine Le Pen’s accession to the party leadership. Here, we also have to consider the conditions of political supply that structure voter choice, and it is arguably in this respect that Le Pen’s leadership has been so critical to the party’s improving fortunes.
Most crucially, Marine Le Pen has overseen a far-reaching attempt to detoxify the FN’s image, toning down the racialized anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric that characterized its discourse in the past and instead couching the rejection of immigrants within a broader, conceptually neutral opposition to neoliberal globalization on the one hand and the affirmation of its republican and democratic bona fides on the other. Replacing the exclusionary nationalist tenor of her father’s discourse and replacing it with an attack on multiculturalism in general and Islam in particular as fundamentally incompatible with republican values, Le Pen has been able to cast herself as the last defender of the foundational republican principle of laïcité and the FN as the only true movement capable of upholding it.
The central element underpinning this discursive aggiornamento is the rejection of the European Union, which is presented as an institutional stalking horse for globalization and immigration, conjoined with a strong reaffirmation of France’s economic, political and cultural sovereignty. Condemning the EU for facilitating the country’s neo-liberal transformation and consequent abandonment of local small-and-medium enterprises and workers to benefit French and foreign multinational corporations, she calls for employing the instruments of state economic intervention, protectionism and welfare chauvinism to revitalize French economic growth while protecting the most vulnerable among the ‘autochtonous’—i.e. non-immigrant—French population.
Since such prescriptions are incompatible with EU economic policy let alone human rights law, Le Pen advocates leaving the EU in the name of restoring France’s economic and political sovereignty. This has allowed her to claim the sole mantle of unequivocal opposition to Europe and win the lion’s share of Eurosceptic voters, an increasingly important factor structuring voter choice in France as highlighted by the party’s victory in the 2014 European elections.
Conversely, the electoral effectiveness of this new program has been bolstered by the strategic and tactical choices adopted by the FN’s partisan rivals within the French political system. At the level of Europe, since Mitterrand’s presidency the PS has wholeheartedly embraced European economic integration and its neoliberal and ordo-liberal impetus, to the growing disaffection of many of its voters. Similarly, though they are broadly critical of its liberalizing direction, French parties of the radical left, whether Trotskyist, anti-globalization, or formerly Communist, have advanced a muddled and passive agenda to reform the EU from within, rather than rejecting it en bloc. Among the country’s most economically vulnerable sectoral and class groups, the FN’s unequivocal Europhobic stance thus stands out in marked contrast to the alternatively Europhile or Europessimist rumblings of the French left, solidifying its status as the leading party among French working class voters.
On the Right, in a strategy traceable back to the 2007 presidential election campaign, the former UMP and now LR has given credibility to the FN’s anti-immigrant discourse by copying its nativist and repressive rhetoric in an attempt to woo FN voters. Contrary to the desired effect, this rhetorical one-upmanship has only served to reinforce the FN’s electoral position by making its discourse appear more mainstream to voters—in effect validating Jean-Marie Le Pen’s 2007 slogan that the French should vote “for the real article rather than the copy” on immigration and crime.
In the wake of the November 13 attacks we are again seeing a similar dynamic at work, with Sarkozy and others on the Right calling for an extreme crackdown on fundamentalist Islam and more intrusive surveillance of the Muslim population writ large. Meanwhile, through its promulgation of emergency powers in the name of protecting the homeland, the Socialist government has enacted measures such as reinstating border controls, increasing armed police, and revoking the nationality of convicted terrorists, which the FN has been calling for for years.
So Marine Le Pen is able to claim that her policy prescriptions have been validated by events, further burnishing her credibility in voters’ eyes. And last but not least, by seeking to take advantage of the PS’s electoral weakness, Les Républicains have categorically ruled out presenting joint lists with the Socialists in the second round of the regional elections against the FN candidates. This risks splitting the establishment vote, making an FN victory in certain regions more likely.
Although the November 13 terrorist attacks have undoubtedly reinforced the FN’s position in anticipation of this weekend’s regional elections, they have only served to bolster deeper running economic and political factors that have underpinned the FN’s electoral resurgence over the past five years. Thus, beyond the regional elections, unless the conditions underlying these factors change—and there is no reason to believe they will—we can be reasonably sure that this electoral resurgence will continue in 2017 and beyond.