The Front National: A Rough Guide

Marine Le Pen at a May 2012 Front National rally after finishing third in the presidential elections.

This is a guide to the French far-right nationalist party the Front National, based on numerous interviews, articles and polls. It also covers broader issues of French attitudes towards their democracy, immigration and Muslims. It is composed of the following subheadings:

  1. What is the Front National?
  2. Is support for the Front National growing?
  3. Do the French agree with the Front National?
  4. Where does support for the Front National come from?
  5. What do French people care about? (It’s the economy, stupid.)
  6. Conclusion: Permanent protest or a party of Government?

Last January a poll claimed that 87% of French said they wanted “a real leader in France to restore order.” The media were equally alarmed with a poll the same month which found that a majority of French thought there were too many immigrants, that Muslims had too many rights, that the police were not tough enough, and that “traditional values” were insufficiently defended. Most remarked upon was that 31% of people said they “completely or mostly agreed with the ideas” of France’s far-right party, the Front National.

The two major polls, one by Le Monde-TNS Sofres and the other by Ipsos-CEVIPOF, and were used by the media to portray France as a country apparently turning to racism, chauvinism and a kind of neofascism. In fact this was tremendously exaggerated, the picture has to be nuanced. But there is a general trend in Europe, France included, of rising social tensions and hostility to the political Establish, in large part due to the economic crisis. The British government, despite the country’s liberal reputation, has increasingly engaged in anti-immigration rhetoric. In Hungary, there has been violence against Roma by extremely ominous militias under the country’s extremely conservative government.  With the lasting economic crisis of the European unification project and ever-increasing unemployment, could it be that the Old Continent is returning to its nationalist past?

The case of France is interesting as a founding member of the European Union, as the home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim minority, and as the political stage for one of the continent’s most powerful far-right parties, the Front National.

1. What is the Front National?

The Front National can fairly be described as a nationalist party and aggressively anti-immigration party. The party has a diverse platform, often hard to pin down, that includes “law and order,” anti-immigration, and “anti-government” positions (tax cuts for small businesses, elimination of some local and regional government, hostility to the political class in general). It also includes a certain “high Statism,” economic protectionism and hostility to the European Union and the euro. However, the most distinctive plank remains an aggressive hostility to immigration and immigrants, despite a certain mainstreaming of rhetoric and the increasing use of anti-immigration rhetoric by the main center-right party, the UMP.

Shades of the Interwar.

The tone of the party and its activists can be seen from their posters. A poster urging a no vote in a recent referendum to unify the Alsace region, which has passed between France and Germany numerous times, shows a German businessman grabbing a woman representing Alsace. The sort of poster you usually see in interwar history books…

Front National anti-immigration posters.

Front National anti-immigration posters.

More common are anti-immigration posters opposing the purported “Islamization” of France, often featuring minarets, burqas, and the Algerian flag. One poster warns darkly against people staying at home on election day as “the immigrants are voting” (non-EU citizens actually cannot vote in French local, national or European elections).

FN Tu niques la France

The Front National youth wing tends to have particularly aggressive posters such as one declaring “You fuck France… Get the fuck out!” featuring a club-wielding thug with a dog. Front National activists have a weird reversal of victimhood as they argue they suffer from the “anti-white racism” of immigrants and non-white French citizens (notwithstanding the fact that white French hold the overwhelming majority of educational, economic, police and political power, that is, the ability to discriminate). So one youth poster says: “Enough with anti-French racism: THIS IS OUR HOME!” Another, featuring a stereotyped Muslim, urges, with no sense of contradiction: “Against racism… Stop immigration!” Another poster (liberally translated): “These colors don’t run.”

This table gives a sense of the Front National supporters’ positions relative to other parties’ (this poll was criticized for exaggerating the French’s conservatism, but it in any case remain useful for inter-party differences):

FN table

Source: Ipsos-CEVIPOF poll, “France 2013 : Les nouvelles fractures”

It would be wrong to describe the Front National simply as an old-style fascist party. Marine Le Pen, the party’s new leader after her father Jean-Marie, appears at rallies with statues and huge posters of Jeanne d’Arc. But it’s also a party that is self-consciously trying to become more “respectable” and “serious.” She has been partially successful at “de-demonizing” the party. While her father had called the Holocaust “a detail of history,” Marine Le Pen has made a point to condemning antisemitism and reaching out to Jews and Israelis. Indeed, in her early days as FN leader in 2011, she pulled off a small coup by meeting with the Israeli ambassador to the UN. Marine Le Pen is less gratuitously provocative than her father and, if her style against “the system” has a certain aggressiveness, this is if anything less violent than the systematically accusatory and frothing-at-the-mouth style of the leading communist-ish politician, the Front de Gauche’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The Front National more and more argues the economic and social costs of immigration, rather than simply appealing to xenophobia. The non-negative portrayal of a woman of color in a 2007 election poster was noted. The country’s economic program is increasingly “social” and protectionist, loosely inspired by French heterodox intellectuals like Emmanuel Todd, Jacques Sapir and others who are anything but fascist. The leader of this “Strasserist” wing is led by Le Pen’s spokesman, Florian Philippot, a young (31) high civil servant. He is, incidentally, rumored to be gay and hence to have weakened the party’s response to gay marriage. When asked he refuses to confirm or deny, citing privacy.

The Front National itself is not immune to wider “progressive” social trends in French society. On gay rights or abortion, the Front National’s position, in principle opposed, is less clear than before. Conservative attitudes to the family are dead in France. An amazing 55.8% of French children are born outside of marriage, France being one of the leaders in this European trend. Stepfamilies and couples living together outside of marriage are extremely common. Marine Le Pen herself is a divorcée with three children who is currently in a relationship Louis Alliot, who happens to be Vice-President of the Front National… These trends have led some to speculate that it could become a socially progressive anti-immigration movement on the model of Pim Fortuyn (if this happens it will put Madonna’s comparison of Marine Le Pen with Nazism in an interesting light…).

Keeping it in the family: Marine Le Pen’s father, former Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, and her niece, France’s youngest-ever Member of Parliament (23), Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.

Beyond this the Front National can be hard to pin down. Like virtually all French political parties today (and as in most Western countries), it increasingly “exists” in and through the media through the use of familiar slogans and soundbites. The shift from Reaganite anti-guv’mentism in the 1980s to Statist protectionism in the 2000s has a whiff of opportunism and suggests the party has little ideological depth or consistency. One sometimes has the impression that, like the rest of the French party system, the Front National does not have the depth or coherence of an old-style mass party and that it too has become a mainly media-based brand with weak roots in society. It is notable that neither the UMP nor the FN had a significant leadership role, although many politicians participated, in the massive anti-gay marriage protests of recent weeks.

It is impossible to say what a France under Marine Le Pen would look like. The situation would have to be dramatically different for this to be possible. However, in terms of nationalism and racism I suspect, although this is necessarily conjecture, a “Marine Le Pen’s France” would fall somewhere between Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Binyamin Netanyahu’s Israel and Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Le Pen has been criticized for expressing her (qualified) “admiration” for Putin in 2011. FN leaders often express openness to a rapprochement with Russia and have similar positions on foreign policy (on the Iraqi, Libyan and Syrian wars for example).

2. Is support for the Front National rising?

There has not been a great, consistent rise in support for the Front National in recent years, in that sense the recent media coverage portraying a conservative France on the verge of authoritarianism is highly misleading.

The Le Monde-TNS Sofres poll graphs the numbers of people saying they “completely agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree or completely disagree with the ideas promoted by Jean-Marie/Marine Le Pen” since November 1984:

FN adhésion idées

The 32% “agree” figure, which caused such a fuss last January, is fairly unremarkable in retrospect, having been reached as far back as October 1991 and almost reached in April 1995 and May 2002. The figure is rather erratic and seems to be a cyclical expression of discontent.

A similar result emerges from the FN’s various electoral results over the years:

FN élections

The FN – with the exception of 2007, when a still shiny-new Nicolas Sarkozy aggressively campaigned on the themes of immigration and crime – has consistently achieved around 15% of the vote in presidential elections since 1988. Sure, the FN vote has also consistently risen, from 14.38% in 1988 to 17.9% in 2012, a mere 3.5% point increase over 24 years. This is interesting of course but it hardly justifies any immediate alarmism. (Indeed, commentators have been surprised at the FN’s recent inability to really capitalize on either the hardships of the financial and euro crises or of the acrimonious debate on gay marriage.)

Note that the FN achieved its “media breakout” in the early 1980s. The 1984 European and 1986 parliamentary elections, both of which featured proportional representation, enabled the FN to have 10 MEPs and 35 MPs, allowing them to firmly establish themselves in the French political and media landscape.

It is true that the FN is becoming somewhat “normalized” and “de-demonized.” The FN and its supporters used to be treated little better than plague-bearers by the media and political class. Today the FN is increasingly considered a “normal party” within the French right. According to the same poll, 51% of UMP supporters back either an overall alliance or ad hoc electoral alliances with the FN for the upcoming municipal elections. There has also been a steady increase in the number of people who believe the FN represents “a patriotic right attached to traditional values” rather than “a nationalist and xenophobic far-right (extrême droite).” Today, 44% believe the FN is “patriotic” while 43% believe it is “extremist.” In addition, 64% of self-described rightists consider the FN “patriotic.” In addition, despite the FN’s steady if very slow increase in electoral popularity, the number of French who say that the FN “represents a danger for democracy in France” has declined from 75% in 1997 to 47% today, almost reaching the low levels of when the FN was first broke out nationally in the early 1980s.

3. Do the French agree with the Front National?

Because the Front National has been demonized, people may be unwilling to say they agree with the party itself even if they agree with its ideas. In addition, especially with the rise and fall of Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s natural party of government, the center-right UMP, has increasingly sounded and acted like the FN on issues of immigration, Muslims and crime.

We can be relatively unambiguous: The French, to the extent they care about these issues, think there is too much immigration and that Muslims should “assimilate,” without showing any “ostensible” difference.

In general, a small-to-large majority of French consider that there are “too many immigrants” and that “immigrants [implicitly: and their descendants]” tend to mostly be “poorly integrated.” The Le Monde-TNS Sofres poll found that 54% of people “mostly or completely agreed” that there were “too many immigrants in France.” The Ipsos-CEVIPOF poll of the same month found that 70% believed there were “too many foreigners in France” and 62% that “Today, we don’t feel at home as before.”

In 2005, Jacques Chirac passed a law banning students, among other things, from wearing Islamic headscarves in schools. Numerous polls found that between 55 and 69% of French were “in favor a law banning ostensible religious symbols in schools.”

In 2010, when Nicolas Sarkozy passed the ban on face-coverings (specifically meant to target burqas and niqabs) in all public places, a poll found that 74% of French agreed. The law concerned about 2,000 burqa-wearing women in France, perhaps 0.1% of the female Muslim population.

In 2012, a poll found overwhelming support (83%) for the dismantling of Roma (“gypsy”) camps in France. In 2010, Sarkozy’s dismantling of such camps and sending of the inhabitants to their countries of origin, notably Romania, caused a major controversy with European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding because of racial discrimination. While the European authorities may have been right on this point, the French State had mandated a “systematic dismantling of illegal camps, in priority those of the Roma,” but this did not mean that Sarkozy was out of step with French opinion.

Finally, the most recent controversy concerned a Muslim woman fired from a daycare center for her refusal to remove her headscarf. A court cancelled the firing arguing that France’s uncompromising interpretation of State secularism did not apply to private sector organizations. According to one poll, 86% of people disagreed with the court’s decision and another poll found that 84% of people were opposed to the wearing of headscarves in all private organizations open to the public (the question did not specify whether there should be a legal ban or not).

There is room for nuance. The French tend to be more “tolerant” of the Islamic headscarf in public places, that is, even if they oppose it, this does not necessarily mean they want it banned. A 2006 poll found that 56% were opposed to banning the headscarf in public places. Interestingly, an overwhelming majority (about 75-80%) of French typically say that a French citizen should not be given priority in being hired over a legal immigrant. In 1991, it was more a 50/50 split on the issue. There has been a slight increase in the number of people who believe French citizens should be given priority over the course of the economic crisis (from 17% in 2010 to 24% in 2013).

As a whole however, France is a relatively conservative society when it comes to immigration and “assimilation,” something which is well-described by the Ipsos-CEVIPOF poll. The obsession with Muslims, which can often seem irrational or disproportionate, is a way of appearing to “deal with the race problem” without addressing the underlying issues (above all: mass unemployment in the “ghetto” banlieues). Hostility to Muslims is a unifying factor in white French society, able to unite conservative nationalists, leftist anticlericalists, Jews and Catholics. It is roughly the same mechanism of “unification through the Other” with black people and Amerindians in U.S. history or with Arabs in Israel and occupied Palestine.

(It goes without saying that polls showing a majority of people backing a discriminatory practice does not justify that practice. In a democracy the will of the majority is limited, above all, when it wishes to persecute minorities.)

4. Why do people support the Front National?

The Front National does particularly well among blue-collar workers and small businessmen, basically the white victims of the French postindustrial economy. An Internet poll found that 29% of blue-collar voters had voted for Marine Le Pen in 2012 (more than any other party, especially the Socialists and post-communists), 25% of craftsmen, shopkeepers and businessmen, and 21% of employees (salariés). Her electorate is disproportionately male (21% of men vs. 17.9% of total vote). Contrary to what is sometimes asserted, Le Pen’s electorate is not old. Only 13% of over 60s voted for her, aging conservatives prefering the predictable race-baiter Sarkozy to the unpredictable radical Le Pen. Support rises to 23% of 35-44 year-olds and a respectable 18% of 18-24 year-olds.

Interestingly, there is no longer any correlation in the départements (counties) between the Front National vote and the number of foreigners present. Here is the presence of foreigners from the Maghreb, Sub-Saharan Africa and Turkey in the various départements (left axis) over the  vote for Marine Le Pen in the 2012 presidential elections.

French départements: presence of foreigners from Africa and Turkey over the 2012 Le Pen vote.

In contrast, here is the correlation between unemployment and the Le Pen 2012 in the départements:

French départements: unemployment rate over the 2012 Le Pen vote.

As one might expect, the maps of the Front National vote and of areas with severe unemployment, coincide almost perfectly (both are concentrated in the northeast and southeast).

French unemployment, Q4 2007, vote for Marine Le Pen, 2012.

The Front National then, while notable for its focus on immigration, Islam and crime, may be primarily the reflection of economic insecurity caused by 30 years of failed French and European economic policies.

With the disintegration of mass party membership and structures, voters increasingly seem to vote based on their psychological disposition rather than organization or even ostensible interests. The Ipsos-CEVIPOF poll has some highly interesting results for questions asked to supporters (sympathisants) of different political parties. The key psychological dichotomy is between the “(masculine) aggressiveness and anti-systemism” of Front National supporters and the “(effeminate) tolerance and conformism” of Socialist Party supporters, each of these being at opposite ends of the French psycho-political spectrum. Bear with me.

Here are the results when you ask people whether they agree that “The unemployed could find work if they really wanted to”:

FN Profile Psychology

FN supporters tie with the UMP in believing the most (76%) that unemployment is basically self-inflicted by individuals not willing to look for jobs, in fact the FN has a slightly higher percentage “completely agreeing” with this than the UMP. This is despite the fact that FN supporters are predominantly in areas affected by extreme unemployment, that is, areas where the statement is least true. This paradox I believe can be explained by the  aggressive (and defensive?) disposition of FN supporters – the desire to blame others, both “the system” and individuals – well-reflected in the party’s campaign posters. Socialist supporters in contrast are the most “understanding.”

The Ipsos-CEVIPOF poll also had interesting questions implicitly measuring the “conformism” of the surveyed. It found that 62% of French believed that “most politicians are corrupt.” This was highest among FN supporters (87%) and lowest among Socialist Party supports (40%). Only 28% of French agreed that “The democratic system functions fairly well in France, I have the impression that my ideas are well represented.” The figure rises for Socialist supporters to 61% and falls for FN supporters to 2%. Finally, 18% of French believe that “politicians act primarily in the interests of the French.” The figure rises to 41% for Socialist supporters (again in the lead) and falls to 6% for FN supporters.

You get the same results when you ask people about the legitimacy (or corruption) of the media, although here Front de Gauche (communist-ish) supporters sometimes surpass the FN in being suspicious. You also get this amazing result that Socialist [sic] supporters are among the least likely (33%) to believe that “Money has corrupted the traditional values of French society” while the FN are the most likely to believe this (58%).  I am tempted to interpret these as expressions of the “ever-moderate,” ultraconformist disposition of PS supporters and the visceral, “anti-systemic” rejection of FN supporters.

Another example, following Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac’s resignation for tax-dodging, a poll asked the French about their attitude towards wealthy ministers and MPs. Interestingly, Socialist [also sic] supporters where the most likely to declare themselves “indifferent” as to whether a minister or MP was “very wealthy” (76% as against a 70% national average). In addition, Socialist supporters were the least likely (41% as against a 56% national average) to believe that politicians were “much richer” than most French. These questions, in a French context of antimaterialism, almost imply ill-gotten-goods acquired through corruption. Socialist tolerance may be an expression of reflexive party loyalty – the Socialists are in power, therefore the regime is legitimate – but I think it is also that in France the ultraconformist, moderate temperament expresses itself above all in the Socialist Party: the neoliberal regime is always legitimate, no matter its euro-austerity policies, financialization and mass unemployment hurting the little people, dissidents (starting with opponents to the Maastricht Treaty) are dangerous nationalists and/or antidemocratic.

5. What do French people care about? (It’s the economy, stupid.)

The above strongly suggests that the failure of Euro-French economic policies – the deindustrialization and financialization of the country, the advent of permanent mass unemployment – is a major, if not the major, reason for the Front National’s enduring success. More evidence in this direction is that, while most French are fairly conservative on issues of immigration and Islam, most do not consider these the most important issues.

Consider the results of the Ipsos-CEVIPOF poll, when French people were invited to say what the “three most pressing issues for France today” were:

  1. Unemployment was cited by 56%
  2. Purchasing power (pouvoir d’achat) was cited by 41%
  3. Taxes and pensions (tie) were cited by 27%
  4. Healthcare was cited by 24%
  5. Insecurity (e.g. violent and petty crime) was cited by 20%
  6. Social inequality and public deficits (tie) were cited by 19%
  7. Religious fundamentalism was cited by 17%
  8. Immigration was cited by 16%
  9. Housing was cited by 13%
  10. The school system and the environment (tie) were cited by 9%

Issues of economic security absolutely dominate French concerns, with “immigration-integration” issues relegated fairly far down the list.

Interestingly, Front National supporters, while they tend to live in areas plagued by high unemployment, were actually least likely to mention unemployment as a major issue, only 38%, as against 68% of leftists and 55% for the centrist Modem and the center-right UMP. One is tempted to see an example of displaced aggression of FN supporters, venting their economic  frustrations on Muslims and immigrants.

An April 2013 Ifop-Ouest France poll found similar results. Here is what people said when they were asked whether various issues were “absolutely a priority” (tout à fait prioritaire):

  1. 79% said the fight against unemployment
  2. 58% said healthcare
  3. 54% said crime (délinquance)
  4. 53% said education
  5. 52% said economic insecurity (précarité)
  6. 51% said increasing of wages and buying power
  7. 43% fighting against illegal immigration and limiting new taxes (tie)
  8. 33% said improving the situation of the banlieues (suburban “ghettos”)
  9. 30% said saving public services
  10. 29% said protecting the environment

In fact, most polls since 2011 have found this rough hierarchy of priorities:

  1. Unemployment (+70%)
  2. Healthcare, education, crime, reducing deficits, purchasing power, income insecurity (+50%)
  3. Immigration, excessive taxes (30-40%)
  4. Improving the banlieues, the environment (25-30%)

While most French have “intolerant,” assimilationist attitudes towards Muslims and immigration, these do not typically rank among their most important concerns. I am tempted to interpret the ever-increasing rhetoric and action (especially symbolic) against Muslims and immigrants, despite the relative low interest in this of the French, as a kind of compensation of the French State for its complete inability to address the more important economic concerns (the most fundamental economic powers, budget and currency, having been delegated to unelected EU officials).

As a side note, support for UKIP and Tory Euroscepticism in general seem to be based on similar forms of frustration and compensation. UKIPers also tend to be anti-immigration, although the frustration is vented chiefly on the EU (the “explanation for their misery”). The Conservative Government compensates for its economic failure by taking (again mostly symbolic and rhetorical) action against immigration and the EU. The British case is however interesting in that, unlike France, it actually has macroeconomic sovereignty. The overwhelming majority of American economists (libertarians, conservatives and “good liberals”) actually agreed with the Front National in the 1990s that the creation of the euro was ruining the French economy. I have yet to see any arguments that non-membership of the EU would really benefit the British economy, or at best only very marginally.

Conclusion: Permanent protest vote or a party of Government?

France has not seen a far-right surge but the Front National is here to stay. The economic frustrations that fuel the FN will persist because, in particular, the French Left, which traditionally met the concerns of French workers, is castrated. The Socialist Government has no power over either monetary or budgetary policy – these having been completely outsourced to Brussels and Frankfurt – so they are powerless to do anything to address their constituents’ concerns. Stimulus and devaluation are outlawed. The only possible avenue to increasing employment within the system would be to dramatically cut wages and increase job insecurity (“flexibility”), going against core Socialist principles and the overwhelming concerns of left-wing voters, dominated by purchasing power and jobs.

The situation will get worse. Already François Hollande is grotesquely unpopular, with a disapproval rating around 70-75%, after less than a year in office. The economic situation will remain horrible in most of the eurozone at least until the 2017 presidential elections, and it’s not actually clear that the situation will even begin improving by then.

On the current course, the Front National cannot be a natural party of government. While Marine Le Pen, like her father, could very well make it to the second round of the presidential elections, she would be overwhelmingly beaten in the run-off by any mainstream candidate. The FN is becoming (somewhat) mainstreamed but its share of the vote is increasing far, far too slowly. It is increasingly respectable among center-right voters, and UMP-FN alliances seem likely. But the FN cannot afford to enter a coalition government unless it is on its own terms (radical anti-immigration policies, protectionism, euro-secession), otherwise it would alienate its supporters.

However, it is worth noting that a full breakdown of the euro-liberal order in Europe is not impossible. The Maastrichtians have shown their economic incompetence and “monetaro-sadism.” Peoples across Europe are increasingly frustrated with “welfare for the banks” and austerity for the people. Without further, major concessions from the European Central Bank and Germany – implying trillions of euros in guarantees and liabilities through OMT, Eurobonds or the Banking Union – peripheral default and alleged “financial meltdown” appear guaranteed.

I am not making a prediction on this, but supposing the euro-liberal order collapses, the Front National could play a leading role. Emmanuel Todd, as moderate a “good liberal” democratic intellectual as you will find, has expressed the hope that the ruling Socialist Party could lead the transition away from euro-liberalism and the renewal of the Nation-State. He spoke of “revolutionary Hollandism,” that François Hollande would radicalize as the eurozone inevitably collapsed under the weight of its incoherence. He later qualified this saying “in five years, he’ll either be a [historical] giant or a dwarf.” Nothing is impossible, but breaking with the euro would prove particularly difficult for the Socialist Party given its conformism, all the more so because the temperaments of the Socialists and their natural eventual “radical” allies, the (relatively aggressive) Front de Gauche, are so different.

In contrast, the establishment center-right UMP is in fact less conformist and more critical on European questions. A UMP-FN alliance is anything but impossible. Éric Zemmour – probably the most popular French right-wing intellectual including among UMP politicians, the expression of its reactionary id, a sort of cultivated French Rush Limbaugh – dreams of an “Orbánized” Nicolas Sarkozy returning to power in 2017. If the collapse of the euro-liberal order must occur and be managed, the Front National would be free to participate in the Government and already today the UMP is ever-less hostile to an alliance in principle. This may be the most realistic scenario for what still seems unimaginable, a Government of the Front National, creating a nationalist and sovereign regime in France, with all that this would entail.