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Populists in Europe (1/8): A break in the french FN ?

Wednesday, 14 May, 2014 - 15:37

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Has Marine Le Pen managed to turn the National Front into a regular party? It is hard to believe if we take into account the first measures taken by FN mayors since the municipal elections. But according to polls, the FN party is still expected to take the lead in the French ballot.

Has the National Front really changed? Many wonder as Marine Le Pen’s party continues to rise. With 11 cities and 1625 councillors having fallen into their hands in the municipal elections last March – including Henin Beaumont which Steeve Briois won in the first round – the National Front could according to some polls end up first in the European elections, beating the right-wing UMP and the left-wing PS.

According to Joël Gombin, political specialist and researcher at the University of Picardie, Marine Le Pen’s break has been generational rather than ideological. “She is a symbol for executives who want a career in politics and aspire to real power.” Openly racist and negationist words have had to become a thing of the past. Today the focus is on increased respectability in order to appeal to new voters without confusing early supporters. The party is surfing on working class fears of globalisation, separatist policies such as protectionism and exiting the Eurozone as well as identity issues, including fighting immigration and giving priority to French citizens for access to housing and welfare.

An ambiguous approach to societal issues

When it comes to societal issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion, Marine Le Pen stays in the background, unlike her father. If possible, she avoids those topics “to distance herself from the UMP, place herself above partisan quarrels and show her status as a potential president, but also so that she doesn’t have to decide in front of a diverse group of voters and contradict herself after previously claiming that Islam was a threat to both women and homosexuals” Joël Gombin argues.

She is also being pragmatic. “On both economic and societal issues, the FN has taken inspiration from what ‘works’ in populist strategies abroad – in the UK for economic issues, and in the Netherlands for societal ones.”

But in the opinion of the political specialist, this Big tent strategy is starting to reach its limitations because beyond all their differences, what really holds FN electorate together and what elected officials of the party emphasize is their nationalist beliefs (see box). On the grounds, representatives love to demonstrate connivance with their voters by adding a little wink when they say: “we have nothing against immigrants, do we now Madame Dupont?”

Between imitation and demonization

In order to counter the FN and redirect their voters towards their own party, the UMP has steered further towards the right, using topics of insecurity and the image of Europe as a strainer which cannot control immigration. This strategy, adopted by Nicolas Sarkozy during the 2012 presidential election, did not manage to prevent his expected failure to get reelected. Besides, it is criticized by the center as well as by some party executives who underline the risk of condoning the FN’s stance.

The left-wing PS is highlighting the threat of fascism and calling for a “republican union” around “democratic” parties across the political spectrum to prevent the election of FN candidates. On the opposite side of this historic strategy, which is starting to show its limits, PS executives such as Prime Minister Manuel Valls are also highlighting the need to restore republican order by fighting insecurity and delinquency with hard-line policies as can be heard in the video from AFP.

Terra Nova, a think tank with ties to the PS, condemns the unrealistic nature of FN economic policies. It estimates that abandoning the Euro in favour of the national currency would cost approximately 50 billion euros because of fast inflation, the cost of printing money, attacks against the franc, a skyrocketing debt etc.

On both sides of the political spectrum, elected officials denounce this new FN’s stance on Europe which aims to deconstruct all the progress made over the past half-century. This would result in isolating France from the ocean of globalisation.

FOCUS : The first measures in FN cities

Cross my heart and hope to die: FN mayors vowed not to make the same mistakes their predecessors in Orange, Vitrolles, Marignane and Toulon made in 1997 with broken promises, the failure of measures aiming to give priority to French citizens, the financial debacle at the local level and even some cases of misappropriation of funds.

Their plan is to ensure good management of their new conquests. Lowering local taxes, which was supposed to be one of their top priorities, will have to wait to make way for discriminatory measures. In Béziers, the new mayor Robert Ménard wants to abolish halal meat in school cafeterias – the irony being that they do not serve any.

In Fréjus, town councillor David Rachline wishes to call the construction of a mosque into question, even though its construction began after a valid building permit was obtained legally under a UMP administration.

In Villers-Cotterêts, the new FN mayor is outraged about the May 10th commemoration of the abolition of slavery. He simply refused to organize any event in the city and denounced a form of “constant guilt”. This decision is significant in the symbolically charged city where General Dumas, who was born a slave and fathered famous French author Alexandre Dumas, died in 1806. 

In Henin Beaumont, the city council has its eye on the Human Rights League (LDH) – a well-known opponent to Steeve Briois. The organisation has been forced to move out of its office in the city hall and to pay €36,000 of retroactive rent. It has also been deprived of its local funding which amounted to only €300 per year.

(Translation: Clemence Grison)