Agde, on the western end of France’s Mediterranean coast, is a city of some 30,000 people, divided between a historic inland center and a vacation district by the sea. Conceived between the 1960s and ’80s as an affordable destination for the swelling middle classes of France’s postwar boom, Cap d’Agde, as the vacation colony is now known, has since gained a reputation as a main port of call on Europe’s swinger and libertine circuit. But the 2022 season had long since peaked by the weekend of September 17 and 18, when elected officials and insiders of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally met for their end-of-summer convention.
It was “the greatest victory that the nationalist movement has won in 50 years,” Marine Le Pen said of this year’s elections during her speech to supporters. Her statement has some truth to it: In April’s presidential run-off against incumbent Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen received over 41 percent of the vote, a record for the far-right party. During June’s legislative elections, Macron would then lose the absolute parliamentary majority he’s enjoyed since 2017.
Macron’s setback was primarily due to the newly formed left-wing alliance, the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), which won 147 deputies, but Le Pen’s force surpassed expectations by snagging 89 seats in parliament. (In the outgoing legislature, it had eight.) The National Rally is now the largest opposition group in parliament, since the deputies of the NUPES alliance caucus within their respective parties. Ensuring that the France’s political agenda doesn’t slip toward the left will be a major strategic priority for the National Rally, as it uses its prominence in parliament to exert pressure on the Macronist bloc to enact harsher policies on immigration and security.
What the party therefore sought to show of itself at Cap d’Agde was the smiling-yet-stern face of a force ready to govern. “The transfer of power for France,” read the banner projected during Sunday’s stump speeches, presenting Le Pen and her ilk as the sole alternative to the politically vulnerable Macronists. “Macron is weak,” National Rally officials told journalists. “What was decided in the elections was that we are the leading opposition force. The coming years are going to be absolutely essential for our ascent to power.”
In a lengthy PowerPoint presentation on September 17, the pollster and pop sociologist Jérôme Sainte-Marie summed up what he considered to be the three eras of the National Rally’s ascent. From the 1970s through the beginning of Le Pen’s leadership in 2011—the “affirmation” phase—the nationalist project was in gestation, as the party nibbled away at the contours of public debate, enjoying isolated cases of electoral success. The mid-2010s saw the shift to “polarization,” when the force succeeded in pinning public life into a frontal opposition between itself and the “elite bloc,” which happens to be everyone else. “A Mélenchonist,” Sainte-Marie said of supporters of France’s leading left-wing figure and de facto leader of the NUPES alliance, “is a Macronist with less money.”
Citing growing support among public sector workers, falling levels of public disapproval of the party, and studies suggesting that a vote for the National Rally is a positive affirmation rather than a protest vote, Sainte-Marie’s lecture was designed to show the inexorable rise of the party. Running out of time, he was unable to get to cover the last period, which has just begun and which he evocatively called “Generalization.”
This is the court history of Le Pen’s 10-year tenure at the head of the National Rally, which is set to come to a formal end when party adherents will select a new president this fall. After Jean-Marie Le Pen’s shoot-from-the-hip, Holocaust-denying leadership, Marine took over from her father, maneuvering the party toward national power by ridding it of its worst elements—or so the story goes. “The National Rally of today is not a party of the far right,” said Thierry Mariani, European MP and former figure of the conservative establishment. “I joined the National Rally because Marine Le Pen is not Jean-Marie Le Pen.”
Perhaps the most important thing the National Rally has won is its own banality. In off-camera exchanges between journalists and party apparatchiks, polite handshakes mix with mild banter in what is not quite friendship but is at least an easygoing professional camaraderie. Token questions—“Have you found that there are still radicalized sects within the party?” Or, “What remains of the old National Front?”—are asked out of deference to routine and answered with a tongue-in-cheek gibe: “You’re the only people that care about that!” Realizing that a television station had sent a new correspondent to cover the event, one ranking party deputy seemed genuinely upset not to see the network’s usual beat reporter.
The stump speech of Louis Alliot, one of the two contenders for the party presidency, was a case study of the National Rally’s efforts to cleanse its image while keeping its core beliefs. Alliot, an elder statesman in the party, was galvanized by Le Pen’s father in the late 1980s and first won office as a regional councilor in 1998. Alliot, mayor of the nearby city of Perpignan since 2020, has the demeanor of a kind uncle, and has remained steadfastly loyal to Marine Le Pen. “We’re the alliance of the good guys against the abominable alliance between the dealer and the trader,” Alliot said, rolling the two nouns—in English—through a thick Occitan accent and getting awfully close to recycling the anti-Semitic trope of rootless cosmopolitanism with salt-of-the-earth hokeyness.
Alliot’s candidacy is a formality. It is widely assumed that Jordan Bardella, acting president since July 2021, will win the intra-party vote. In recent years, Le Pen has shepherded Bardella, a 27-year-old European MP, up through the ranks of the party. Sharp and with television-friendly looks, this son of parents with Italian and Algerian origins has ideal credentials. Excelling at grandstanding rhetoric, Bardella’s speech belied any narrative about a softening on the National Rally’s part, delivering the usual sallies about the submerging of republican France under a tide of immigration.
“I saw what will happen to France if we don’t take back control right now,” Bardella said of his childhood in the working-class and multicultural suburbs north of Paris. “I saw the republic’s lost territories become the conquered territories of Islamism. Because I was confronted with communitarianism, I felt alongside you and millions of other French people the pain of becoming a foreigner in one’s own country.”
In fact, the changing of the guard at the National Rally seems to be a formality in its own right. “The political line that they both hold is the same: mine,” Le Pen told journalists. The debates that have divided the far right over the years—over seeking alliances with the center right, Marine’s rift with her father, and the incorporation of a more labor-friendly rhetoric—have either been purged or become irrelevant. Party unity and the lockstep discipline behind Le Pen are the dividends of success. The next five years, nearly everyone at Cap d’Agde acknowledged, is about preparing her candidacy in 2027.
Until then, the National Rally plans to use its strong position in parliament to present itself as a reliable “governing party” willing to look above partisan politics in the name of the national interest. With NUPES forces preparing a campaign of direct opposition to the government—whether on the policy response to inflation, retirement reform, or a new round of immigration reform—the National Rally dreams of being able to make its mark (and pin its votes) on a few pieces of legislation, burnishing its credentials as a legitimate political force.
One place where the National Rally officials are confident that they have a wedge in the coming years is over energy, with the far-right party and the Macronists seeing largely eye to eye on the need to eschew a more aggressive path toward energy sobriety by heavily investing in France’s nuclear infrastructure. “The energy crisis has one advantage: It’s going to expose the utter fraud of the ecologists’ stance. Close nuclear stations and oppose coal plants? The French people see this contradiction,” said Le Pen.
If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seemed to augur poorly for a party that had long cultivated ties with Vladimir Putin, National Rally officials claim that an erosion of popular support for the sanctions on Russia will reshuffle the decks. “The sanctions are leading to an economic catastrophe,” Mariani said. “[The Americans] are not adversaries, far from it,” said National Rally MP Grégoire de Fournas. “They can be allies, but we have to be nonaligned and a force of equilibrium, on a case-by-case basis. The Russians aren’t adversaries, either.”
It’s a diplomatic tone that the party is applying in its domestic talking points as well. “The task of the opposition is simple, and it’s not obstruction,” said Thomas Ménagé, elected to parliament this June. “Being in the opposition doesn’t mean that you block everything, especially today in France when the country is divided, and when the French people are suffering. The objective is simple: vote for things that go in the right direction. Oppose when it absolutely doesn’t go in the right direction. Amend, improve, propose things when we can.”
Le Pen’s National Rally is now an institutionalist party. It makes sense in a way, and not just as a step in the party’s search for governing credibility. If a revival of French social movements takes the country’s politics back onto the streets and outside of parliament or television studios, the National Rally could lose leverage. This is a distinct possibility as French people face a cost-of-living crisis and as Macron prepares for aggressive moves on retirement reform. (His last attempt to do so, between December 2019 and March 2020, resulted in one of the largest strike waves in recent decades.) The Yellow Vests of 2018 and ’19, which many initially sought to dismiss as a French variant of the Tea Party, broke in a largely progressive direction thanks to the committed work of the organizers that joined the fray.
The National Rally fashions itself a movement, but it prefers that the people remain passive. Actual popular organizing has a way of taking French politics in directions that the country’s officialdom, in which National Rally hopes to now be ensconced, would rather not see it go.