2016 was a productive year for the populist far-right. With Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election setting a dangerous precedent, the French electorate will vote on their own far-right, hyper-nationalist candidate for president on April 23rd.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front (FN) has more than a little in common with her populist contemporaries in the United States and Great Britain. She has advocated for a French “Brexit” since she declared her candidacy last September, and her political momentum is built on xenophobia and a nativist response to financial globalization. It’s tempting to lump Le Pen’s presidential campaign in with the populist forces credited with approving Brexit and electing Donald Trump. However, to do so would be to radically underestimate the longevity of her movement and its profound appeals to a marginalized component of the French identity.
Marine isn’t the first Le Pen to run for France’s highest office. In 2002, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, upended pollsters’ projections by leading the FN to France’s second round of presidential voting. Although Le Pen’s showing in the final round of the election was far from successful by traditional metrics—he lost to Jacques Chirac by over 80% of the vote—it was enough to propel the FN to the forefront of political conversation in France and cement its relevance nationwide.
However, Le Pen’s brazen rhetoric and total disregard for political correctness ultimately proved too extreme even for the far-right. In 2015, his remarks characterizing Nazi gas chambers as a “detail” of World War II—the latest in a series of anti-Semitic slurs—led to a public outcry and prompted legal action from his own party. The ensuing legal effort, led by his daughter Marine, ultimately relegated Le Pen to the position of “honorary president,” formally expelling him from the party he founded. Marine Le Pen capitalized on media coverage of the highly-publicized fallout to further distance herself and the FN from her father’s extreme views.
While Marine Le Pen’s cosmetic fixes to the FN’s damaged reputation may have been enough to fool a quarter of French voters, the party remains firmly planted in the extreme right. Le Pen’s rhetoric—though less abrasive than her father’s racist gaffes—is no less extreme. On the campaign trail, she has repeatedly characterized multiculturalism as dangerous to France, perpetuated racist and xenophobic generalizations about immigrants, and marginalized first and second generation French communities by implying that their cultural values pose a threat to France’s national integrity. In a recent televised debate, Le Pen denied French responsibility for Vél’ d’Hiv—a Nazi directed raid and mass arrest of Jews in Paris by the French police for which Jacques Chirac formally apologized in 1995. The comment garnered criticism from other presidential candidates, including centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron who observed “no one has forgotten that Marine Le Pen is Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter.”
However, thanks largely to the precedent set by her father, Le Pen gets away with these remarks. She has played the French political conscience to perfection, positioning her party and her platform as a “lite” version of what Jean-Marie Le Pen stood for fifteen years ago and gaining traction with voters who were hesitant to openly embrace the blatant extremism he spouted. In today’s France, it’s possible to publicly declare support for Marine Le Pen without provoking allegations of anti-Semitism. An expressed desire to curb immigration and halt the perceived degradation of French values isn’t necessarily equated with racism. One can maintain a nostalgic conception of French identity without appearing totally out of touch. These trends are xenophobic, and they are dangerous.
Calling Le Pen “France’s Trump,” as some political commentators have done, is a gross oversimplification. Unlike Trump, Le Pen is not a political outsider. She has spent years fine-tuning her message and positioning her party for success within the political arena. The FN currently controls mayoralties in twelve French cities, and 40% of voters aged 18-24 support her candidacy for president. As a result, Le Pen does not have to contend with the questions of legitimacy which have plagued Trump’s administration, nor will the FN have to build up a political presence from nothing should she be elected president. Le Pen will almost certainly advance to the final round of voting in early May, and the FN stands only to gain from her time in the limelight.
While the FN’s rhetoric has softened under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, it remains focused on the superiority of French values and the threat posed to France’s international standing and sovereignty by foreign powers. These appeals are Le Pen’s greatest asset. Instead of reinventing French national identity, she draws upon century-old currents of nationalism deeply ingrained in the popular conscience. For instance, when Le Pen speaks reverently of a France opposed to multiculturalism—which she calls an “immigrationist religion”—she privileges French values and traditions over foreign ones, echoing the ideology disseminated by imperialist propaganda in the late 1800s. Furthermore, her insistence that the religious values of Muslim immigrants are fundamentally incompatible with France’s secular society is informed by the French law of laïcité. Although intended to prevent religious discrimination in France, laïcité ultimately reaffirms the cultural superiority of secular and Catholic French while forcing other groups to choose between their religious and national identities.
The strain of populism which produced Brexit and Trump is fundamentally different from the ideology driving the rise of Le Pen and the FN. There are similarities, of course—all three movements draw their support primarily from economic losers of globalization. They exploit fear to inflame nationalistic sentiment and enact xenophobic policy. They are nativist and deeply suspicious of the world outside their borders. But these currents run deeper in France, and Le Pen’s success is testament to the degree to which historically-rooted nationalism and the strength of France’s exclusive national identity are intertwined with its future.
The tenets providing the FN’s ideological foundation were incorporated into French politics long before Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen capitalized on their prevalence to catapult their party to power, and they will continue to enfranchise the far-right for years to come. However, Le Pen’s candidacy and the threat of her victory provide an opportunity for the French populace to confront the problematic notions residual in their national identity. Win or lose, the FN’s presence in the runoff of France’s presidential election justifies a national discussion about the shared values that paved the way for Le Pen’s success.