Article by Cécile Alduy. Video by Nora Mandray, courtesy of Field of Vision.
The National Front is dead. The perennial bogeyman of the French political scene officially ceased to exist on June 1, 2018, when the party voted 80 percent to rebrand itself Rassemblement national (National Rally). The move came after months of brainstorming aimed at stopping the massive hemorrhage of sympathizers and voters that followed Marine Le Pen’s disastrous presidential debate on May 3, 2017, and the electoral underperformance that ensued.
Up until then, the party founded in 1972 by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen and a few far-right groupuscules had seemed on an irresistible ascent. Under his daughter’s stewardship, it had sailed downwind election after election and scored record highs. By December 2015, the National Front could rightfully campaign as the “first party of France” and secure 40 percent of the votes in its northern and southern strongholds after beating every other party in three rounds of midterm elections. All bets were off for the 2017 presidential race.
And then the bubble popped. A young up-and-coming new player, Emmanuel Macron, disrupted the entire political scene with his trademark movement “En Marche!” Running a campaign fuelled by Tupperware parties, evangelizing mega-rallies, focus groups and big data analysis, he made optimism hip again… and his opponents look old school.
But for the National Front, the fatal blow came from within. Marine Le Pen herself signed the party’s death certificate when she pulverized any shred of credibility left to her “Frexit” platform, a French exit from the Eurozone, in the final face-off with her nemesis the Europhile Macron during the nationally televised presidential debate. Within a few minutes, she sabotaged her chances to ever look—let alone be—presidential. She was unprepared, ill-informed, and aggressive. She had no coherent economic program. Her funny faces and schoolyard antics baffled even her strongest supporters. Unsurprisingly, she took a beating.
Her niece, National Front’s darling Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, once dubbed “Europe’s new rock star of the right” by Steve Bannon’s Breitbart, had the good manners to wait a few days before dropping “Le Pen” from her name to become simply “Marion Maréchal.” Within a year of the presidential race, the “FN” and “Le Pen” brands had become a liability.
Their legacy, however, has never been stronger.
Nicolas Lebourg, a historian of the far right and the author of a half dozen books on the National Front, offers this assessment: “Marine Le Pen has lost a lot of her symbolic capital, but maybe not that much of her electoral capital, and nothing of her cultural capital.” She might have failed in the ballot box, and damaged her public image, but her and her father’s ideas have only gained traction in recent years.
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Key items from the National Front’s political platform are now embraced by a majority of the population and copied by mainstream political parties. According to a January 2018 opinion poll, 56 percent of the French are against the centuries-old tradition of jus solis, the acquisition of French citizenship at 18 for children born in France from foreign nationals. Fifty-seven percent are against the right to family reunion for non-European legal immigrants. And a February 2018 survey showed that 63 percent of the French think that “there are too many immigrants in France,” a remarkably high, and remarkably stable, number over recent years.
In early June, the center-right Republican party distributed 1.5 million leaflets stamped “Pour que la France reste la France” (“For a France that remains France”), a slogan lifted from Marine Le Pen’s speeches. The scare tactics that served as arguments in the pamphlet—unprecedented numbers of immigrants, increasing insecurity, and the terrorist threat—could have been signed “FN” as well.
In the meantime, on the ground, the National Front already rules in a few cities.
If the fate of France’s 2017 presidential election had been decided in the small town of Fréjus, where Nora Mandray’s film Dancing with Le Pen was shot as the elections were unfolding, Marine Le Pen would now be president. In this touristy town of 53,000 on the Riviera, she galloped ahead of Emmanuel Macron in the first round with 33 percent of the votes; he barely garnered 17 percent. She finished at 50.7 percent in the second round two weeks later, in spite of calls from every other political movement to vote against her.
Since David Rachline, Marine Le Pen’s campaign manager in 2017, was elected mayor at 26 in 2014, Fréjus has become the largest National Front bastion, and a laboratory for the party’s policies. It is also a good test of how quickly its anti-immigration rhetoric takes hold and how it silences any opposition. With promises of reducing the city’s debt, eradicating corruption, and stopping the construction of a new mosque in the housing-estate neighbourhood of La Gabelle, Rachline ran on a local version of the “drain the swamp / jobs for us / anti-Islam” campaign that has since then become all too familiar.
His success has deep local roots, which will survive any leadership quarrel at the top of the party. Thirty-six-year-old Elsa Di Meo, a former Socialist Party municipal counsellor in Fréjus, cites the specificities of her hometown: a strong military presence, with the 21st infantry regiment of Marines nearby, a close-knit “pieds-noirs” community (French colons who had to return to France after Algeria’s independence), an aging population, the pressure of real-estate developers, cronyism, and a general lack of economic dynamism.
But for all the socioeconomic reasons that might account for National Front voters’ dissatisfaction with mainstream politics, one has to come to terms at some point with a simpler, if cruder, rationale. In Fréjus, as in many small and mid-size cities in the South, violent anti-Arab sentiment is fueled by decades of postcolonial rancor. The recent Islamist terrorist sprees have only served to validate a deep-seated animosity that has been seething for years. Jean-Marie Le Pen already scored 24.5 percent of the votes in Fréjus in the 1995 congressional elections, long before his daughter’s rise to national prominence. During the 2014 municipal race, Rachline rallied 39 percent of the votes in the first round and snatched city hall with 46 percent in a three-way final round against two right-wing rivals. “That’s not a ‘protest’ vote. That’s deep-seated support for its values,” comments Elsa Di Meo.
In opinion poll after opinion poll, National Front voters place “immigration” and “security” at the very top of their list of priorities. One can call it “cultural insecurity,” or “fear of change,” or more simply “racism,” but at the core, it’s the presence of North African immigrants and their families that bothers National Front’s voters, not unemployment, nor the lack of economic opportunities.
And a National Front mayor only fuels this sentiment. Rachline thrives on fanning anti-Muslim fear: in addition to years of polemics about the banned mosque—a move that was deemed illegal by the courts—he abruptly cut all funds in May 2018 to a social center that was distributing meals for the breaking of the fast during Ramadan, accusing it of “communautarism.”
Di Meo has witnessed first-hand the impact of Rachline’s empowerment on the spirit of the city. “The atmosphere is suffocating,” she wrote me by e-mail. “In the bus, in the street, in the supermarket, all the conversations are about ‘Ousting the Arabs’!” Shame has switched sides: “Now it is the ones who are not racist who don’t dare to speak up. A baker friend of mine conceals her first name because it sounds Arabic.” Plastered with stickers that claim “Islam is worse than Nazism,” the city where her great-grandparents found refuge from Franco’s and Mussolini’s fascist regimes is unrecognizable.
Name change notwithstanding, the political platform of Marine Le Pen’s new “National Rally” is a repeat of the old. The “Frexit” may have been downgraded to last spot on the party’s to-do list; the vindication against the euro toned down to a technicality. The fight against immigration and insecurity remains at the top of the agenda, now as it was then.
The National Front might be dead. Its ideas are alive and well.