By Hans-Georg Betz, a leading expert on populism and the radical right in affluent liberal democracies, and has written several seminal books and articles on radical right-wing populism, nativism, and Islamophobia. His academic profile can be found here. Originally published at openDemocracy
There is a saying in German – Totgesagte leben länger, roughly but not quite accurately translated into English as “Presumed dead but still kicking.” To put it more precisely – kicking quite strongly. In contemporary western European politics, this is particularly true for the main exponent of the French populist radical right.
For the past twenty years, the Front National (FN, now Rassemblement National, RN) experienced a series of blows and major convulsions that seemed to put nail after nail into the coffin of its political project: the defection of the FN’s number two, Bruno Megré, in 1998, which deprived the Front National of a number of its leading cadres who defected with Megré; the severe financial problems during the first decade of the new century, which forced the party to sell off its precious headquarters; Marine Le Pen’s disastrous performance in the televised debate with Emmanuel Macron ahead of the second and decisive round of the presidential election of 2017, which exposed her to ridicule; scandals involving “fictive employees” supposedly working for MEPs – a reflection of the party’s increasing financial difficulties reminiscent of earlier days; Marine Le Pen’s less than amicable break with her father followed by the discarding of the party’s traditional label, a move that disgusted a significant number of FN supporters; and, last but not least, the defection of Florian Philippot, her closest adviser and influential strategist.
As a result, in early 2018, Marine Le Pen’s public image was “in free fall,” as was the proportion of the French public sympathetic to her ideas Hardly surprising, by mid-2018, observers of the French political scene speculated that it was not entirely unlikely that the RN would disappear in the near future as a relevant force in French politics.
Returning with a Vengeance
Mark Twain once sardonically noted that the reports of his death were highly exaggerated. The same holds true for Marine Le Pen. A laughing stock in 2017, outed as unprepared, incompetent and not ready for prime time, she has come back with a vengeance. Recent surveys on a hypothetical presidential contest have credited her with running neck and neck with Macron, the current president of the republic. Surveys conducted in anticipation of the European elections later this year go in the same direction. The centrist joint list of La République en Marche(created by Macron for the presidential election of 2017) and Modem (François Bayrou) with roughly 25 percent of the vote and Marine Le Pen’s RN with roughly 20 percent are way ahead of all other lists, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (roughly 8 percent).
The turn in fortunes is also reflected in Marine Le Pen’s improved public image. Not only has she reappeared on the cover of major French news magazines; pollsters are also again taking her seriously enough as a major political contender to measure her support as well as her appeal, particularly compared to the current president of the republic. The results show that the president of the RN has managed to restore much of her credibility, even if a large majority of the electorate continues to view her negatively. In the most recent survey, a large majority of respondents credited her with being dynamic and courageous, but also arrogant and authoritarian – albeit less so than Emmanuel Macron, who has come to epitomize smugness.
Gilets Jaunes Make all the Difference
Marine Le Pen owes her rebound in the polls to a significant extent to the revolt of the gilets jaunes, the grassroots protest that started in late 2018 against the rise in the tax on gas and diesel, promoted as a step towards advancing the government’s green agenda. The tax hike provoked widespread rage in the rural countryside, directed particularly against Paris where it occasioned acts of violent rioting. The eruption of rage particularly benefited Marine Le Pen – and for good reason. An opinion poll on the reasons for the growing tensions in French society from early this year identified the growing “social difficulties” of parts of the population as well as “the sense that the Parisian elites (political, economic, and in the media) are disconnected from the everyday reality experienced by the French” as the main drivers of popular disaffection, aggressiveness and rage. The sense of disconnect found its most memorable expression in a slogan, attributed to the gilets jaunes: Ils évoquent la fin du monde, nous on parle de la fin du mois [They evoke the end of the world, we talk about the end of the month].
It is by now well established that the combination of socioeconomic problems, perceptions of social injustice, and political disaffection provides an ideal breeding ground for populist mobilization. Under the circumstances, Marine Le Pen’s return to the frontlines of French politics is hardly surprising. At the same time, she has also benefited from the particular issue which ignited the revolt. After all, even with Marine Le Pen, the FN/RN has been a major proponent of climat skepticism, raising serious doubts that “human activity is the “principal origin” of climate change.
Last but not least, Marine le Pen has shown remarkable programmatic flexibility on essential issues. For the presidential election of 2017, the FN candidate made the exit from the euro one of the core issues of her presidential campaign. It turned out to be an enormous flop. Following the disaster of 2017, it was quietly dropped, even if Marine Le Pen insisted that regaining “monetary sovereignty” was still on the agenda – albeit for some time in the future. Undoubtedly, Marine Le Pen took note of the fact that a large majority of French voters are opposed to giving up the euro. Under the circumstances, pragmatism trumps ideology, even on the radical populist right.
It does not matter anyway because there is, as always, the question of (im)migration, the perennial evergreen of the radical populist right. It is and has been at the center of the radical populist right’s nativist program, and it still retains its appeal. It is the issue where Marine Le Pen is held to be more competent than the current president of the republic. Not surprisingly, (im)migration figures right on top of the RN’s agenda for its campaign for the European election.
Marine Le Pen set the tone in the fall of 2018 with a programme she held in Frejus, a town in Southern France, boasting a FN/RN mayor. Parting ways with likeminded parties in western Europe, she avoided framing the issue in cultural (i.e., anti-Islamic) terms; instead she adoped a narrative which cropped up in the wake of the “refugee crisis” of 2015/2016, the election of Donald Trump, and the upsurge in support for the AfD in the German federal election of 2018. In each of these cases, journalists venturing out to talk to “ordinary people” (in order to understand why they voted the way they did) outside the big metropolitan regions encountered similar ressentiments. The resentment was fed by a profound sense of injustice, stemming from the perception that ordinary citizens are systematically disadvantaged — perhaps even discriminated against – by their government seen as favoring instead migrants, refugees and minorities.
Marine Le Pen’s Frejus speech is a textbook example of this kind of populist cum nativist rhetoric appealing to these ressentiments. Charging public officials on the cantonal level (i.e., prefects) with prioritizing the “integration of migrants,” she asserted that these officials spend most of their time “regularizing, feeding, housing and medically treating them, finding them a professional training and according them job priority.” Against that, French citizens are told that there are no longer any funds available to provide them with affordable housing, no more money to boost the purchasing power of retirees, no more money for the handicapped and for families. But , Marine Le Pen charged, there are ample funds “for immigration!” And whereas French homeless persons “die in the streets from being exposed to the cold” there are “thousands of lodging houses” for migrants. Marine Le Pen’s conclusion: What we are seeing today is a blatant expression of the “contempt (mepris) state authorities have for the people (les gens), contempt for the identity of our countrymen sacrificed on the altars of a crazy ideological vision.” What we are seeing today is “the state working against the nation” rather than the state putting itself “in the service of the nation.”
« The France of the Forgotten »
This is a potentially powerful and persuasive message. Opinion polls show that on some social issues, such as inequality, those sympathizing with the RN are relatively close to the left. In 2018, for instance, some 60 percent of RN supporters came out in support of protecting wage earners, only a minority in favor of more labor market flexibility. Almost 70 percent agreed with the statement that in order the reestablish social justice it was necessary to take from the rich and give to the poor.
The centrist joint list of La République en Marche (created by Macron for the presidential election of 2017) and Modem (François Bayrou) with roughly 25 percent of the vote and Marine Le Pen’s RN with roughly 20 percent are way ahead of all other lists, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (roughly 8 percent).
At the same time, however, the same percentage also agreed that “the unemployed could find work if they only wanted” – a position shared with the right. In other words, RN supporters are overwhelmingly in favor of some measure of social justice, as long as it tied to a notion of “deservedness” associated with productive work. Migrants and refugees clearly don’t count among the deserving. For too long the both Marine Le Pen and her father have charged that the vast majority of immigrants come to France primarily to take advantage of France’s generous social services; and for too long both have demanded to shut down the pompes aspirantes de l’Etat-Providence (suction pumps of the welfare state) and limit benefits to the native born (FN’s policy of préférence nationale).
Ever since she was elected president of the FN in 2011, Marine Le Pen has promoted herself as the candidate who defends “the France of the forgotten” (la France des oubliés). As such, she has gone out of her way to address the boondocks of France – aka la province – far away from the big cities, where established politicians would not want to be caught dead. Therefore it is perhaps not entirely surprising that Marine le Pen launched her campaign for the European election far away from Paris – in the small town of Thon in Vaucluse, a department in the south of France. In her speech, Marine Le Pen positioned herself and her party once again on one end of a new cleavage that pits, as she put it, les nationaux, represented by her, against les mondialistes, embodied by Macron. An astute politician, Marine Le Pen has been adroit in exploiting growing polarization tendencies in French sociey and politics along a new parochial vs cosmopolitan divide. This divide is nothing new. It first emerged in the final decades of the Belle Époque (1871-1914), which turned out not to be all that belle for much of France’s working class, providing ample opportunities for populist mobilization. Like today, populist agitation centered upon migration and national identity.
At the time, the divide was limited; today, it has reached alarming proportions, most recently with the eruption of the revolt of the gilets jaunes. As Laurent Joffrin, the editor of the center-left daily Liberation has noted, what is behind this revolt is a diffuse sense of “humiliation, which feeds all this rage” – a humiliation of all those people who live “out of the way” (excentré, i.e., out in the “boonies”). It reflects a new kind of rupture, a new kind of stuggle, one not based on class but on “space: urban centers against rurbans (banlieue), the periphery against the bourgeois bohemians (bobos), the countryside against the metropolitan areas, the small against the large communities.” Far away from the big cities, the “rurbains” feel “loathed by the urbanites and abandoned by those in power – and often rightfully so.”
It is this sense of being the object of contempt and neglect by the political establishment, which, at least in part, has fed the most recent wave of radical right-wing populist mobilization in advanced liberal democracies, both in Europe and overseas. Mantra-like repetitions by the media and the “established” parties (as if the exponents of the radical populist right were not already part of it, given the fact that many of them have been around for several decades) warning of the fundamental threat these parties pose to democracy have done little to nothing to dissuade disenchanted voters to put their cross next to the them.
The European elections are unlikely to diverge from this pattern. There will be great lamentation in the land, a lot of abuse of ignorant, irresponsible voters and “deplorables” – just to go back to business as usual, in favor of big transnational corporations, the financial markets and the rich.
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