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The French National Front : On its way to power?

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Première parution : Joël Gombin, « The French National Front: On its way to power ? », Policy Network, 22 janvier 2014.

Marine Le Pen must succeed in a delicate balancing act if her National Front is to become a mainstream party capable of reaching and competing in the second round of a presidential election while simultaneously maintaining its anti-politics appeal

Since Marine Le Pen’s election as the chair of the French National Front (FN) in 2011, there has been a great deal of speculation about how serious her prospects are of getting into power – by which I mean becoming elected president (there are not many ways of exercising power in France).
Most analysts agree that in many ways today’s FN looks a lot like it used to look around 1998. As far as we can know (party membership figures are always a matter of debate in France), the far-right party has over 50,000 members – a clear increase. They are younger than they used to be (around 30 per cent are under 30), and the gender ratio is becoming less unbalanced (roughly 40 per cent female). In 2012 the party started training its candidates in order to have more professional representatives elected– a key step in the ‘de-demonisation’ strategy that Le Pen promotes.

The party has only a limited number of official positions to offer to its membership. Most of these positions are internal to the party. The 2014 elections have offered new more senior external positions in local councils or in the European parliament, but the amount of remuneration to activists that the party can distribute remains small.

From an ideological standpoint, the FN relies on two main strands of ideas: hostility to immigration and Islam (both topics are often linked in public debate in France), and anti-EU nationalism. These are only a subset of the wide range of extreme-right doctrines that were once part of the FN. The era of the compromis national (national understanding) is no more; Le Pen and her entourage are now those who decide the political line of the party. Florian Philippot is without any doubt most instrumental in doing so, even though he may not be the most popular senior member of the party. Indeed, his interest lies mainly in European and economic issues, whereas the hearts and minds of many party members are more concerned with Islam, immigration and social conservatism. This is probably one of the reasons why Marion Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s niece, is so popular with the party’s rank and file.

Marine Le Pen’s long-term strategy to gain power is basically to become stronger than the mainstream liberal-conservative party, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP. She wants to take full advantage of the fifth republic’s institutions, which only leave space for two large political forces. If the FN manages to get ahead of the UMP Le Pen believes the party will have no other choice than to accept to deal with the FN. However, this raises several questions.

First, some inside the party may disagree with this strategy, in particular if the electoral progression of the party slows down. They may want to make deals with other rightwing parties even if the FN is not the dominant player. We will see during the next local elections, in March and December, how local candidates react.

Second, this strategy only works if Le Pen faces François Hollande – or any other leftwing candidate – at the second round of the next presidential election. What if she faces Sarkozy? In this situation, chances are that not only Sarkozy will win easily, but he will be strengthened by the support (albeit shy) of the left, just as Jacques Chirac was in 2002 after he won against Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Third, much will also depend on what happens on the right side of the political exchequer. At the moment, Sarkozy is the strongest leader, but others also want to contend, in particular former prime minister Alain Juppé. It is unclear how this competition will end, and it is not impossible to imagine that both may be candidate for the presidential election, just like Chirac and Édouard Balladur were in 1995. More fundamentally, it is as yet unclear which ideological path the soon-to-be-renamed UMP will take during the upcoming months and years. Depending on that, they may open a political space on their left (to center-right parties like the UDI) or to their right (ie to the FN). Going far to the right worked once for Sarkozy (in 2007), but it failed him in 2012, so the strategic dilemma is a difficult one.

The terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo on 7 January and the subsequent hostage taking in a kosher grocery in Paris should in theory boost the National Front’s popularity. This party has indeed pointed out Islamist threats for a long time. But at the same time, these events may have a contrary effect. First, because of the ‘rally-around-the-flag effect’, especially given that Hollande and his government’s reaction were widely considered adequate to the situation. Second, because if other parties focus more on law and order, Islam and immigration issues in the upcoming months, the FN may lose some of its distinctive feel. It is also possible that the FN goes too far in hardening its stance against Islam and consequently becomes even more divisive than it is already, thus getting a more intense support in the core of its supporter but also frightening ‘reluctant radicals’.

Le Pen ostensibly wants her party to be a ‘normal’ party. But its political attraction comes from the very fact that it is by no means ‘one and the same’ when compared with the other parties. As the appeal of the FN widens, the stronger this contradiction automatically becomes. Time will tell how it manages to deal with it.

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