The French Front National (National Front, FN), now the Rassemblement National (National Rally, RN), is one of the most successful far-right parties in Europe.1 Formed in 1972, its roots and ideology are firmly in the fascist tradition. However, since its inception it has attempted to rebrand itself and remodel its policies in order to present itself as a mainstream party. The legacy of the Second World War and the Holocaust has haunted post-war fascist organisations across Europe. Jean-Marie Le Pen, elected FN leader in 1972, ruled the party for 40 years and succeeded in making it an established part of France’s political system. His youngest daughter, Marine Le Pen, has been leader since 2011 and has overseen even greater electoral success. The party has a loyal voting base, winning a level of support that has seen the two Le Pens each reach a second round run-off in presidential elections—Jean-Marie in 2002, Marine in 2017.
The organisation’s achievements have made it a model for much of the far right internationally. Marine Le Pen also broke new ground as one of the first women to lead a European far-right party, and other women have followed in her footsteps to become leaders of far-right organisations.2 The dominant theme of her leadership has been her project of dédiabolisation (detoxification). She has aimed to rid the party of the stigma surrounding its fascist roots, which she sees as a block on further electoral breakthroughs. Her current reinvention of the party has to be seen in the context of a long history of such projects in the FN. Marine Le Pen has made great strides in this project, which has involved ostensibly turning her back on her father and his political legacy of fascism and antisemitism.
This article will first look at the ideological framework of the FN. It will assess the role of the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) current in influencing the FN. It will then examine two phases of the party’s development: the first under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen as it made its initial electoral breakthroughs and as Marine Le Pen rose in prominence, the second after she assumed leadership.
The history of the party is one of constant reinvention and repackaging. Marine Le Pen is a long way from the collection of Hitler admirers, Nazi collaborators and Algerian war veterans that originally formed the FN. The party has undergone real changes, demonstrating a plasticity that has served it well. However, this article will challenge those who claim that Marine Le Pen represents a fundamental break from the “old” fascist politics of the FN. It will investigate her key views and policies. It will examine the party’s voting base and will assess how much the grassroots of the party has changed since she became leader. It will also look at how she has weaponised the language of feminism and women’s equality to promote the party’s Islamophobia.
Marine Le Pen has already declared her intention to stand in France’s 2022 presidential election. This will be her third time as a candidate for the country’s most coveted political post. Le Pen announced she would put forward a “grand alternative to put the country back on its feet” and forge “national unity”.3 This article will look at the prospects for her campaign and the potential for opposition in the context of current political events in France.
The term fascism is often used loosely and inexactly. However, the writings of Leon Trotsky, outlined by Mark L Thomas in a recent article in International Socialism, show that fascist movements have specific characteristics.4 In brief:
• Classical fascism is a counter-revolutionary mass movement based in the petty bourgeoisie, which can pull in other social groups as it grows.
• Fascism seeks the destruction of democracy and the organisations of the working class.
• Fascism grows in times of deep crisis, when sections of the capitalist ruling class look for extreme solutions to solve their problems. Nevertheless, fascism poses as a “third way” between socialism and capitalism.
• Fascist organisations build using both parliamentary means and paramilitary force.
• Racism, most importantly antisemitism, has been a key feature of such movements since the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s.
Those looking to win an audience to fascist and far-right ideas in the post-war period in France crashed against the limits created by the memories of the horrors of the Holocaust, Nazi occupation, collaboration and the Vichy regime. The project to make the politics of fascism socially acceptable has been a decades-long one. The isolation of the far right following the war was deepened by the defeat of French imperialism in Algeria and Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s. These humiliating defeats caused a deep political crisis in France and turmoil inside the French far right. A section of the far right took up arms alongside military officers against the French state. They created a terrorist group, the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS), which carried out bombing campaigns and an assassination attempt against President de Gaulle.5 The loss of French Algeria saw over a million colonial white settlers return to France in 1962. These “pieds-noirs” became a key section of the FN voting base.
The other factor that shaped the post-war far right was the impact of the struggles of 1968. The revolt in France and internationally, including the May 1968 French general strike, put the left in the ascendency. Liberation movements challenged decades of imperialist rule and workers and students took to the streets. This threatened to push fascist ideas even further into the wilderness, forcing the far right to consider how to regain influence. The development of what became known as the Nouvelle Droite (ND) was key to this. The ND was formed in 1968, bringing together fascist and far-right intellectuals through a think-tank, the Research and Study Group for European Civilisation (GRECE), and a number of theoretical publications, for example Éléments and Nouvelle Ecole. It was never a party with a single programme or structure, but Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg, in their detailed study of the European far right, point to its influence:
A school of thought it certainly is, with a common trunk and distribution and exchange networks. But a dogmatic, centralised and homogenous school the Nouvelle Droite is not and has never been. It exhibits as many facets as there are national variations, and it has been the subject to both evolutions and breaks.6
In its early phase, the group claimed to be “neither right nor left”. However, the fascist core of this group was clearly identifiable. Alan De Benoist, Michael Walker and Marco Tarchi each “began their careers as figures connected with right-wing extremism or even neo-fascism”, and De Benoist had led the far-right Federation of Nationalist Students (FEN), which supported the French Algeria movement.7 Maurice Bardèche, a leading fascist author of the post-war period, expressed the motivation for the ND’s strategy, writing in 1979, “this realpolitik of the right…is perhaps the only route which remains open to us to leave the ghetto in which the right finds itself trapped”.8 Supporters of this current came to call themselves “Gramscians of the Right”, adopting elements of the ideas of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, particularly the importance of winning ideological hegemony and the centrality of culture in this process. However, they wanted to gain hegemony for views that were antithetical to Gramsci’s—they coalesced around ideas such as virulent anti-communism and the defence of empire, including French Algeria.
The ND also promoted eugenicist ideas, anti-Americanism, a fascination with pagan beliefs and the portrayal of pre-Christian Europe as a golden age. Presentation was a vital part of the ND’s approach. In a 1969 issue of Éléments, De Benoist warned members to avoid “outdated vocabulary”.9 Instead, racial superiority was expressed in language that portrayed differences between races and ethnic groups as being essentially cultural. This represented a break from the far right’s emphasis on biological racism, offering it a way to pursue its agenda with a more acceptable face. The ND claimed its ideology was not racist; indeed they posed their approach as one defending the “right to be different”.10 Guillaume Faye, another key ND theorist, developed an “ethno-differentialist credo” that talked of maintaining both cultural and biological identity by stopping immigration, saying this, rather than the immigrants themselves, was the problem.11 This narrative portrayed the mixing of cultures, what came to be known as multiculturalism, as the imposition of uniformity. As Tamir Bar-on writes, the ND claimed such developments mean cultures lose their “uniqueness and distinctiveness” and are replaced by “the grey, drab, lifeless and leveling materialism and egalitarianism of liberal and socialist doctrines”.12
The significance of the ND in the development of the French far right cannot be overestimated. Publications, conferences, a presence in academia and acknowledgment by the mainstream media each had an immense impact, creating an intellectual cadre for a generation of fascist organisations in France and influencing far-right intellectuals across Europe. The ND’s ideas became attractive to the FN leadership in its early phases when it was looking to build an electoral project. As academic Herbert Kitschelt argues, the ideology of the ND enabled fascists to become “ideologically mobile and disassociate themselves from traditional rightist appeals and programmatic conceptions”.13 Electoral success, in turn, led many ND intellectuals to join and take up leading positions in the FN. Jean-Yves Le Gallou, a leading light in the ND in the 1970s, joined the FN and became an elected FN representative in the European Union parliament.14 Pierre Vial, a former general secretary of GRECE, went on to serve on the FN’s central committee.15 The synthesis of the intellectual project of the ND and the electoral mission of the FN did indeed open a way out of the “ghetto” for French fascists.16
Jean-Marie Le Pen
By the time Jean-Marie Le Pen helped found the FN in 1972, he already had a long pedigree in France’s fascist and far-right movements.17 He had been a paratrooper in the French Foreign Legion, had fought in Algeria to crush the independence movement and was a prominent member of the OAS. The FN brought together different strands of fascism and the far right. It included wartime Nazi supporters Roland Gaucher and François Brigneau, members of the Rassemblement National Populaire (RNP).18 Also involved were Pierre Bousquet, who had served in the Waffen SS, and Paul Malaguti, later an FN councillor, who was implicated in the massacre of eight resistance fighters in Cannes in 1944.19 These Nazi collaborators and defenders of the Vichy regime mixed with veterans of the forces who fought in Algeria. The FN was at its core a fascist party but was also able to draw in other far-right currents. As Camus and Lebourg write, the FN’s success at “federating…albeit with tensions and schisms” multiple elements of France’s far right was one its of “original traits”.20
The party was, from the start, centralised and disciplined, with Le Pen as its all-powerful leader. This “führer principle” of leadership continues under Marine Le Pen. The main focus for the party during the 1970s and 1980s was on presidential bids. The party’s ideological fluidity meant it was adept at changing policy when this was deemed advantageous. The significant shift from promoting the ideas of monetarism and free trade to advocating a “statist” approach to the economy in the 1990s is one example of this adaptability. Such a shift enabled the party to appeal to a wider section of the electorate and would later help enable Marine Le Pen to win elections in the former coal mining region of Pas de Calais.
Under Jean-Marie Le Pen the FN’s vote share rose from 0.7 percent in the 1974 presidential elections to 16.9 percent in 2002 (table 1). The electoral breakthroughs from 1983 onwards put the FN firmly on the political map. The FN won ten seats in the European Parliament in 1984 with 11 percent of the vote (table 2). This success led to further realignment as other factions, including the leading far-right figure Bruno Mégret and his Confédération des Associations Républicaines, joined forces with the FN.21
Table 1: Jean-Marie Le Pen’s presidential votes (second round in brackets)
|4,804,713 (5,525,032)||16.9 (17.8)||2nd|
Jean-Marie Le Pen used radio broadcasts, a twice-monthly letter to members and publications, both official and unofficial, to build the FN. The weekly newspaper National Hebdo had a readership of 100,000. It was originally an official party publication but after 1988 this description was dropped.22 Nevertheless, it continued to provide a platform to advance the party’s ideology, develop an FN cadre and promote FN activities.23 Identité, its review, pursued intellectual debate. To appeal to different layers in society, the party’s “water lily policy” saw it develop groups for younger FN members in schools and universities, as well as among women, military veterans, the police, businessmen and farmers.24 The party also launched cultural and community initiatives such as the “Fête Bleu, Blanc, Rouge” and the annual May Day parade at a statue of Joan of Arc in Paris.
Table 2: European Parliament election results (italic indicates elections under Marine Le Pen)
Number of seats
The party grew from a claimed membership of 10,000 in 1983 to 70,000-80,000 by 1993, with more than three times that number donating to the party.25 After the 1988 presidential election the party became more disciplined and professional. Once, when asked about what his contribution to French politics would have been if he lost the coming presidential election in 1995, Jean-Marie Le Pen replied: “We have rebuilt the right. We have given this political family something it didn’t have, continuity and durability”.26
Racism and immigration
Immigration has been a core issue for the FN, and the party benefited from the “othering” of immigrants by mainstream politicians. A founding member of the FN, prominent fascist and Holocaust-denier Françios Duprat, drew conclusions from Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech when he was “looking for a winning formula” in the 1970s.27 Part of this was the use of the slogan “A million unemployed is a million immigrants too many”, plastered across FN posters in the 1970s. Immigration came to be seen as an “omnibus” issue: everything from national identity to housing and education could be encompassed by it.28 The themes of “identity” and “difference” were central to the FN’s rebranding of racism. The party encouraged supporters to feel besieged, claiming French citizens “feel like foreigners in their own county”.29 In populist rhetoric developed by Mégret, who was party general secretary from 1988, Jean-Marie Le Pen would denounce “elites” and dismiss the other parties as the “gang of Four” or the “system candidates”. The FN were depicted as the only party ready to defend the French nation.30
Where the FN won elections, this became an opportunity to put its racist propaganda into practice. Marie-France Stirbois, an FN councillor in the town of Dreux, declared: “If the applicant is French, he will get a council flat. If he is a foreigner, then he shall be put at the bottom of the waiting list”.31 The targeting of French citizens deemed to be “outsiders” because of the colour of their skin or their religion was a logical extension of the FN’s anti-immigration propaganda.
Growing discrimination against Muslims within French society provided fertile ground for the FN. French colonialism had left a legacy of deep racism in the country. From 2001 this was ramped up as part of the “War on Terror”, which was accompanied by rising Islamophobia in France, just as in Britain and elsewhere. One product was legislation in 2004 banning Muslim school students from wearing the headscarf in schools on the basis that it challenged the principle of laïcité (secularism). Such legislation promoted the use of racist rhetoric and legitimised the FN’s narrative, encouraging it to go even further. This ideological cross-fertilisation between mainstream politics and the FN has entrenched Islamophobia within French society, which is a phenomenon that cuts across political divisions.
Jean-Marie Le Pen’s strategy was to modernise the FN’s image to gain electoral success. He told the FN party congress in 1982: “We are an army in civilian clothes, but it’s not good for us to parade about with weapons”.32 The electoral breakthroughs of the 1980s enabled him to break through the cordon sanitaire that had been placed around the FN by the political establishment. When he was given airtime on national television in the 1984 election, the FN rose in the polls from 3.5 to 7 percent.33 Increased visibility encouraged the party to further modernise and rebrand. Party representatives wore smart clothes; Le Pen’s own image was of a suited professional, without what had been his signature black eyepatch.
However, the party faced a contradiction. Jean-Marie Le Pen knew that electoral success relied on the FN being accepted into mainstream politics. Yet he also understood he had to hold on to the party’s fascist core, who tended to resist modernisation. He tried to overcome the resulting tensions by periodically sending signals to his fascist base to reassure them that his beliefs were unchanged. For example, during the 1988 presidential elections he was seen kitted out in combat fatigues. More importantly he made statements, sometimes veiled or coded, sometimes unashamedly crude, that indicated his consistent fascist and antisemitic beliefs.34 His repeated comments that the gas chambers of the Holocaust were merely a “point of detail of the history of the Second World War” were no accident. Such statements were calculated to rally the party’s hardcore base. His adoption of a dominant slogan of the Vichy government—“Work, family and government”—was not a coincidence.35
This was the political environment in which Marine Le Pen grew up. She is fully aware of the views of her father as well as the nature and origins of the party that she has been active in all her political life. She knew that her father’s “asides” were designed to harden up the cadre, even as they made others nervous—opinion polls in the early 1990s reporting that 73 percent of the electorate considered the FN a danger to democracy. Yet as the party went on to electoral successes (table 2), arguments arose in the party about the need for further modernisation to make even greater electoral breakthroughs.
The FN’s ideological flexibility enabled it to avoid major splits for over two decades. However, Le Pen was only prepared to take modernisation so far, refusing to completely break with the party’s hardcore base. This led to a damaging split in 1998 when Le Pen expelled Mégret, who wanted to pursue modernisation further and advocated working with the mainstream right. Mégret criticised Le Pen’s “isolationism”, arguing that he had become an obstacle to the further development of the party. The tensions in the party and subsequent split came against a background of rising class struggle in France that saw mass general strikes sweep the country in 1995. Alongside these workers’ struggles, new organisations emerged in opposition to racism and the FN. These developments put pressure on the FN and helped fuel divisions about the way forward.36 Mégret’s expulsion led to an exodus of cadre and almost half the membership. Those who left went on to form the Mouvement National Républicain (National Republic Movement) as a challenge to the FN. Nevertheless the FN ultimately retained its electoral dominance over the far-right vote, leading some FN members to conclude that the party did not need to further compromise in order to win elections.
The peak of success for the FN under Jean-Marie Le Pen came in the 2002 presidential elections. Le Pen beat Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin, reaching the second round against the conservative Jacques Chirac. The FN won five million votes. This result exposed the decline in confidence in mainstream politics—the second round had always been fought between mainstream parties in the past. The FN breakthrough created a huge backlash, with mass protests in the streets of Paris and other cities across France.37 This popular revolt led to Marine Le Pen reassessing the party’s strategy. Her father had been the party’s greatest asset for almost four decades but had now become a block to further expanding its support.
The era of Marine Le Pen
France entered the 21st century as the seventh largest economy in the world. However, as in Britain and other major European powers, there were areas suffering deindustrialisation and severe poverty.38 This included, for instance, swathes of northern France and the banlieues surrounding major cities, home to some of the poorest in French society, including many of immigrant origin. These communities faced economic isolation and bad housing as well as state racism and police harassment. The failure to address such inequalities saw the vote of the mainstream parties decline, creating space for FN to become the third biggest party.
Marine Le Pen’s election as party leader in 2011 marked both a break from her father’s political legacy but also continuity with the ideas of the old FN. She had won an initial seat as a regional councillor in Nord-Pas de Calais in 1988. In 2017, she was elected to the National Assembly from the Pas de Calais region, a former mining area that has suffered deindustrialisation and unemployment and was traditionally a left stronghold. Her father had facilitated her rise through the party’s leadership, appointing her the FN’s vice-president in 2003 even though she had come 34th in elections to its leading committee.39 She won the position of leader against Bruno Gollnisch, a long-standing representative of the party’s old guard, taking 67.65 percent of the vote.40 She praised her father in her acceptance speech, citing his “steadfastness, his noble soul, perseverance, the vision and the bravery with which he took on the leadership of the National Front”.41 Her father bankrolled her 2017 presidential campaign with a loan of €6 million even after she expelled him from the party.42
Marine Le Pen has a high media profile and is often treated as a TV celebrity. Her image fills posters, flyers and even the labels of bottles of wine sold at FN events.43 She titled her 2012 presidential programme: “My Project, for France and for the French people.” For the 2017 presidential campaign she simply used her first name on publicity and changed the party’s emblem from the tricolour flame (originally inspired by the logo of the Italian fascist party, Movimento Sociale Italiano) to a rose.44 After reaching the second round against centre-ground candidate Emmanuel Macron, she announced, two weeks before the final vote, that she was stepping down as president of the FN, saying: “This evening, I am no longer the president of the National Front. I am the candidate for the French presidency”.45 The 2017 election saw her win over 10.6 million votes (table 3).
Table 3: Marine Le Pen’s Presidential votes (second round in brackets)
Marine Le Pen has long been committed to the strategy of detoxification and her leadership represents a new, deeper phase in this process. Her “Generations Le Pen” draws around her younger members who wish to modernise the party. As part of that strategy she has attempted to distance herself from those in the party expressing more extreme views and participating in street thuggery. As Wallerand de Saint-Just, the party’s treasurer, put it: “Any clumsy or unfortunate phrase can kill us. And Marine Le Pen is all too aware of it”.46 She has also instigated changes to the party’s international alliances, withdrawing the party from an EU grouping with other fascist parties. She no longer calls for an exit from the EU, committing instead to change it from within. She also looks to Russia as an ally, saying she shares its “social values”.47 She has proposed “a nationalist Washington-Paris-Moscow axis” with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.48
However, she has also had to maintain a delicate balancing act. She wants to hold onto the base the party has built up over decades, while also winning new supporters. When she speaks, she is precise in her formulations and continues to give signals to the RN’s hardcore.
Racism and Marine Le Pen
A number of surveys show that FN and RN voters’ key concerns are immigration, law and order, and unemployment. Marine Le Pen has adapted her approach to these issues to fit with 21st century narratives. The “War on Terror” and the more recent terror attacks in Nice in 2015 and Paris in 2016 have enabled an ever-greater escalation of racism against Muslims. Marine Le Pen has sought to capitalise on this, portraying Muslims in France as fueling terrorism and claiming that multicultural France had become “a university for jihadists”.49 She said of the perpetrators of terror attacks: “Those monsters are also the children of diversity.” Islamophobia is so deeply entrenched within the French ruling class, and across French society, that it warps the policies and practices of parties and movements across the political spectrum. The portrayal of Islam as a backward religion, inherently oppressive to women and a challenge to laïcité, has become a commonsense view. By claiming to be upholding Republican values of secularism when she attacks Islam, Marine Le Pen both gains legitimacy for her Islamophobia and positions the FN as a defender of the French Republic, rather than a counter-revolutionary challenge to it. Indeed she claims the FN is the best defender of Republican values and that such principles have been “at the heart of our movement’s DNA from its start”.50
The lack of sustained opposition to Islamophobia has allowed it to gain legitimacy even among some feminists and sections of the left.51 The persecution of women from a minority ethnic group, including state legislation on what they wear, has, predictably, led to their further isolation. Christine Delphy, one of the few leading French feminists to oppose the headscarf ban, has described how women wearing the headscarf are increasingly excluded from employment and public life “in the name of their emancipation”.52 She also cites examples where Muslim women have been excluded from feminist events, including on International Women’s Day, simply for wearing a headscarf.53
Marine Le Pen did not invent the racist narrative against Muslims that rebrands society’s sexism as a product of Islam, immigration and multiculturalism. However, as a female political leader she has been effective in weaponising this racialisation of sexism, claiming that multicultural society and immigration are “setting women back centuries”.54 Such is the pervasiveness of anti-Muslim propaganda, and so regular are her denouncements of the supposedly oppressive nature of Muslim communities, that she often need not say the word “Muslim”. A mention of swimming pools, for example, signals to many in her audience that she is referring to Muslim women wanting women-only sessions. Where it has gained seats, the FN has always further entrenched Islamophobia. For example, in summer 2016 in areas on the south coast controlled by FN mayors, armed police enforced a ban on “burkinis”, and Muslim women covering up on the beach faced fines.55
Antisemitism is still very much part of Marine Le Pen’s worldview. Her defence of secularism has the effect of implicitly targeting observant Jews. When she denounces the provision of halal meat in schools, she also includes kosher food. Yet she declares she has broken with the antisemitism the party espoused in the past. Her former partner, Louis Aliot, elected RN mayor of Perpignan in 2020, argues:
It is antisemitism that prevents people from voting for us. It’s the only thing… As soon as you break this ideological stranglehold, you free the rest. That’s all there is. Marine Le Pen agrees with that. She did not understand why and how her father and the others did not see that it placed a stranglehold on the party.56
She expelled her father from the FN in August 2015 for his repeated comments that denied the Holocaust, although she had made excuses for him as late as 2014, saying: “I am convinced that the meaning attributed to his words stems from a malicious interpretation”.57 In reality, she could have been in no doubt as to the intent of his comments. When she was running her father’s campaigns she “would meticulously scrutinise her father’s appearances on weekly videos that the party posted directly to its website and remove any ‘provocations’ about the Holocaust”.58 In contrast to her father, she, at least in public, calls the Holocaust “the summit of human barbarism”.59 However, she refuses to condemn the Vichy government or French Nazi collaborators. She has stated that France was not responsible for the notorious 1942 deportation of 13,000 Jewish men, women and children from the Paris Vélodrome d’Hiver to the Nazi death camps, despite the involvement of French police.60 She has said: “I don’t think France is responsible for Vélodrome d’Hiver… I think that, generally speaking, if there are people responsible, it’s those who were in power at the time. It’s not France”.61 She has also been prosecuted for comparing the use of the street for some Muslim prayers to the Nazi occupation.62 The denial of French complicity in the fate of Jews during the Nazi occupation, the belittling of that history, has become a new form of Holocaust denial. Open expressions of sympathy with the Nazis’ mass murder damaged the party, so new ways have been found to send signals about the Holocaust. This ideological development has been seen within the far right elsewhere in Europe, for example in Poland and Hungary. It emphasises the purity of the national state and sees only outside forces as culpable for the crimes of Nazism.
The supposed defence of Jewish people is also used to legitimise attacks on Muslims, who are assumed to be antisemitic. She has said that the Jewish community “have nothing to fear from the FN” and claimed they “should be able to turn to us for support” because they have “increasingly been victims of attacks by Islamic radicals”.63 However, her assurances to the Jewish community in France must be seen alongside her frequent use of classic antisemitic tropes, such as the supposed dominance of “cosmopolitan cultural elites”.64 She claims that “the left…has surrendered to the bank” and when she name-checks bankers, she chooses Jewish names.65 These are “semantic signals” through which, as Michel Eltchaninoff points out, “the antisemitic listener or reader will find what they need to feed their obsession”.66
The “Great Replacement” theory
The FN took the opportunity of the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe to escalate its anti-immigrant rhetoric. Marine Le Pen attempted to normalise her racism and desire to exclude “outsiders” by comparing it to the affinity people might have with their family:
Every social life is founded on affiliations that legitimately determine inclusion and the corresponding exclusion. Religion, nation, family, enterprise, association: they all represent community of members, which legitimately exclude those who are not members, without causing them injustice or violence.
This justification echoes her father, who once declared: “I prefer my daughters to my cousins, my cousins to my neighbours, my neighbours to strangers, and strangers to enemies”.67
Marine Le Pen has said that she does not subscribe to the “Great Replacement” theory, popularised by Renaud Camus and favoured by the far right internationally.68 This theory claims that white western populations will be “replaced” by incoming migrants and their offspring. It lies behind the chant of far-right marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017: “Jews will not replace us.” Yet Marine Le Pen’s utterances on immigration, for example when she refers to “migratory submersion”, flow directly from this view. This stance is also reflected in her support for “national preference” by which child benefits should only go to families “with at least one French parent”. Marine Le Pen constantly uses the rightward shift of mainstream politics on these questions to push ideology and policies even further to the right. Her 2017 presidential election saw her whip up anti-immigrant prejudice with language similar to her father’s, saying: “Just watch the interlopers from all over the world come and install themselves in our home… They want to transform France into a giant squat”.69 A favourite chant at party rallies is: “This is our home.” Marine Le Pen has raised the stakes by declaring that immigration means that “the whole of France will become a gigantic no-go zone”.70
The FN and RN’s views on the economy have sometimes been described as “anti-capitalist” because they reject neoliberalism. Marine Le Pen refers to “savage globalisation” and greedy multinationals and says she opposes austerity.71 Closer inspection shows these views are more closely tied with fascist versions of statism. As mentioned above, the move away from supporting neoliberalism began under Jean-Marie Le Pen.72 In part it reflected the need to break the party out of its traditional strongholds in the south to win new constituencies in former industrial heartlands. So Marine Le Pen refers to “the collective” and talks about “solidarity” when she seeks support in such communities. The RN supports a minimum wage and a 35-hour week and is against increasing the pension age. She uses speeches on the economy to bring in wider ideology, saying she represents the “France of the forgotten”.73 She declares her project is based on “refusing to subject mankind to purely consumerist logic carried out by greedy multinationals who would turn the individual into an interchangeable being, a being whose only raison d’être is to be produce and consume—or be unemployed”.74
Such language can tap into the real dehumanisation and alienation experienced by people under capitalism, but the RN consistently racialises the bitterness felt by those who feel left behind. “Interchangability” is a recurring trope, feeding into racist narratives such as the “Great Replacement” theory.75 The theme of French people not being “interchangeable” with people from other countries and cultures fits with a narrative in which anti-immigrant sentiments are recast as respecting differences and even diversity. In language directly echoing that of the ND, Marine Le Pen says: “the world will only survive through human and cultural diversity, through biodiversity”.76 This approach aims to appear tolerant of different cultures, while implying that French culture and identity will be lost if it is mixed with others. Significantly, the use of the word “biodiversity” infers that the differences alluded to are not simply cultural. Although Marine Le Pen has been at pains to distance herself from crude biological racism, it still lies close below the surface.
Who supports Marine Le Pen?
The membership of the FN expanded significantly under Marine Le Pen. In the first six months of her becoming leader in 2011 an average of 200 people joined the party every day. By 2014 the membership had tripled in size.77
The central motivator for FN and RN voters has been racism. One study by French academic Nonna Mayer demonstrates that voters for Jean-Marie Le Pen were persistently more “intolerant” than other voters on issues such as immigration and the death penalty. She finds that the gap between RN voters and the wider electorate has further widened since Marine Le Pen took over.78 The issues that win voters are also the same from father to daughter: “Curbing illegal immigration ranks first, unemployment second, followed by security issues”.79 Research into FN election candidates reveals how little has changed at local and regional levels, regardless of the leadership’s drive for respectability. One study found that “in the 2015 departmental elections 104 FN candidates were eventually prosecuted for blatantly racist, homophobic and antisemitic comments”.80 In one poll of FN supporters, half of respondents said the phrase “dirty Arab” was “not considered reprehensible. Neither was the phrase “dirty Jew” for 36 percent of them.81
Marxists, from Gramsci onwards, have described the classical fascism of the 1920s and 1930s as primarily a movement of the middle classes and lumpenproletariat.82 During times of economic, social and political crisis, fascism was also able to gain support from sections of the ruling class. Studies suggest that the voting base of the FN has been primarily among shopkeepers and small farm owners (both bigger social groups in France than in Britain) as well as other small business owners and the self-employed. The FN’s social base of support, its historical roots and its ideological worldview show that the FN under Jean-Marie Le Pen was at its core a fascist party, but managed to attract support from wider far-right currents.
Under Marine Le Pen the party has maintained and expanded on its traditional support. For example, she won support from 51 percent of the gendarmerie—France’s militarised police—in the 2017 presidential election. She leads a party that retains its fascist core of cadre, albeit weakened, but she has also won voters and members to the NR on the basis that it is no longer identified with fascism and Holocaust denial. This has allowed the party to break into areas not previously associated with the far right. For instance, studies show that there has been a rise in RN support among voters aged 18-24. There is also evidence that the historical gender gap among the party’s voters has almost been almost completely closed. One study showed the gender gap went from a seven-point difference between women and men in the presidential elections of 1988 and 1995, to a single point in 2012.83 In the 1980s, only 20 percent of party members were women; by 2012, women made up 45 percent.84 Marine Le Pen was the first leader of a far-right party to widen its appeal among women by highlighting gender in her campaigning.85 She promotes herself as a working single mother and an outsider in a male-dominated world. In one 2012 campaign poster a colour photo of Marine Le Pen fills the space, her competitors above her in black and white—all male.86 However, appearances can be deceptive: the party leadership remains extremely male dominated. After the party’s 2018 congress, she was the only woman on the party’s executive, and only 12 of the 43 members of the national bureau were women.87
A number of commentators have drawn the conclusion that because the FN has won seats in former industrial areas in the north, the party is attracting working-class support. We should be careful not to exaggerate this development. The collapse of heavy industries and the weakening of trade unions and socialist organisations over the past 40 years have seen many people in these communities dislocated from their class origins. Decades of high unemployment and deprivation have left many on the economic fringes, and even more have become self-employed. The FN can win votes among the petty bourgoisie and lumpenproletariat in such areas. Yet, for all the talk of representing the “forgotten French”, a case study of the FN’s voting base by French academic Christèle Marchand-Lagier shows it has not significantly changed:
The categories most open to voting FN remain those more socially stabilised, for the most part employed, and not necessarily the most insecure in financial terms. Contrary to the discourse disseminated by FN leaders, this party is not the party for the marginalised, for the working classes or for those groups living precariously. These groups abstain to a much greater extent than voting FN.88
The modernisation process in the FN has also led to the expulsion or marginalisation of street fighters and open neo-Nazis. A similar process took place in the British National Party and the misnamed Sweden Democrats, and it is currently taking place in Jobbik in Hungary. Marine Le Pen has been happy to use the violent elements of the party as foot soldiers for her campaigns, but she has consciously distanced herself from them when they become an electoral liability. For instance, in her first year as leader she announced that skinheads were not welcome on the party’s May Day march. Instructions in one region declared that anyone “resembling a ‘skinhead’ in any shape or form will be excluded by all necessary means”. Combat fatigues were also banned.89 The 2015 May Day march saw FN supporters chanting, “go back home” to immigrants and “long live ‘jambon beurre’ (ham sandwiches)” to insult Jewish and Muslim people. Anti-fascist protesters from the feminist Femen group dropped a “Heil Le Pen” banner over a balcony by the podium that she was speaking from.90 As a result of the controversy, Marine Le Pen cancelled the parade the following year and instead held an invite-only banquet for up to 2,000. Her father held a rally in defiance of her decision.
More openly fascist groups are still linked to the FN. For example, the skinhead organisation Jeunesses Nationalistes Révolutionnaires (Revolutionary Nationalist Youth) has provided security for FN events.91 There are also links between FN members and Generation Identity (GI) in some French cities. The RN leadership denies it has any involvement with GI or street gangs, and their marginalisation means that Marine Le Pen does not face the sort of pressure from such elements that have led to splits in other far-right parties such as Jobbik and the Sweden Democrats. She is embedded in the electoral strategy that has dominated the party since the 1980s. Indeed, she has now worked longer within an electoral political milieu than as part of an organisation that saw itself as openly challenging the system.
The key faultline in the RN today runs between those who support Marine Le Pen’s electoral drive and a section of the party still supportive of the strategy adopted by Jean-Marie Le Pen. One high profile example is Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s niece and a potential rival who has signaled a possible return to political activity. Such opposition is not about rejecting electoralism but is based on criticisms that Marine Le Pen has given away too much. Maréchal wants the party to fight on a harder ideological programme and is unhappy about any concessions on women’s traditional role in the family, abortion and LGBT+ rights, for example. There are divisions and tensions around many issues in a long-standing mass party such as the RN. Its tens of thousands of members have varied political priorities and histories within the far right. These can be over less central but nevertheless contentious issues such as the party’s changing position on the EU and its stance on state intervention to save jobs.
Marine Le Pen will hope to contain such tensions as the major test of the next presidential election approaches. It will be easier for her to maintain dominance if she delivers electoral successes. Some academics argue that Marine Le Pen has fundamentally broken the thread that links the party to its fascist roots, but this underestimates both the legacy of the party’s past and her connection to it. Moreover, other political forces could come to the fore in the party in the face of serious electoral defeats. It would be foolish to assume that, in a deep political or economic crisis, a turn towards building a street movement is out of the question.
Marine Le Pen’s sights are set firmly on the 2022 presidential election. President Macron’s popularity has fallen sharply since the start of his presidency; approval ratings have dropped from 60 percent to 38 percent at the end of July 2020.92 Macron’s neoliberal project to address the problems of French capitalism has faced successive waves of resistance, as described by Jad Bouharoun in this journal.93 The Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement initially grew in opposition to fuel taxes but then took on wider issues about Macron’s policies and the inequalities in French society (the RN attempted to influence local Gilets Jaunes groups with limited success). Macron’s plan to attack the pension rights of millions of workers provoked mass workers’ actions from December 2019 on a level not seen for decades. The Covid-19 lockdown has stalled the struggles but Macron’s handling of the pandemic only adds to his problems, and now a new economic crisis looms.
Marine Le Pen hopes that Macron’s difficulties and the failure of his political project will give the RN an opening, but she faces a contradiction in attempting to exploit the opposition to Marcon. The workers’ struggles, the Gilets Jaunes and, most recently, the Black Lives Matter movement, which has brought new forces onto the streets to challenge racism in French society, also threaten her. These movements open up new potential to build a broad-based united front organisation that could challenge the RN.
Covid-19 also causes problems for Marine Le Pen. Her initial response was to support Macron’s actions, leading to a fall in the polls, so she switched towards criticism. She has racialised the health crisis, blaming immigration for the spread of the virus and arguing for closed borders, as well showing support for conspiracy theories popular among her base. One poll showed that 40 percent of RN members believed that Covid-19 was “intentionally designed in a laboratory”. She published a book in the summer of 2020 condemning the government’s handling of the crisis, entitled, The Coronavirus Black Book: From Fiasco to Abyss.94
The latest local and regional elections did not go well for the RN. Although the headline victory of former Le Pen ally Louis Aliot in the mayor’s seat in the city of Perpignan was significant, his campaign distanced itself from the party and its leader. Elsewhere the vote for the NR was down. Compounding the party’s troubles are its huge debts, which led to a controversial loan from a Russian bank, and longstanding investigations into alleged fraud and misuse of EU funds, which led to the party losing public subsidies. These setbacks have led some to conclude that the RN has reached the limit of its success. Such declarations have been made every time the party’s fortunes have dipped. Nevertheless, polls still put Marine Le Pen in a solid second place in the presidential election, and to assert that the RN is finished is both premature and dangerous.
History has shown that crises can propel fascist organisations forward as people become disillusioned with mainstream political options and look for alternatives. All the ingredients of multiple political and economic crises exist in France. The RN has the potential to take advantage of this situation. A victory for Marine Le Pen would boost the confidence of the far right and fascists across the globe, just as defeat would be a significant setback. The stakes are high.
Judith Orr is the author of Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights and Marxism and Women’s Liberation.
1 I will use the term “far right” to refer to parties ranging from far-right populist parties to fascist organisations.
2 For a full analysis of women and the far right, see Orr, 2019.
3 Deutsche Welle, 2020.
4 Thomas, 2019.
5 Horne, 1977, pp500-504.
6 Camus and Lebourg, 2017, p125.
7 Bar-on, 2007.
8 Marcus, 1995, p23.
9 Bar-on, 2015.
10 Ignazi, 2003, p228.
11 Camus and Lebourg, 2017, p124.
12 Bar-on, 2007, pp5-6.
13 Kitschelt, 1995, p94.
14 Astier, 2017.
15 Fysh and Wolfreys, 2003, p114.
16 The influence of the ND can be seen on the “alt-right” in the United States, including high profile individuals such as Steve Bannon, who served as Donald Trump’s chief strategist. It also shapes currents such as the identitarian youth movement, which is associated with groups such as Generation Identity.
17 Jean-Marie Le Pen had already held elected office, winning a National Assembly seat in 1956, at 27, representing the right-wing Poujadist movement—Mudde, 2019, p14.
18 Marine Le Pen has resurrected this name in her latest rebranding of the FN.
19 Mayer and Sineau, 2002, p44.
20 Camus and Lebourg, 2017, p47.
21 Marcus, 1995, p39. This led to the second and temporary adoption of the party name Rassemblement National in 1985.
22 Mayer and Sineau, 2002, p43.
23 Fysh and Wolfreys, 2003, p138.
24 Mayer and Sineau, 2002.
25 Marcus, 1995, p41.
26 Marcus, 1995, p8.
27 Camus and Lebourg, 2017, p181.
28 Marcus, 1995, p101.
29 Stockemer, 2017, p30.
30 Stockemer, 2017, p17.
31 Ivaldi, 2010, p1.
32 Fysh and Wolfreys, 2003, p143.
33 Eatwell, 2017, p229.
34 Paxton, 2004, p185.
35 Marcus, 1995, p103.
36 Fysh and Wolfreys, 2003, pp187-188.
37 I was in Paris when the result came out and joined a spontaneous march of tens of thousands through the night. Protestors made makeshift placards and banners, and people of all ages joined from their balconies along the way, applauding and banging pots and pans.
38 For a powerful depiction of the impact of deindustrialistion in northern France, see the autobiographical novel The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis.
39 Mayer, 2018.
40 Chassany, 2015.
41 Reuters, 2011.
42 Vincour, 2017.
43 Geva, 2020, p12.
44 Mudde, 2019, p162. This appears to have been a temporary move for the election. The flame remains on the party’s website and social media.
45 BBC, 2017.
46 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p57.
47 Camus and Lebourg, 2017, p228.
48 Mudde, 2019, p41.
49 Mudde, 2019, p36.
50 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p81.
51 Wolfreys, 2018, p106.
52 Delphy, 2015, pxv.
53 Delphy, 2015, p142.
54 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p46.
55 Orr, 2019.
56 Mayer, 2018, p10.
57 Roberts, 2017.
58 Lotem, 2017.
59 Mayer, 2012, p175.
60 Kedward, 1985, p63.
61 Deutsche Welle, 2017.
62 Troup Buchanan, 2015.
63 Zúquete 2017, p109.
64 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p58.
65 Eltchaninoff, 2018, pp115,116.
66 Eltchaninoff, 2018 p117.
67 Stockemer, 2017, p44.
68 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p131.
69 Nossiter, 2017.
70 Eatwell and Goodwin, 2018, p37.
71 Eatwell and Goodwin, 2018, p197.
72 Merkl, 2003, p167.
73 Camus and Lebourg, 2017, p203.
74 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p70-71.
75 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p71.
76 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p77.
77 Stockemer, 2017, pp57, 76.
78 Mayer, 2012, p165.
79 Mayer, 2012, p166.
80 Mayer, 2018.
81 Wolfreys, 2018, p73.
82 Thomas, 2019.
83 Marchand-Lagier, 2018, p56.
84 Dubslaff, 2017, p160.
85 Orr, 2019.
86 Geva, 2020, p20.
87 Marchand-Lagier, 2018, p55.
88 Marchand-Lagier, 2018, p62.
89 BBC, 2011.
90 Stothard, 2015.
91 Camus and Lebour, 2017, p107.
92 Vock, 2020.
93 Bouharoun, 2019; Bouharoun, 2020.
94 Radio France Internationale, 2020.