Has France's far-right National Front won the battle of ideas?
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Marine Le Pen is hoping to build on a year of momentous electoral victories to establish her National Front as France’s pre-eminent political force – a battle some say the far-right party has already won.
National Front party members gathered in Lyon on Saturday for the start of their two-day party conference.
France's third-largest city, Lyon is also a left-wing bastion with a proud record of resistance to fascism during World War II.
Its choice underscores the party's all-conquering confidence ahead of next year's regional polls.
The weekend gathering caps a triumphant year for the National Front, which captured a dozen towns in municipal elections, romped to victory in European elections with a whopping 25% of the vote, and seized its first ever seats in the Senate.
Should France hold a presidential election next week, polls say Marine Le Pen would thrash her challengers in a first round of voting – but would likely come up short in a runoff vote.
Either way, analysts say there is a very real chance the FN, as it is known in France, may one day wield power in France.
Some have argued that Le Pen won’t even need to clinch the presidency for her party to claim some sort of ideological victory.
Earlier this week, she appeared as one of five French nationals – and the only French politician – in Foreign Policy’s list of the 100 most influential figures of 2014.
The respected magazine said Le Pen had become “something of a standard-bearer for Europe’s far-right, Eurosceptical forces – a model for how they, too, can become serious political contenders.”
Setting the agenda
Foreign Policy ranked the far-right leader among a group of "challengers" who "tested the status quo".
Even after its recent electoral successes, Le Pen's party still only controls a fraction of the country's town halls and parliamentary seats.
“The FN has long won the ideological battle – at least in part,” says Sylvain Crépon, a sociologist and expert on the French far right.
According to Crépon, France's deeply unpopular mainstream parties position themselves according to a political agenda dictated in large part by the FN.
The conservative UMP party, in particular, is routinely accused of pandering to the far right by adopting an ever tougher stance on immigration.
“But many among the ruling Socialists have also embraced the discourse on ‘French identity’ and hardline security,” says Crépon.
Nonna Mayer, a researcher at Sciences-Po Paris and author of numerous publications on the FN vote, says it is too soon to speak of an ideological victory for the FN.
“But, it is undeniable that the other parties are running after the far right,” she says.
Mayer believes the UMP's Nicolas Sarkozy has done most to legitimise FN ideas on immigration and the supposed threat to French identity, leading to “ever more porosity between the two parties' electorates”.
The former French president also appears to have embraced the FN’s Euroscepticism, at least in part.
Once a champion of European integration, he now proposes to suppress EU powers and overhaul the Schengen agreement, which allows people to move freely between member states.
Meanwhile, the left has been unable to articulate an alternative discourse, paralysed by its own unpopularity and the knowledge that Le Pen's slogans are more readily picked up by the press.
“In fact a majority of the French don’t agree with the FN’s key idea that French nationals should have priority access to jobs and services,” says Mayer. But few politicians or media outlets seem willing to say so.
Like otherfar-right parties in Europe, the National Front has thrived on the gloom and anxiety that has swept across France in the wake of the financial crisis.
Mayer says her studies have revealed a steady rise in xenophobia since 2009, after years of decline.
She believes the FN is making the most of challenging times, finding an ideal scapegoat in immigration, which “condenses voters' fears about jobs and security”.
In this respect, it is no surprise that the party's support has grown most in impoverished, peripheral constituencies, home to a lower middle class receptive to far-right claims that immigrants are taking jobs and profiting most from social benefits.
In contrast, the PS and UMP have proved largely inept at confronting the far-right challenge.
The left, in particular, has hardly moved on from its 1980s strategy of pouring scorn on the National Front – and, implicitly, its voters.
The plan worked with Le Pen's unabashedly racist and anti-Semitic father, the party's founder and longtime leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
But it is proving less efficient when tackling his less controversial, media-savvy daughter.
“It is no longer enough to slam the far right on ideological grounds,” says Crépon. “The FN has to be confronted on pressing issues like unemployment and crime – which is much more difficult.”
Unfortunately for President François Hollande's ruling Socialists, there is little to boast about on the employment front.
As for the UMP, it has spent much of its time in opposition tearing itself apart.
Moreover, both parties have been rocked by multiple scandals, fuelling Le Pen’s claim that they are all part of the corrupt and inefficient political establishment she is bent on overthrowing.
Such is the level of disgust with the mainstream parties that some say the FN’s political rivals are also its best allies.
In listing Le Pen among the world’s most influential figures, Foreign Policy said she had “rebranded her party as a refuge from political dysfunction”.
But Le Pen is yet to prove she can make her politics function – or indeed offer concrete policy proposals.
Ironically, the FN's success in imposing its agenda has run parallel with Le Pen’s efforts to tone down her party’s ideological charge and transform it into a modern, respectable force.
Since taking over from her father in 2011, Le Pen has put the emphasis on expanding the party’s membership and training its lieutenants.
What had long been a one-man act is gradually developing into a modern political force with a handful of high-profile figures, including the leader’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who at 24 is France's youngest ever MP.
But Crépon says Le Pen’s efforts to professionalise her party are still at an “embryonic” stage.
“FN members acknowledge they have difficulty finding suitable candidates in local elections, let alone finding the expertise to one day run the country”, he says.
Le Pen is hoping her party's 14 mayors, most of whom were elected this year, will help build support from the ground up and prove the party is fit to govern.
But so far, they have gained notoriety for, among other things, attempting to ban begging, giving themselves handsome pay rises, and repainting a fountain without consulting the artist.
For all its ideological successes, says Nonna Mayer, “the FN is still a long way from winning the battle for credibility”.
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