Foreign Policy Blogs

France’s Fascination with the Far Right

via flickr kakhunwart

via flickr kakhunwart

French television viewers were treated to high drama last Thursday night, as National Front leader Marine Le Pen bailed on France 2’s Des paroles et des actes (“Words and Deeds”) only a few hours before airing. The political debate show, which has already hosted her six times over the past four years, became a lightning rod for criticism from France’s mainstream parties before the broadcast. Resurgent Republicans leader Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Party head Jean-Christophe Cambadélis joined forces to protest the “excessive” airtime being allotted to Le Pen on French television. An impressive show of solidarity, given that not even the Charlie Hebdo attacks had been enough for Sarkozy to take Cambadélis’ calls in January.

While the France 2 fiasco capped a week of headlines for Marine Le Pen, whose trial for racist remarks in 2010 had been front-page news just two days prior, her National Front continues to gain ground in December’s regional elections (and in the 2017 presidential elections, where a third of French voters plan to vote for her). Marine, who herself leads the National Front’s candidates in the région of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, rejected the primetime invitation after her regional rivals (representing Sarkozy’s Republicans and François Hollande’s Socialist Party) were tacked onto the program. The concession to strict rules on equal airtime prompted Le Pen to rebuff France 2 and presenter David Pujadas with her trademark acerbic flair, asking on Twitter: “Do they take me for their dog?”

Given her “slightly Stalinesque” role within the National Front and the dearth of other high-profile leaders, Marine Le Pen’s steady stream of controversies (and the resulting media coverage she uses to great effect) masks surprising strides made by her lieutenants across France. One standout example, watched closely by the French political elite but little noted by outside observers, is the race currently being run by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine’s niece and the youngest member of the National Assembly since the French Revolution. As head of the National Front candidates in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (known as PACA and including Marseille and Nice), the youngest Le Pen is projected to come first in the first round of voting in December, a disconcerting setback for Republicans candidate and Nice mayor Christian Estrosi.

The PACA race is making waves that reach as far as Paris. Estrosi, hard-pressed to generate momentum in the campaign, is a titan in the region and a fixture on the national political scene. A textbook example of “accumulating mandates,” he is not only the long-serving mayor of Nice but also a sitting member of the National Assembly and a Sarkozy-era minister. Ironically, the long resume has proven a stumbling block in the 60-year-old’s efforts to keep up with his young challenger. Even after he qualified the National Front as an “operation to ‘recycle’ local neo-Nazis,” Maréchal-Le Pen’s campaign has preserved its first-round lead. Throwing his multiple mandates back at him, she forced him to admit he would remain leader of Nice in a televised debate last week: “You are going to remain a Niçois, which the people of Marseille will certainly appreciate.”

In many ways, the race has become a microcosm for political battles to be waged in 2017 and beyond. When François Hollande’s term ends, France’s mainstream parties will face intense scrutiny from voters angry with economic stagnation. They will do so with leaders tainted by scandals and unpopularity. Hollande’s historically low approval ratings have gotten no better, standing at only 19% in September. Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, has managed to regain the leadership of France’s center-right while battling allegations of corruption and illegal fundraising. Just last year, the former head of state found himself answering questions in police custody. In PACA, Estrosi has portrayed himself as the candidate “best positioned to keep the National Front out of power,” but he will need the help of the Socialists to do so. With Marine Le Pen projected to outdo both Hollande and Sarkozy in the first round of presidential voting, the two parties may well have to repeat their joint effort against her father in 2002. A turn of events that may, ironically, reinforce Le Pen’s message that the Socialist Party and the Republicans are two sides of the same coin.

A strong performance in December would prove an important milestone in the Front’s quest for “de-demonization“, but neither French voters nor the rest of Europe should take electoral success as a sign of moderation. Marine Le Pen is a savvier speaker than her firebrand father, but the National Front still embodies a xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic movement that seeks to lead France out of Europe and back down the road of narrow-minded populism. Behind Marine’s theatrics at the European Parliament (referring to President Hollande as “vice-chancellor of the province France“), the National Front still earns its keep by playing on fears of Islam, immigrants, joblessness, and multiculturalism. Like Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the U.S. and Viktor Orban in Hungary, the siege mentality France’s far right actively perpetuates offers no substantial solutions to the country’s real economic struggles. Unfortunately, as Messieurs Estrosi, Sarkozy, and Hollande well know, France’s political elite has failed to come up with any breakthroughs either. Keeping Marine Le Pen off television can only work for so long.