The resurgence of the French far-right

Written by Olivia Arigho-Stiles on . Posted in Current features, Features

13765930124_d3aa7e6d24_bIs France witnessing the apogee of electoral neo-fascism? In the wake of the sensational electoral victory secured by the extreme-right Front National (FN) in the first round of this month’s regional elections, this question no longer seems overly provocative.

The Islamophobic and stridently anti-EU party topped the polls after the first round of voting with an unprecedented 27% of the vote, ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans and allies (26%) and President Hollande’s Parti Socialiste (23%).

Although in the second round they were beaten into third place by a joint effort from Republicains and Socialistes, the FN can nonetheless remain ebullient about their political prospects having garnered over 6 million votes in the final round.

One month after the Paris attacks, the elections occurred at an unusually strained moment for France. Many commentators expressed nervousness that the FN’s success coincided with the suspension of free assembly and an expansion of state powers as part of Hollande’s state of emergency; or, in other words, at a time when civil liberties in France suddenly seem less assured.

Founded in 1972, the FN has in recent years undergone a well-publicised image transformation and has mollified its hard-right rhetoric.  Led by the softer-spoken Marine Le Pen, the party has sought to distance itself from the anti-Semitic, imperial ideology that defined the party in the Jean-Marie Le Pen era.

Instead it offers a set of self-constructed ‘common sense’ arguments which identify immigrants, and specifically Muslims, as conflicting with French laïcité , or state secularism. The FN has in doing so manoeuvred itself into a rapprochement with the core ideals of the state.

Writing in Le Monde, philosopher Alain Badiou lays responsibility for the renaissance of the FN at the feet of, among others, French intellectuals for perpetuating theories of subtle ‘anti-popular violence’ in popular consciousness.  But Professor Hanspeter Kriesi, Stein Rokkan Chair in Comparative Politics at the EUI, sees the Front National as giving expression to a set of much longer-term socio-cultural discontents. So is it useful to see these developments as neo-fascist?


Kriesi does not see the FN’s victory as a knee-jerk response to the Paris attacks and crucially, he also emphatically rejects the fascist label sometimes accorded to it. ‘‘They are not fascist”, he tells EUI Times adamantly. ‘‘Le Pen’s father was a fascist, or an extremist. Le Pen’s daughter [Marine Le Pen] tried hard to get rid of the fascists in the party.”

But while it is true the FN has gone to great lengths to cultivate a veneer of respectability, many contest how deeply the change has permeated the party. Kriesi maintains however that the shift is genuine, and that Marine le Pen should not be simply seen as ‘a fascist with a friendly face’. ‘‘The first thing Marine Le Pen said is ‘‘We are republican’‘ which in France is very important. You stick to the values of La Republique. You are not against the state. The far-right has always been against the values of the Republique. The FN have tried hard. [Marine Le Pen] threw out her father. They tried to become respectable. Populist right parties have become an integral part of the party systems and it makes no sense to paint the devil on the wall and say they are fascists with a friendly face. They are democratic.”

However Luciano Bardi, Professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS) is more ambivalent. He tells EUI Times, “I am convinced that they could be characterised as inherently fascist on a number of things, but when you say ‘is someone fascist?’ you have to stick to definitions. Certainly in terms of legacy, there’s much less continuity there with [a fascist past] in the current FN.’’

More fundamentally Bardi also contests the usefulness of the term ‘fascist’. In his famous essay of 1944, ‘What is Fascism?’, George Orwell concluded that the word was ‘almost entirely meaningless.’ For Bardi too, ‘Fascism was a short-lived experience. Fascism I would say is something that was very typical of a given historical period and was linked to certain symbols, certain rhetorical slogans but I’m not convinced that it’s a very useful term anymore.”

So what then is the defining policy objective of the democratic far-right today?  ‘‘The key issue is immigration. They thrive on immigration.  And what have we had? A refugee crisis. That is a golden opportunity for the far-right,” Kriesi asserts.

Kriesi argues the French far-right has tapped into a wider set of grievances arising out globalisation. Their success has mushroomed at a time of rising populist and anti-establishment fervour across Europe. ‘‘[The rise of the far-right] is a longer term process which has started more than thirty years ago in France, and in the whole of western Europe. It has to do, in my view, with the structural conflict which exists in society and which is articulated by the populist right in general, of which the FN is a part. This conflict is about the nation state; it is about opening up the borders in economic, political and cultural terms which undermines the traditional container of the nation state.”

He identifies three structural trends which have disturbed the European milieu and given boon to the far-right. ‘‘In cultural terms you have the creation of multicultural societies. You have an increasing cultural heterogeneity. In economic terms you have deregulation of markets, internationalisation of the economy, de-localisation of production to cheaper countries. In political terms you have European integration so the loss of sovereignty of the nation state.”

Linked to this, in recent decades, there has been a vast shift in party allegiances along class lines. Kriesi argues that social-democratic parties have acquired a newly middle-class composition and outlook, and have abandoned their formerly blue-collar constituencies.

This is embodied in these parties’ support for austerity following the Great Recession. Parti Socialiste, as well as PSOE in Spain and most famously PASOK in Greece all colluded in the implementation of austerity policies which disproportionately affected the working class.

271571783_3a8e4eb874_bThough this leads some to declare a crisis of social democracy, Bardi locates support for the far-right, perhaps surprisingly, in the disillusionment of communist-inclined voters. He explains, “[The rise of the FN is] more of a failure of communist internationalism. That comes before the failure of social democracy. All those former communist voters, it’s known that they felt threatened by the immigrants who were taking their jobs.”

Similarly, Kriesi points out ‘‘If you look at the electorate of these [current far-right] parties, it comes from the working class. These are working class parties.  The working class used to work for social democrats but social democrats are becoming ever more middle class. They are middle class parties in a very specific sense; I call them the ‘social-cultural professionals’ who vote for the social democrats, as opposed to the technocrats and the managers. Those employed in health, education, cultural services. So you have a new coalition; a middle class-working class coalition. But the main working class parties today, in a country like Switzerland, are the populist right.”

Kriesi goes further still in arguing that social democracy has utterly departed from its historical mission. ‘‘The conflict that gave rise to social democracy has more or less been solved,’” he declares.

Bardi concurs, adding ‘‘Social democracy coincided with a long period of economic expansion. In order to keep workers happy you need resources which are no longer so available. We now have a global economic system that is extremely competitive and does not allow the maintenance of very well developed welfare states. If social democracy is dependent on its ability to keep a welfare state then maybe it’s gone.” Of course, many would contend that it is not so much the social democrats’ declining ability to provide a welfare state as much as a declining political will to do so, which constitutes the real rupture in post-war European social democracy.

Evidently, it is clear that the rise of FN in France is an indication of deep currents of socio-cultural unrest, fuelled by a climate of ongoing economic uncertainty.  Though the party has failed to take power, it can still profoundly shape the political climate of France. And peddling the kind of rhetoric that often strolls boldly into hate speech, there may well be dark clouds on the horizon for ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ in France.


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