Ni droite, ni gauche, français — who are French nationalists? 

For many years, the Le Pen family’s Front National was not only their private estate, business, property and political project, but also an ideological platform, syncretistically uniting all kinds of movements and political circles that had no place in the Third, Fourth or Fifth Republic. The party brought together monarchists, Catholic traditionalists and opponents of Vaticanum Secundum, veterans of the Charlemagne division of the Waffen-SS, members of the Vichy administration and supporters of Pétain. They were joined by neo-Nazis of the Ordre nouveau, conservative intellectuals of the Nouvelle Droite associated with France’s economic and intellectual elite, and finally to the shopkeepers and entrepreneurs of the Pierre Poujade’s movement. The doors of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s political estate were open to all of them.

On the one hand, this made the French far-right milieu centred around the National Front not only a place of fierce intellectual debates, but also of factional struggles, ideological and personnel purges. The 1980s saw a purge of veterans of Hitler’s anticommunist crusade, while the early 2000s were marked by a reduction in the influence of Catholic traditionalists. On the other hand, however, the Front has thus become the political choice of syncretic groups of voters, from the ‘spiritual elites’, mourning the gone Catholicity of the First Daughter of the Church, to the workers and small entrepreneurs, victims of globalisation and the communism for the rich known as neoliberalism.  Since 2002, however, the Front has changed, adopting even a new name of Rassemblement National, hence National Rally.

What does the class composition of the Le Pen project look like today, and how is it reflected in the party’s programme?

Contrary to what today Marine Le Pen claims to be — using the slogan coined in 90’ by Samuel Maréchal, husband of mid-daughter of Le Pen, Yann — Ni droite, ni gauche, français, neither right nor left, French, in the early years of the National Front’s existence, Jean-Marie Le Pen, positioned the party solely as a right-wing nationalist alternative. Le Pen’s power was aimed at everyone to the right of him, from the Gaullists, the post-Gaullists, the Liberals, the Socialists, right down to the most hated of all, the Communists.

Since the founding of the party in 1972, the National Front’s first success were the 1984 European elections. Moments earlier, Mitterrand’s influence in the French media — the then president, a veritable Machiavelli of the Fifth Republic — had allowed Jean-Marie Le Pen’s concessionary appearances in the media, intended in the long term to break up the French right. Back in 1981, Le Pen was unable to collect the necessary 500 signatures of councillors and members of the elected local administration to become a presidential candidate. Barely 90,000 people — or 0.36% of the votes — supported the party in the legislative elections held the same year. 

In 1984, thanks to the opening up of the media world, a Paris district councillor and party leader, Le Pen, became an MEP and his party got 10.95% of the vote. It is at this point that we can begin any analysis of the nationalist electorate. Previously it simply did not exist.  

In 1992, support for the National Front expanded further, with Le Pen achieving nearly 15% of the vote in the first round of presidential elections. The late 1990s marked a period of peak popularity for Jean-Marie Le Pen and the party. In the 1995 presidential election, Le Pen received over 15% of the vote in the first round, solidifying the party’s position as a significant force in French politics. Setting the stage for events for the next two decades. 

Ni démocratie, ni état social

Nevertheless, the syncretic and yet chaotic party, which was created in 1972 by supporters of French Algeria and Vichy, thrived in the deindustrialization and widespread unemployment that followed the dismantling of the post-war welfare state. After the 1973 oil crisis, the globalised world was pushed to look for new models of socio-economic development. The ideologic struggle that was won by neoliberalism in the early 80’. Taking a glance from afar, one might say that Le Pen’s project politically matured at the same time when steadily left-wing parties abandoned any kinds of anti-capitalist approach, even reformist one. That was epitomised in France by the aforementioned Mitterrand, later in England by Blair and Brown.

Front National transformed the rage incited by a liberal or socialist elite that had taken on the role of globalization’s manager into animosity aimed downward toward some of the most vulnerable people and upward against the movement’s leaders as well as its intellectual and media allies. 

The young Le Pen’s political programme today, which we will analyse further below, is a shining example of the latter; the latter is embodied today by Eric Zemmour, but also to a large extent by the RN’s cadre asset, which, broken from its de-diabolising electoral leash, can bite as hard as Zemmour’s radicals. The best image to attach here is that of Marion Maréchal, who not only along family lines — Marine is like a mother to her, as she herself mentions — but precisely along anti-elitist ideological lines, ‘woke’, ‘Islamisation of Europe’, etc., is quickly able to make a great name for herself in the RN and bring Zemmour’s votes with her. 

All this has become possible, ‘as the ruling classes surrendered increasing swathes of their economic, monetary and legal sovereignty to supranational bodies, the public debate, hitherto dominated by the opposition between liberalism and socialism, found itself reformulated along national, cultural, security, identity, and even civilisational lines’, wrote in their long analysis Benoît Bréville, Serge Halimi and Pierre Rimbert.

In 2002, during the presidential elections, Jacques Chirac refused to debate Le Pen, deeming that the latter was not worthy of it. The move does not look convincing from the modern day perspective, a few moments after the farce called the US presidential candidates debate, Biden versus Trump.

Reducing democracy to a facade, empty signifiers such as European values, human rights — what does that mean? — while disrespecting the will of the demos. The latter is also beautifully represented by other events, including the mass opposition to Macron’s pension reform, the cutting of social spending, the classification of demonstrators as terrorists, such as on the issue of Palestine and Zionist terror, but also the protests of the Yellow Vests, and so on. Here Samuel Maréchal’s slogan could be travestied, ni démocratie, ni état social, neither democracy nor welfare state.

Marine, patron saint of de-diabolisation

Throughout the years of the National Front’s existence, Jean-Marie managed to gather a mass of more or less competent people around him, but at some point it became clear that the greatest burden on his formation was the leader himself. Personally, an intellectual, a lawyer and, since the 1970s, a millionaire, he had become a magnet for attracting people from the elite. One of them was Bruno Mégret, his No. 2, a child of the French elite, a graduate of the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, which had existed since the 16th century, and later of the École Polytechnique and the École des Ponts ParisTech. It was his ambition to “de-diabolise” the movement by moving towards an alliance with the post-Gaullists. His enemy within the party, in a kind of civil war that escalated in 1997-98, was the already quoted Samuel Maréchal, who promoted the current party line, i.e. neither right nor left, just nationalist, and opening the party to solidarity views. Interestingly, the conflict also had a family dimension: the opponent of one son-in-law was the other, close to Mégret, Philippe Olivier, both of whom are now, after Marion Maréchal’s return from ideological exile or political ripening within the Reconquête, close to the mainstream of the party. 

In 1997, President Jacque Chirac dissolved the National Assembly, the French parliament, one year before the end of its term. In the first round of snap elections, the parties of the left won a total of 43.1% of the vote, winning over the post-Gaullist right-wing camp, 36.5%. At the same time, the National Front won 14.94%, a record result for the grouping. This is the pinnacle of a party largely made up of the people of Bruno Mégret, who was the party’s cadre manager, while Jean-Marie was its charismatic face, leader, and sponsor.

Le Pen did not intend to support the Gaullist right in the second round of voting. He published a ‘black list’ of traitors to the right to be defeated in the second round, by any means possible. At the same time, he appeared with a replica of the head of the socialist mayor of Strasbourg, Catherine Trautmann, on a plate. He also went to the constituency from which his eldest daughter, Marie-Caroline, is running in the second round, to attack the socialist mayor, Annette Peulvast-Bergeal by hand. He jerked and shouted at her, and then called people trying to block his car ‘fags’, threatening them with violence. This ended with his daughter receiving fewer votes in the second round than in the first.

His party ends up with only one MP in parliament. Lionel Jospin, a third-way socialist, becomes Prime Minister. The factional fights within the party, the families and the complete lack of understanding of his own mistakes by Jean-Marie, who was an unequivocal saboteur of his own success, lead to a split in the party. Together with Bruno Mégret, almost half of the active party politicians at the local adminsitration level are gone, as well as more than half of the secretaries of the party’s regional branches. The splitter sets up his own party, the Mouvement National Républicain, MNR, which only gains 3.3 per cent in the subsequent Europarliamentary elections, compared to the FN’s 5.7 per cent. A few years later, Bruno Mégret ends his political career, lacking the financial backing and strong party identity that the Le Pen family had, he was unable to break through in any way.

By the 2002 presidential election, Le Pen’s support surged to a historic high of 16.8%  in the first round, against Jacques Chirac’s 19.8%. At the same time, Chirac’s presumed rival in the 5 May run-off, his Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, polled at 16.18%. Just after the presentation of the results, the ruling Socialists, Communists, and Green parties officially vowed their supporters to vote for their sworn ideological enemy, Jacques Chirac. It was a move aimed at strengthening the cordon sanitaire around the nationalists, still widely regarded at the time as fascists, racists and dangerous nutters. Le Pen was attacked from every possible side, Church, masonry, journalists, intellectuals, right-wing and left-wing politicians and pundits, all of them united in calling him a devil of the V Republic. His repeated, since 1987 practically up to now, words about the Holocaust as a detail of the Second World War, his attacks on homosexual communities, his simultaneous anti-Semitic texts, e.g. against Chirac who is at the service of the Jewish lobby pulling out people of immigrant origin, never mind from the old days…. the list could go on forever. There was no shortage of arsenal for the media and the mainstream. 

In the second round, Le Pen barely won 17.79 per cent of the vote. Nevertheless, his entry into the second round and the construction of an identity party, even a subcultural one, in popular opinion closed to other circles, but in reality maintaining an extraordinary number of channels of communication with the Parisian elite and the intellectual world, saved the Front National from collapse. Attacked from every side, The National Front won faithful, ‘identity voters’. For them, the party was the only anti-system party against which a united front of communists and Gaullists was formed, just to keep it out of power. Exposing the essential emptiness of the ‘democratic’ under hulking neoliberal conditions. 

The year 2002 and the subsequent campaigns of Le Pen senior, were no longer able to go beyond the framework imposed on him by the media. The upcoming years were mostly focused on a succession dispute within the party, the dispute ending when Marine Le Pen was officially elected president of the Front in January 2011. The seed of deradicalisation and de-diabolisation was there already. It just needed time to mature.

Lepenism à la Marine 

Marine, fighting for nearly a decade for her father’s inheritance, presented herself as a ‘progressive’ candidate in the terms of the Front. In the end, however, she stuck to her father’s line. It is then, in the internal games, that modern Lepenism crystallises, no longer a combination of the journalistic whining of an old veteran of the French colonial wars, combined with racist remarks and attacks leading to violence, often physical. Marine’s ideas are formed, among others, under the influence of post-modern nationalists, like Alain Soral, a former communist who wrote, during a period of fascination with nationalism, texts claiming that Marx himself would have voted for the National Front. Today Soral is one of the fascist thinkers of the right behind whom there is now only a wall.

Le Pen, began to change the character of the party, moving from right-wing positions, both economically and morally, to positions of national solidarity, combined with a specific form of French patriotism, appreciation for the state and honouring the republic, even in its post-Gaullist form. Marine eloquently defends the state and offers a comprehensive verbal critique of capitalism as an exploitative system that is inherently damaging to individuals and traditional values. Since 2011, she has been speaking in the essentialist populist language of a conflict between the people and the vile cosmopolitan elites linked to globalization and May 68. She describes the forgotten and invisible—farmers, jobless people, labourers, and residents of the French provinces—as victims of the elite, who are only interested in gaining the favour of bankers and destroying the French nation through immigration and Islamization. 

Le Pen senior, who took pictures with Reagan and grew up politically in the Poujadism movement of small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, witnessed the complete volte-face of a daughter who even encouraged the infiltration of the trade union movement. With traditional values, while respecting the right to abortion, or the expression of sexual identity — at least declaratively — that are grounded in the historical development of French democracy, she steps fully into the shoes of a nationalist Jacobin, flirting with working class, protectionism and anti-elitism. 

Changing the front in terms of economics, programming and, to some extent, identity, its other leg remains security, achieved in a right-wing manner, and forceful anti-immigrant rhetoric, combined with the constant demands of French nationalists, i.e. the introduction of the law of blood, instead of the law of the land — as far as the acquisition of citizenship is concerned — strong scepticism about, for example, the Schengen Area and free border traffic, but also a flirtation with, for example, the introduction of preferential conditions for French citizens, e.g. by prohibiting certain administrative roles for dual nationals. The latter is a blatant flirtation with the French nationalists’ constant demands, i.e. the introduction of the law of blood, instead of the law of the land — as far as acquiring citizenship is concerned — the strong scepticism about, for example, the Schengen area and free border traffic, but also, for example, the introduction of preferential conditions for French citizens, e.g. by banning citizens with dual citizenship from certain administrative roles. The latter is a blatant flirtation and a reference to the demands of Le Pen senior, who proposed the introduction of legally preferential treatment for non-immigrant workers under labour law and forms of employment. 

If the party has changed in terms of the economy, its programme and the importance of identity, its second pillar remains security, achieved in a right-wing way, i.e. a virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric integrated with the historical demands of French nationalists. Nationalist politicians talk about introducing the law of blood instead of the law of land — a law that refers to the process of acquiring citizenship — express scepticism, for example, about the Schengen area and free movement, but also flirt with the idea of introducing preferential conditions for the French, for example by prohibiting the holding of certain administrative posts on the grounds of dual citizenship. The latter is an open reference to the demands of Le Pen senior, who proposed the introduction of preferential rights for non-immigrant workers in terms of labour laws and forms of employment. 

In short, Marine has modernised the National Frant by stepping into the shoes of modern nationalism, combined with a fight against elites, immigration, and the maintenance of the ‘fabric of the French nation’ not only through a struggle of a racial nature, as her father did, but also an institutional one. Her enemy is the supposed Islamisation of the country, and the value she wants to protect is the secular nature of France, codified in law and custom, from laws and a constitution that includes the right to abortion, to women’s dress and the ability to behave freely on the streets. With this, Le Pen has done the impossible. She has associated nationalism with something her father did not want to be associated with, namely French liberalism. 

In 2012, for the first time, Marine, not Jean-Marie, ran for president, attacking Sarkozy as ‘president of the elite and the rich’, far removed in experience from ‘ordinary people’. The fresh candidate came third with 17.9%, failing to enter the second round. Her electorate split up, with half voting for Sarkozy, a quarter for Hollande and the rest not taking part in the election. This is the last time Marine Le Pen did not enter the second round and the choice is limited to the old system parties, the Socialists, or the Gaullists.

Hollande’s presidency heralds the end of the standard divisions, his party is being channelled by Macron, as is the left flank of Sarkozy’s party. Le Pen enters next year’s elections as already a fully-fledged presidential candidate, based on a strong political camp that is not even threatened by the emergence in 2021 of Éric Zemmour and his Reconquête grouping, to which her niece Marion Maréchal passes at one point. Today, she has already been welcomed back into the bosom of the family party. 

Who votes for Le Pen?

Analysing the data from the 2023 electorate survey conducted by The Institut français d’opinion publique (IFOP) of today’s Rassemblement National, i.e. the former Front, we can see that the battle for the political hegemony of the nationalists in French society was settled long ago. The data presented in September last year declared that 29% of French people have voted for an RN list or candidate in multiple elections, over four out of ten (42%) have already done so. This indicated that the RN vote had grown significantly. The RN’s proclaimed vote clearly increased, going from 30% to 42% between 2017 and 2023. 

Moreover, no segments of the population remain immune to the RN vote. Among the working classes, the Lepenist vote was prevalent (57% among blue-collar workers, 50% among white-collar workers, 45% among the jobless, and between 45% and 51% among modest or impoverished categories). With no gender difference, 46% of 25–34-year-olds, 47% of 50–64-year-olds, and 49% of private sector workers having had voted for the RN at least once, it has been getting increasingly entrenched in new demographic groups. This vote, which was formerly limited to the protest category, since recently has been evolving into a support vote as 39% of registered voters choose to vote for it “out of support” (up from 35% in 2021).

The data also present what most intellectuals and experts have long agreed on, the right has taken over the cultural hegemony in France, especially when it comes to culture war. The opinions of RN voters and the French population at large diverged slightly on several issues, most notably the fall of France (77% vs. 92% among RN voters) and cultural insecurity/sovereignty loss. Reintroduction of the death penalty (69% believe that “the death penalty should be reinstated in France”, compared with 50%) and immigration (only 31% believe that “France should maintain its tradition of welcoming refugees”, compared with 49% of French people overall) are the specific markers of the Front vote.

Already a year ago, according to the authors of the survey, it was apparent that Le Pen’s party had simply become a normality, part of the mainstream, something that creates majority attitudes among the French. In 2023, it was already viewed as “honest” (45%), “capable of governing France” (47%), “close to people’s concerns” (50%) and “capable of reforming the country” (51%), by nearly one in two French people. But these increases in political legitimacy are accompanied by the stigma of a still-unattractive and sulphurous party: The Rassemblement National is perceived as an extreme right-wing party by 70% of French people, “racist” by 59%, and “dangerous for democracy” by 55%. It is noteworthy, therefore, that respondents view the RN as more “capable of governing France” (30% compared with 13%) and less “dangerous for democracy” (21%) than the LFI (26%). This contrasts with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party.

The 2024 Programme

The RN’s proposals also included an attempt to change the retirement rules. It is thanks to the strong opposition to Macron’s reform that Marine Le Pen has been able to gain many extra votes over the last two years. The RN originally wanted to offer a pension at 60, but only to those who had started work at a young age and had accumulated 40 years of contributions. Others would retire at 62. The president is unlikely to agree to a reversal of the pension reform, not that he has borne the enormous political cost of it. Unless the changes were cosmetic. But then it would not be worthwhile for RN politicians to introduce them. After all, their voters expect a reversal of history. 

The Nationalist’s programme includes taxes on corporate superannuation and household financial assets, including life insurance and other investments. We recall that the superannuation of energy companies, for example, was a fashionable economic issue at the time of the recovery from the pandemic, including in Brussels. Large companies were accused of generating inflation by increasing their margins on energy and fuel sales, among other things, but eventually such taxes somehow trickled down in Europe.

Le Pen’s party is also considering reducing France’s financial contribution to the EU coffers, although this would require an agreement with Brussels. However, it is unclear whether this would work at the moment. What’s more, France is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the EU’s agricultural policy, so a call for a reduction in the levy would probably have to block a lot of funding for farmers on the Seine, something I don’t think Marine le Pen would want.

Le Pen’s party promises to increase the purchasing power of French people’s incomes. She’s also proposing to cut VAT on energy, gas, and electricity bills from 20% to 5.5%. This would mean relief for households, but a loss of several billion euros for the state budget.

The party’s manifesto also proposes to waive social security contributions (the equivalent of our national insurance contributions) on salary increases of up to 10%. However, this would only apply to salaries below €5,000 per month. The RN also proposes abolishing income tax for those under 30. This proposal risks being incompatible with the Constitution, which guarantees equality for all French adults, including in tax matters.

Among the other projects, the RN’s flagship idea is ‘national preferences’, the old idea of Jean-Marie Le Pen. This would mean, among other things, giving priority to French citizens in access to public sector employment and housing. This idea could also be considered unconstitutional. But the RN is not worried and wants to go further. The RN is also calling for “social benefits to be reserved for the French and for access to non-contributory social benefits such as the RSA to be conditional on five years’ work in France“. Again, “if necessary by referendum“, as similar legal difficulties could arise for the party.

The far-right party is pushing for comparable actions at the European level in addition to calling for a clear tightening of immigration regulations at the federal level. In its manifesto, it states unequivocally that it seeks to negotiate a restriction on free movement within the Schengen area “to European nationals only.” Additionally, the RN is in favour of making the establishment of a “national priority” at the federal level; however, they only provide the statement that this would be achieved “if necessary by constitutional referendum” without providing any further details. The argument that such a proposal would be against both the Constitution and European law is one that opponents often raise.

However, some things are not on the party’s agenda, a few days ago the party’s president, Jordan Bardella, wanna-be future prime minister, stated on public television that he intended to privatize state broadcasting “to save money.”Selling off public radio and television services, he claimed, would save over €3 billion (£2.5 billion), money that might be used to pay for other projects. The measure, he claimed, “wouldn’t happen in 24 hours” and would require time. 

What next? 

The traditional parties have benefited from an electoral system rigged in their favour; by 2022 the RN will have only a few deputies and will still not control the executive of France’s thirteen regions. Over time, the FN, and then the RN have become a source of income for these parties. In short, the “republican arc” formations have alternated against the FN-RN with the near certainty of victory and the ability to become indifferent to the reasons for their success. If Le Pen’s party wins the elections on 7 July, i.e. their second round, and is able to form a future government, this will change. The rules of the existing game will be reformulated completely. 

Looking at the data ahead of the second round scheduled for 7 July, the National Front is still playing for the biggest stakes, namely an absolute majority of 289 parliamentarians. However, for this to happen, the Nationalists would need to win in most of the districts where their candidate got into the second round, as well as encouraging perhaps a few MPs from right-wing parties to change colours. Everything is in play. In 1997, when the record of obscure districts was broken after the first round, there were slightly more than 100 seats in play, today there is talk of around 300. So anything is still possible, certainly the Lepenists’ chances are helped by the fact of divisions on the political scene to the left of them. The presidential candidates have no small problem in defining a clear message to their own voters, dividing the left into extreme and democratic, although its candidates are running united in a coalition. Thus throwing their electoral base and the chances of democratic forces into confusion. 

Issues of the fate of Le Pen’s programme and proposed solutions must be left for comment until the second week of July. One thing is certain, the manoeuvre to de-diabolise, to normalise the party, to pull it out of the shackles of the mad Le Pen senior has succeeded. It now remains to test this capital within a potential government, and this could prove lethal for the Le Pen family formation, as the history of other governments and painful cohabitations in France tells us. This is precisely what the current president is counting on. 

Cover photo: Marine Le Pen speaking, by Remi Noyon.

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