E&M looks at Marine Le Pen’s consolidation of far right parties into the now active “Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom”.

The newly announced European Parliament far-right group, “Europe of Nations and Freedoms” draws attention again to the growing nationalist, Eurosceptic parties. Led by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, respectively leaders of the French National Front (FN) and the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), the political group consists of far-right parties such as the Italian Lega Nord, the Austrian FPÖ and the Belgian Vlaams Belang. An aim of the FN since the European elections in May 2014, the successful formation of a group represents a new step in the party’s rise in recent years. Once mostly symbolising the protest vote in France, the FN has come to be an integral part of French, and thus European, politics. So what exactly is the National Front and how can we explain this evolution?

Photo: Alexander Plumb, CC BY 4.0 (Shout Out UK) | Femen members protesting at the May Day FN rally in Paris.

FN – Origins

Created in 1972 to unify different far-right, nationalist movements, the National Front is usually associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen who presided over the party until 2011. It originally appealed to veterans of the Algerian war, young neo-Nazis and other elements of the nationalist populist right. The FN was openly anti-communist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Gaullist and opposed to the European Union.

It slowly became part of the French political landscape in the mid-80s, securing 10 seats in the European Parliament and two years later 35 seats in the National Assembly. But always as an opposition to all mainstream parties, a movement on the fringe of the establishment. In 2002, Le Pen surprisingly made it to the second round for the presidential election against the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac.

The overwhelming reaction to this result illustrates both how the party grew to be attractive to more voters and how it was considered a threat for the first time as diverse parties, left or right, rallied behind Chirac while people took to the streets to protest again the FN’s victory. Mr Le Pen was never able to build on this success and in 2011, his daughter Marine succeeded him as president of the party.

Detoxification

Since taking over, Marine Le Pen has set about a process of softening the party’s image; a “detoxification” of the most extreme elements in order to broaden its appeal and get rid of its neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and xenophobic connotations. Not only has she succeeded, with increasing appeal and public recognition of a party that was once a taboo topic of conversation in society, but the FN is not merely a protest against the traditional left and right anymore, it is rather seen as a real force in the coming presidential election. The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, indeed recently admitted, “I fear for my country”, warning about a potential victory of the FN in the 2017 election.

Since 2011, Marine Le Pen has set about a process of softening the party’s image; a “detoxification” of its most extreme elements in order to broaden its appeal and get rid of its neo-Nazi connotations.

Despite these efforts of “detoxification”, the party is still regularly at the centre of polemics and scandals concerning some of its officials. Direct interventions of its former president certainly make it quite difficult for his daughter to ward off the party’s old reputation. Jean-Marie Le Pen has, on several occasions, made shocking comments on Europe’s Nazi past, excusing the collaborationist Petain regime and calling the gas chambers a “detail” of Second World War history (which caused him to be convicted for contesting crimes against humanity).

Other officials are not making it easier for the party to dissociate itself with such scandals either. Robert Ménard for example, mayor of Béziers in the South of France, has been accused of racism after claiming on television that 64.6% children of his city were Muslim. When asked where this figure came from, he reportedly replied that lists of pupil’s names “tell us their religion. To say otherwise is to deny the evidence”. Although the existence of such lists was later denied, similar situations regularly spark off polemics within the ranks of the FN. They notably give ground to claims that this “detoxified” image of the FN is only new in the sense that it replaced anti-Semitism with Islamophobia.

But the repeatedly shocking behaviour of Jean Marie Le Pen has finally come to be too much to handle for his daughter. She suspended him from the party on 4 May and engaged in a process to suppress his title of Honorary President. Now taken to court, this development has been compared to a re-enactment of Shakespeare’s King Lear in the media. Whether it is destabilising the party or contributing to Marine’s “detoxification” is hard to say: if it reminds people of the xenophobic, anti-Semitic and racist reputation of the FN, it also opposes its new president to the extreme views of her father, thus painting her in a brighter light, much closer to mainstream politics.

Since its major success in the European elections last year with 25.4% of the vote, the FN has achieved yet another impressive score at the national level last March.

Image: Starus, CC BY 3.0 (Wikipedia) | The results of the 2014 EU elections by administrative division show FN departments in grey

The recent performances of the National Front certainly support this last alternative. Since its major success in the European elections last year with 25.4% of the national vote, the FN has achieved yet another impressive score at the national level last March (a vote to elect deputies for the assemblies of France’s “departments”). If the FN did not come out as the “first party of France” like Marine Le Pen had hoped, it was second behind Sarkozy’s party.

Although considered as a failure by many, this result shows the FN’s progression towards a more deeply rooted, regular feature of French politics. It is yet to see if this transformation from a periodically threatening anti-establishment movement into a mainstream party is real and can have long-term consequences for the next presidential election, and thus for the future of France within Europe.

What next?

Amongst the FN’s promises for 2017 are restoring the death penalty, establishing a referendum-led government, guarantying economic sovereignty and naturally a strong focus on curbing immigration and favouring French people concerning jobs and benefits.

Le Pen’s programme regarding the European Union is focused on “giving back control” to France over borders, currency, agriculture and economy in general. It is captured through the catchphrase “for a Europe of free nations,” which strongly recalls the name of the new political group, “Europe of Nations and Freedoms.” With all the fancy words it uses, what this catchphrase stands for is the idea that mass immigration, the European Union and above all, globalisation, are threats to French society and the vision of a great France. A conviction shared by the other nationalist parties within this group.

So one can wonder how much impact, if any at all, this new formation will have on European politics – but it would seem like the biggest threat to the stability of European institutions is rather coming from the role of nationalist parties in their own countries. We have yet to see just how much impact parties like the FN in France or UKIP in England will have on their country’s policies towards Europe.

Cover photo: Blandine Le Cain, CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

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    Victoria Jordan is originally from Paris and has lived in Hamburg and London. She holds a BA in German and History from University College London, and recently completed an MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge University. She is currently working as a trainee for the European Parliament Research Service, in Brussels. She is one of the editors for Brain and Baby.

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