The Front National at 40: The evolution of Europe’s radical right
Founded in 1972, the French Front National (FN), Europe’s oldest far-right political party, turns 40 this Friday (October 5th). Considered by many to be the prototype of the modern radical right party in Europe, Gilles Ivaldi analyses the evolution of the party over the last 4 decades and how they have successfully modernized the radical right agenda
Much has been written about the ‘new’ Front National since Marine Le Pen took over the party in 2011. Her leadership campaign was associated with a claim of strategic and programmatic modernization embedded in the now notorious concept of dédiabolisation (‘de-demonization’). As part of this strategy Marine Le Pen has toned down the anti-Semitism and historical revisionism which were the political trademark her father. The party has also loosened its links with some –yet not all– of the small nationalist groups that have historically flanked the FN. Overall the FN has been striving to present a more affable face, and has put a lot of effort into conveying its message of ‘normalization’ to the French public.
Before closing the chapter of the ‘old extreme right’, however, commentators should be cautious of reassessing the FN upon behavioral or discursive criteria exclusively. The modernization process initiated by Marine Le Pen, albeit of crucial importance to understanding the FN’s new lease of life in recent elections, is still very much in its infancy. And despite parallels often being drawn with the political trajectory of the MSI-Alleanza Nazionale in Italy, the current FN is certainly nowhere near the conservative centre-right actor into which the former neo-fascist party has progressively transformed itself since 1995.
On the surface, the softer line adopted by Marine Le Pen has undeniably altered public perceptions of the party, and has helped increase its level of political acceptability. Behind the façade however, the FN has not yet engaged in an actual revision of its programmatic positions, at least in a way which would be commensurate with the repeated claims by its new leaders that ‘things are no longer the same within the party’.
Let alone minor cosmetic alterations, the party has retained the vast majority of its core radical illiberal policies. In cultural terms, the ‘new’ FN does not significantly deviate from its long-established authoritarian appeal. The party continues to emphasize traditional family values and to oppose abortion, be it under the false pretense of safeguarding public finances. It disputes the recognition of gay rights while advocating capital punishment and a wide range of harsher measures to tackle criminality. The 2012 manifesto has also endorsed the whole array of discriminatory and assimilationist immigration policies that were formulated in the late 1970s. The chauvinist concept of ‘national priority’ remains cornerstone to the party’s ideology, while the FN continues to claim that it will expel masses of ‘unwanted’ immigrants, that it will put an end to family reunion, or reintroduce jus sanguinis for naturalization.
Similarly, Marine Le Pen has not truly distanced herself from previous FN campaigns on the so-called ‘islamization’ of French society, a concept which has been central to the party’s propaganda since the mid-1990s.
Her criticism of Islam has been tactically reframed into a pseudo-liberal agenda of tolerance or gender equality, borrowed in part from France’s tradition of laïcité (secularity). Yet such annexing of the civic repertoire by the FN can hardly mask the permanence of the old ethno-exclusionist agenda, as was for instance recently revealed in Marine Le Pen’s controversial proposal to ban Jewish skullcaps and Islamic veils from the streets.
When compared with the highly polarized presidential election of 2002, the current situation of the party points to continuity rather than change. The electoral performance by Marine Le Pen in 2012 has been built on the same populist posture that has allowed the FN to channel political discontent with the mainstream into the polls for the past three decades. If one adds to all the above the persistence of the uncompromising nationalist line that has underpinned the rejection of the EU and all other supranational bodies by the FN since the mid-1980s, then the modernization process can hardly be seen as one of ‘de-radicalization’, but rather one of small tactical adjustments to the radical core of the FN ideology.
This does not mean of course that nothing at all has changed
One area of more significant change -which was evident during the 2012 presidential campaign- is the programmatic shift to the left on the economy. The centripetal process of relocating the FN on the economic dimension began in the early-1990s with the party toning down its neo-liberal anti-tax and small-government agenda in order to secure its growing working class constituency. By 2002, the FN had incorporated a number of traditional left-wing themes of social protection, and above all it had reinforced its opposition to economic globalization. Welfare-chauvinist and redistributive policies have been accentuated during the 2012 presidential election campaign, where the party has taken up a programme for state intervention, temporary nationalizations, tax raises and the expansion of public services, representing a significant departure from the more heterogeneous economic mix of the previous period.
Where can the FN go from here?
Clearly, the party has come to another critical juncture in its history and is now facing two important and interwoven strategic issues. First, it needs to redefine its ‘primary goal’ as a political organization.
For many years, the FN was a ‘nuisance’ party within the French party system, predominantly pursuing vote-maximization strategies. In recent years, however, it has been increasingly shifting from a vote-seeking to office-seeking strategy. In 2012, the party has wholeheartedly embraced Marine Le Pen’s agenda of policy credibility and governmental accountability, which had already been forced into her father’s presidential bid in 2007.
Given the strong institutional constraints that exist in France’s bipolar majoritarian system, the realization of this goal will irremediably entail some degree of co-operation with other parties on the right of the political spectrum. One central aim of the Rassemblement Bleu Marine (Marine Blue Rally) in the legislative elections was precisely to foster talks with local leaders of the moderate right. Yet political co-operation at the national level can only be achieved if the FN agrees on revising some of its most extreme policies on immigration, crime and -most importantly- the European Union. Then, there would be a risk that the party could lose its appeal to disenfranchised protest voters, or could experience yet another schism by its most radical factions.
Second, the party will have to address the issue of its ideological repositioning.
Under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, the FN has rotated towards a unique position in the competitive space. It has come closer to the archetypal ‘welfare-chauvinist’ strategy described by Herbert Kitschelt as a combination of economic redistribution and cultural authoritarianism. Whilst electorally beneficial in the current context of economic crisis, this position continues to isolate the far right from all the other actors in the French party system. The shift to the left of the economic axis has certainly increased ideological distance from the mainstream right, which would hinder possible future electoral alliances with the UMP.
Unless these strategic dilemmas are addressed in the years to come, the FN will probably persist as an insulated and essentially ‘disruptive’ force within the French party system.
Gilles Ivaldi is CNRS Researcher, in the Human and Social Sciences Department at the University of Nice
This article was first published by Extremis Project as part of their series The French Front National at Forty