The events of this presidential election both recognize the newly gained power of the far-right movement in France and further the process of mainstreaming its radical stances on immigration and economic policy.
The Socialist party’s François Hollande may have come in first in round one of the French presidential elections, but the third place spot earned by the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen is has been one of the biggest news stories in French electoral politics. She brought in nearly 18 percent of the vote, the highest percentage yet won by the National Front. Le Pen, the daughter of the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, gave a speech that was a clear indication of the new strength that the National Front has taken from this success. “The battle for France has only just begun,” she declared. “We are now the only real opposition.”
This far-right opposition, and the battle they are intent on waging, should be taken seriously. The National Front bases itself on a vigorously protectionist and anti-establishment populism that can be found on the rise in the politics of countries across Europe. A large survey last fall, conducted by British think tank Demos, revealed a powerful swell of far-right allegiance all across Europe, most notably among younger men.
Far-right stances like this that centre on a mix of economic rage and identity politics have gained traction in Hungary with the Jobbik party, and in the Netherlands, where politician Geert Wilders, who has compared the Qur’an to Mein Kampf, is successfully capitalizing on anti-immigrant nationalism in his ascendancy. In Germany, the hard right National Democratic Party is targeting a broader base of support by embracing the environmental movement.
The eurosceptic nationalism associated with Le Pen’s campaign is focused on protectionist sentiment and anti-immigration stances. Le Pen’s support for opting out of the Eurozone appeals especially to voters like those in rural France who feel victimized economically by the EU’s economic decision-making and austerity measures. Voters like these also feel threatened by immigrants, whom they see as competition for employment in a tough economy. They are attracted by the fact that she wants immigration to France reduced to only 10,000 people a year.
Le Pen has very successfully framed her closed-border stances in highly economic terms, directly attributing economic hardship to the waste and cost and competition brought by multiculturalist approaches, globalization and European integration. Using support for this position to challenge the character of her opponents, she asked: “Who between Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy willimpose the austerity plan in the most servile way? Who will submit the best to the instructions of the IMF, the ECB or the European Commission?” Statements like this one reflect the National Front’s powerful rhetorical marriage of questions of national character and identity with the populist politics of economic fear and anger.
NPR quoted a handful of National Front supporters in rural France who listed their primary concerns as the supposed double threat of the Eurozone and immigration. A man named Remy Boursot in Chambolle Musigny said, “As a winegrower, it’s Europe that dictates my life. We’ve lost our sovereignty, and this has killed our small businesses and artisans. We have to get out of the euro currency. And with unemployment on the rise, we hardly need mass immigration.” His words demonstrate another characteristic of this far-right populism: a sense of demand and urgency, spurred on by a feeling of personal loss and voicelessness.
Unsurprisingly, a particularly popular target of this kind of threat-driven identity politics, and even in more mainstream French politics, is Islam. Islam is portrayed as a growing threat to French communities, and many of the French who threw their support behind the National Front see Islam as, in Le Pen’s words, “advancing into neighbourhoods“. France has the highest Muslim population in Western Europe, at 5 million, and has serious struggles with cultural and political Islamophobia. Undoubtedly, capitalising on these struggles has done the far-right and Marine Le Pen great favours in their ascent.
Despite the intensity of Le Pen’s stances, her far-right appeal has found an unsettling niche among the young electorate. Her more contemporary appeal and her more flexible stances on issues like abortion have made her and her party more widely attractive. For the younger voting demographic, Le Pen ranked number one among the ten candidates on the first presidential ballot. In April of last year, polling results put her in second place between Hollande and Sarkozy among 18 to 22 year olds and a March 2011 study from the CSA Institute comparing three separate polls put her at first place among potential voters in the 18 to 26 range. These numbers show an unexpected youth power behind Le Pen, given her far-right position. Nonna Meyer, of Sciences Po, told the AP that her youth appeal is explained by a rhetorical shift away from her father’s style: “She’s younger, she’s a woman, she condemns anti-Semitism. She often says things differently than her father. She says she is tolerant, it is Islam that is intolerant … She upends the discourse.”
Other parties have begun to try to appeal to the demands and desires of the popular support for parties like the National Front. Following Le Pen’s showing in round one, both the victorious Socialist candidate Hollande and the second place finisher and incumbent defender Sarkozy have made motions to try and win over support from that wing of the French political dynamic. Hollande, who looks likely to be France’s next president, has done this to a lesser extent. Sarkozy, however, sees the far right as his only chance to hold on to the presidency and has hardened his positions on the EU, immigration and Islam to curry favour with Le Pen’s National Front supporters. Most of their vote is predicted to go to him, although this isn’t expected to win him the election. Esteban Pratviel of the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique says that Sarkozy would need more than 70 percent of Le Pen‘s supporters, and to simultaneously keep the centrist electorate. Le Pen herself refuses to do her opponents any favours, saying firmly that she would be casting a blank ballot in protest in Sunday‘s run-off election.
The National Front will not win this presidency, nor will many of their voters throw their support behind Hollande, who is the likeliest candidate, but they have certainly been granted new status in the French political dynamic. We haven’t seen the last of the National Front this year. Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion, stands a very solid chance of becoming one of the party‘s first MPs since the 1986 elections when parliamentary elections come around in June. The events of this presidential election both recognize the newly gained power of the far-right movement in France and further the process of mainstreaming its radical stances on immigration and economic policy. This rise in far-right support, both in France and across Europe, is one of the dangerous and potentially lasting side effects of a Europe struggling with economic crisis.