The French Front National (the FN) under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen has been a radical anti-Semitic party on the fringe of a political spectrum. Yet, since coming to power in 2011 Marine Le Pen has been quite successful in projecting an image of a normal party, legitimate to vote for. Is it this successful strategy that led her to the second round of the presidential elections in 2017?
I think the FN has been successful in many different ways. First of all, you can see that right in the heart of the election campaign, there were strategies put in place that came to push the traditional image of the National Front away. If you look at the campaign posters more closely, the blue-white-red flame, which is a traditional logo of the Italian and French extreme right has disappeared and it has been replaced with a rose – a traditional symbol for the left and for the socialist party. Even the name Le Pen has disappeared. She doesn’t want to represent a party anymore – she wants to represent all the French, so she’s standing as Marine. But I don’t know if that will have a lot of impact. She’s been more successful in talking about social issues and the idea that Europe makes French people poorer, socially and economically weaker. Just before the first round of the presidential elections, she made that amazing statement, that France was not responsible for the deportation of Jews during the Second World War. She justified the argument by saying she was fed up with bashing France all the time and that it’s about time we talk about France for what it has achieved on the world stage or at home, for its beauty, its culture, etc.
In 2002 we have seen such a huge mobilisation in France against Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round of the presidential elections. His daughter’s candidature doesn’t spike such massive protest.
The FN is not becoming a normal party just because of what it does. It is also becoming a normal party because how people react to it. So for instance, in 2002 Chirac said ‘I’m not going on television to debate Jean-Marie Le Pen. There’s nothing to debate’. Full stop. Emmanuel Macron is going to television to debate with Marine Le Pen and that is a sign that there is something to argue. I think it is a mistake, because it normalises her discourse. Jean Luc Melenchon, who is the leader of the extreme left, la France Insoumise, has not said that we should vote against Marine Le Pen. He said this is for you to decide. Even the trade unions cannot find a common point to not support Le Pen. The Church has been very shy about it as well, and nobody would be very shy to talk against Jean-Marie Le Pen.
And as for the demonstration against le Pen the daughter, I remember in 2002 there were massive demonstrations, where you could have not enter la place de la Republique, it was packed with people. And how many people where there on Monday? 300? No reaction and quite interestingly for young people. Marine is doing very well with young people.
The FN has quite significant support Jewish or LGBTQ+ communities, even though they don’t fall into their traditional electorate. How can you explain this?
It is quite clear that section of the gay community maybe attracted to Le Pen out of Islamophobia, in a sense that Islam is anti-gay. She says they need protection, so you can see that the discourse of the extreme right has changed quite a lot. During the campaign for la Marriage pour Tous, the Conservatives have been far more vociferous against gay marriage than the National Front. The discourse have been fairly ambiguous for electoral reason mainly, because I think that the core of FN remains homophobic and anti-Semitic. Something which is happening throughout Europe is for the leaders of the extreme right to go to Israel to distance themselves from anti-Semitism but the Israeli government refused to invite Marine Le Pen. Because of her father’s leadership, the DNA of the party remains fundamentally anti-Semite. The change of discourse within the party was defended by Florian Philippot, number two in the FN, but it is very contested by the part of the party on moral issues, on abortion, on gay marriage. I think a lot of old or more traditional activists started to doubt Marine Le Pen.
The Polish right-wing media have been quite openly sympathising with Marine Le Pen. One of the right-wing media outlet Niezalezna said that Le Pen wants, similarly to Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Beata Szydlo’s government, to negotiate the European treaties so that it better protects the sovereignty of the EU Member States. Could Le Pen be the ideological ally of Law and Justice in Europe that it desperately needs?
On that particular element, she’s very close to the Law and Justice party in Poland. However, I am not sure she is that concerned with the Polish interest as she’s been very strong on protecting French interest first. She’s also supposed to be a pro-Putin candidate, so it doesn’t look too good for Poland. It is true that she wants to renegotiate the treaties and if they are not renegotiable, then she would ask for Frexit through referendum. For her, that means going back to the French franc, getting out of Schengen and having less initiatives for the European Commission. First of all, I’m not sure that to have a weaker European Union with two major Member States out of it would help Poland in any way. This would probably increase the influence of Germany and I am not sure that Polish nationalists would particularly appreciate that.
Is it then a real possibility for France would follow the lead of the UK and leave the European Union?
I think the French people are a bit scared about this. I am not sure that to renegotiate our relationship with Europe will win votes. France is not Britain, France’s destiny is in Europe. This is how France reconstructed its role in the post-world context. Britain joined the EU because it was useful at that time, but not out of the political project. For the French is absolutely core and it is fairly engrained to the French political culture. Opting out would also put a big question mark on what is the international role of France.
Some people claim that should Macron win this election, he is unlikely to be enough of a figure to push all the necessary reforms, that he represents everything that Europe protests against now. Is it possible that his election would somehow pave the way for Le Pen’s victory in 2022?
There are two main things which are very worrying about Macron. First of all, he is young and some people claim that he hasn’t got enough experience of the international stage. But the greatest worry is that he will not be able to secure a majority in the national parliament. The president has quite a lot of power in France only if he’s supported by the majority in parliament. What he is offering is 577 new candidate who, for most of them, would have no experience of being elected locally. That could be good, because there is a general feeling in France that the political class has failed us and that we need to change the DNA of French politics. But I think it’s going to be very difficult. What we might end up having is a president who maybe fairly powerful but totally locked up in the Elysees Palace and not being able to pursue his reformist agenda. Another interesting point is that if he’s elected and if Martin Schultz is elected in Germany, we’ve got people thinking alike. And if for once again, as used to be the case in the past, the French and the Germans are working together on more reformist agenda for Europe. This is our last chance to do something radically different in France and in Europe without radicalism of the extreme left or right. If they cannot achieve that than I fear the French Front National will make it in 2022. I really do.