For followers of British politics the narrative is familiar: populist right-wing party champions withdrawal from the European Union and a harder line on immigration and suddenly start pulling out remarkable by-election results. It has worked here for Nigel Farage and UKIP, while in France, a similar message is paying dividends for Marine Le Pen and her Front National.
The result of the Villeneuve-sur-Lot by-election in south west France a week ago sent shock-waves through the French political system as FN polled 46.24% in the second round run-off.
The by-election in the disgraced former French Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac’s seat only served to underline the onward march of the FN and to confirm its leader Marine Le Pen as a significant challenger in the 2017 Presidential elections on the back of her 18% score in last year’s contest.
Although the unknown and inexperienced 23 year-old FN candidate Etienne Bousquet-Cassagne failed to poll the 50+% score required to win the seat, losing to the UMP Gaullist Jean-Louis Costes, the outcome of the vote is potentially a bigger “earthquake” for France’s mainstream political establishment than the famous 2002 Presidential result, when Marine Le Pen’s father beat Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin to proceed to the second-round run-off against Jacques Chirac.
The fascist and the crook
The second-round campaign back in 2002 was pitched as a straightforward choice between “the fascist” and “the crook” which the latter won easily with Jean-Marie Le Pen failing to increase his share of the vote, as the “anyone but Le Pen” campaign gathered momentum with thousands of people taking to the street in a Republican spirit of protest to demonstrate their opposition to the FN.
A decade and a year on from the 2002 vote it appears that the “cordon sanitaire” designed to minimise the impact of the FN is in tatters with Jean-Marie’s daughter and political heir proclaiming on Sunday that the “Republican Front” had fallen and many commentators not disagreeing with her proclamation.
For many, the party’s new-found legitimacy and respectability owes much to the change of leadership in 2011, and to the rise of Marine Le Pen as a more moderate voice in the party’s strategy. While there is no doubt that Le Pen has been successful in softening the party’s rhetoric (if not their policy) such an assessment greatly underestimates the careful, patient ideological and strategic refashioning of the party, which can be traced back to the 1980s and gathered momentum in the 1990s.
Le Pen was still a child when the Front National, influenced by theoretically sophisticated right-wing think-tanks such as the GRECE or Club de l’Horloge, began its plan for hegemonic supremacy and to change its strategy based on what former Gaullist, turned FN deputy leader, Bruno Mégret called the “vocabulary struggle”.
Gramsci’s illegitimate children?
Somewhat ironically drawing on the inspiration of Communist thinker Antonio Gramsci, extreme right ideologues advocated that the battle would have to be fought first in the cultural realm in order to reclaim from the left what had come to be seen as the cultural and societal norm – racial and sexual equality and the celebration of multicultural differences. While these ideas were never fully accepted by society as a whole, opposite views had become widely discarded as reactionary, the remnants of an insular society whose obsolescence was only natural in the progressive path humanity was solidly following (at least in principle).
It was this strategic change that allowed the FN to make its first electoral breakthrough, aided by the opportunism of the left and of the Mitterrand government in its fruitless effort to divide the right as a whole. With its move to a less aggressive form of politics (albeit it as exclusionary as ever) and the increased visibility given by its new found electoral success, the Front National was able to grow quickly, and from the mid-80s onwards, has regularly polled around 15% of the vote in major elections.
When Le Pen senior reached the second round of the presidential elections in 2002, his share of the vote was hardly a surprise. Still, the “earthquake” caused a wave of panic, which would have consequences for the next presidential contest five years on, as the left-wing electorate en masse backed Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal to prevent another second-round contest with no candidate of the left.
However, this swing was more the result of a “vote utile” strategy than a real belief in the Socialist’s programme. With many left-wing supporters “forced” into a “pragmatic” vote, support for extreme left parties plummeted in comparison to 2002, leaving the FN as the only significant anti-system alternative. On the right, the FN’s breakthrough in 2002 allowed for the emergence of Nicolas Sarkozy and his unabashed right-wing style. His 2007 election victory was facilitated by the pillaging of the Front National’s strategy and rhetoric, particularly with regard to immigration, national identity and security.
Sarkozy famously declared that he had made Gramsci’s ideas his own: the FN slumped to 10% with many of its voters migrating to the UMP. After another five years of contradictions and populist stunts, the veneer had worn off and those who had seen in Sarkozy an opportunity to have at least some of their ideas represented in office, left the copy and returned to the original, albeit younger, slicker Le Pen.
The upshot of this process is that given last Sunday’s result, the FN is now capable of polling huge scores in areas beyond its traditional heartlands in the north-east and south-east of France. The party has traditionally struggled to obtain votes in the south-west and the result is therefore a major development. The party’s presence in the second round of the legislative elections is no longer unexpected - and, more significantly, the FN is now capable of winning seats in areas hitherto out of reach.
The 2014 European elections are less than a year away, and the FN is running neck and neck with the Socialists and the UMP in a recent poll. A strong FN performance is likely to be facilitated by a combination of the proportional electoral system deployed, the likely low turnout and the “second-order” nature of this contest. The ongoing crisis in the Eurozone and the FN’s opposition to the EU and globalisation have also won them significant support. Such a showing in the European elections would only serve to galvanise the FN further, entrenching its role as a mainstream actor in the political system and ultimately making it more realistic for Le Pen to reach the second round of the 2017 presidential elections.
Rise of the new European extreme right
This resurgence of extreme right sentiment is by no means limited to France. Since 2008, six European countries including France have witnessed the rise of extreme right parties to over 15% of the vote in major elections: the Swiss People’s Party (2011 – 29%), the Norwegian Progress Party (2009 – 23%), the True Finns (2011 – 23%), the Austrian Freedom Party (2008 – 18%) and the Netherlands’ Party For Freedom (2010 – 16%).
While in the UK, UKIP could be the leading British party in the European Parliament after next year’s elections, its ability to translate this into a significant share of the vote in the 2015 general election seems less certain as the party seeks to move beyond its single-issue, anti-EU status.
Across the board such developments do not bode well for supporters of an open, democratic and inclusive Europe.