The National Front, a French Enigma

How can we define this party? Those who look kindly on it may describe it as patriotic, popular and a supporter of sovereignty. Hostile critics would prefer the terms populist, nationalist and fascist. In fact, it is both.

Regardless of the (predictable) result of the French presidential election, we may wonder about what I feel is the most remarkable event of the electoral campaign: the rise of the National Front to become the leading party in France. The traditional parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, are the biggest losers of this election, while the movement driven by Macron remains a coalition of circumstance for the time being, and not a political party per se. The National Front was founded 45 years ago by Jean-Marie Le Pen, and today presents itself as a solid political and ideological force, united around a charismatic leader whose program is not set to dissipate any time soon. This shadow looming over French political life for 45 years has now become its pivotal element. Each candidate in this election has been forced to define themselves in relation to the National Front, and not vice versa. So how can we define this party? Those who look kindly on it may call it patriotic, popular and a supporter of sovereignty. Hostile critics would prefer to say populist, nationalist, fascist and extremist. In fact, it is most probably both.

Since the National Front is nationalistic, it builds its foundation first and foremost on the history of France. If we are to understand the nature and vitality of the party, we must look back ad fontes. Which is exactly what Marine Le Pen does. In one of her campaign speeches, it is worth noting that she cited Richelieu’s 1635 domestic war against the Protestants who threatened the unity of the kingdom, or rather the absolutism of the state. These struggles led to the expulsion of all Protestants by Louis XIV in 1685. The kingdom was financially ruined, but its purity was preserved. Marine Le Pen sees this as a positive precedent, which in her eyes could justify the expulsion of Muslims. But have we ever heard political leaders in Spain refer to the 1492 expulsion of the Jews and the Moors as a happy precedent? This mindset in France exists because our collective memory is constantly revitalized by our school education, which lauds French tyrants such as Louis XIV, Robespierre and Napoleon I. It matters not that their actions caused great suffering for French people, because they contributed to the glory of France. The National Front is the heir of this stance, as well as inheriting a typically French anticapitalistic mindset that dates back to era of nobility. At the time, nobles in France were those who did not work. The brilliant French philosopher, Montaigne, strove to prove his ancestors had done nothing for a century in order to be recognized as a noble.

Ever since, entrepreneurs in France have been rather held in contempt, placed on the social scale just below senior officials, servants of the state, and intellectuals, the contemporary reincarnation of the catholic clerics of the Ancien Régime. This hatred of capitalism and foreigners and the glorification of the state were the ideological pillars of the Vichy regime, which explains the National Front’s barely masked enthusiasm for Marshal Petain. Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, has never hidden his admiration for the only fascist regime France has ever known. But why is it impossible to declare oneself a fascist in Spain, while there is far less disgrace attached to the same statement in France? Time is one explanation: Franco was in power in recent history, and Petain dates back a little further. Francoism was born of a civil war, whereas the Vichy regime – while certainly protected by the Germans – united much of France in 1940 because it was rooted in ancient traditions. Unemployment and immigration are of course other reasons for the rise of the National Front. What’s more, the disappearance of the Communist Party left the votes of working class populations in cities and rural areas available to the far-right. But this sociological determinism only explains half of the issue: there are small, prosperous towns all over France with no unemployment nor immigrant communities, who vote massively for the National Front.

Lastly, I would like to point out that the ultimate motivation for this fascination with the National Front is that it is a revolutionary, anti-system and anti-elite party in a France that — as Tocqueville once said — “is better at revolution than reform.” This even more relevant given that the reformative parties on the left and the right have reformed nothing whatsoever in the last 30 years. In short, the National Front prospers on the back of its adversaries’ mediocrity.