Tolerably intolerant? French far right’s tightrope walk

Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, AFP / Marine Le Pen addresses the National Front's party conference in Lyon

The National Front’s 15th conference in Lyon highlighted the far-right’s internal contradictions as it seeks to become an ordinary, respectable party while holding on to its less palatable past.


Inevitably, the conference began with one Le Pen and ended with another.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front’s 86-year-old founder, was first to speak on Saturday. He told party members to hurry up and bring his daughter Marine to power, because “France cannot wait much longer”.

He also urged them not to forget where they come from, and to remember “the sacrifices that helped build the National Front and prepared it to save the nation".

The remarks were interpreted as a thinly veiled criticism of his daughter's attempts to “detoxify” the anti-immigration party, a strategy widely credited with steering the far-right to unprecedented electoral success.

The two-day conference capped 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.

National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen urged party members not to forget their history.
National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen urged party members not to forget their history.

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.

In her closing speech on Sunday, Marine Le Pen said there was “no doubt” she would make it to the second round of the 2017 presidential election.

The 46-year-old blasted France’s mainstream parties and the EU for wrecking the country, saying President François Hollande and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, had “failed at everything”.

She also stated that her party was the “only guardian of the Republic”.

It was not the only bold claim in a weekend gathering that confirmed the far-right’s grand ambitions and underlined its ideological contortions.

Original sin

The National Front’s republican credentials – let alone its claim to guardianship of the Republic – are a frequent subject of debate in France.

There was no shortage of irony on Saturday when Austrian far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache, one of several foreign guests, urged the audience to draw inspiration from the history of Lyon, “the capital of French resistance”.

Strache was referring to the city's proud record in the fight against fascism during World War II.

But the FN's ideological ancestors were not part of the resistance – they were in the opposite camp.

The party founded by Le Pen senior in 1972 is the latest incarnation of a political current that rejected the French Revolution, despised the Republic, embraced anti-Semitism, sided with the Nazi-allied Vichy regime, and fought a rearguard battle against decolonization.

This ancestry still weighs on the far-right like an original sin, effectively excluding it from the political establishment.

That exclusion has long been the National Front’s main strength – and never more so than in the current climate of defiance vis à vis France’s mainstream parties.

But Marine Le Pen knows the party’s ostracism is also what has kept it out of power for so long.

The violent protests that rocked Lyon’s city-centre on Saturday offered a reminder that while the FN has never enjoyed so much support, it remains France’s most reviled party.

With her eyes firmly set on the Elysée Palace, Marine Le Pen has been at pains to transform her father’s movement into a modern, respectable political force.

Since taking over in 2011, she has sought to tone down the party’s ideological charge, expand its membership and train its cadres.

She has also sought to distance herself from her father’s controversial outbursts.

This led to a rare family spat earlier this year, following a remark made by Le Pen senior that was widely interpreted as anti-Semitic.

His daughter described the sortie as “a political error that will cost the National Front”.

He countered that “the political error is committed by those who adopt a single way of thinking, (…) those who would like to resemble the other parties”.

Going mainstream?

Le Pen senior was not the only one in Lyon who thought the party had changed. Some  agreed with his assessment, though acknowledging that a degree of change was necessary.

“There’s no doubt we’re looking more and more like the other parties,” said a longtime activist who attended all 15 party conferences.

Veteran campaigner Lucien hasn't missed a single party conference in 40 years. He spent this one selling saucisson and wine.
Veteran campaigner Lucien hasn't missed a single party conference in 40 years. He spent this one selling saucisson and wine.

“We even have our Jews and gays,” he whispered, referring to rumours of a “gay lobby” in the party. “But if we want to win, we have to live with it.”

The veteran campaigner, who gave only his first name, Lucien, said the effects of Le Pen’s “detoxification” were all too apparent.

“I’ve spent a lifetime handing out FN fliers and getting plenty of abuse in return. But now I mostly get smiles,” he said.

Perhaps the most spectacular evidence of the “Marine effect” is the party’s growing popularity among female voters.

Under Le Pen senior, the female FN vote was on average 5% lower than the men's. But his daughter has since evened things out.

Euryanthe Mercier, a 20-year-old law student from Paris, said she joined the party because of its “family values” and its hardline stance against crime.

She rejected the suggestion that the FN was a macho party, claiming that “more and more female students are joining us”.

To some extent, the National Front’s fraught relationship with the media is also on the mend.

By most accounts, the welcome in Lyon was cordial, and party members were largely gracious when approached for an interview.

Journalists were treated to a generous banquet of wine, cheese and the inevitable pork meat presented in every imaginable form.

The root of French ‘decline’

But one only has to scratch so far beneath the surface to see the party's old obsessions resurface.

At the mere mention of a damning report in the French press, Le Pen's smile turned into a sneer and the familiar raspy voice (a legacy of her father) promptly railed against the article's “leftist” author.

Le Pen's staff are known to keep close tabs on journalists, allowing her to accuse them of bias when they can be linked to the left, or of smug elitism if they went to one of France's top schools.

Judging by the topics discussed in Lyon, the party's ideology hasn't changed much either.

For all their professed focus on the economy, FN party members spent most of their time in Lyon railing against immigration and the bureaucrats in Brussels who fail to stem it.

All singled out unbridled immigration as the cause of France’s “decline”.

Nonna Mayer, a researcher at Sciences-Po Paris and author of numerous publications on the FN vote, says fear of migrants and the notion that French nationals should have priority access to jobs and services still form the essence of the party’s ideology.

She believes the National Front is making the most of challenging times, finding an ideal scapegoat in immigration, which “condenses voters' fears about jobs and security”.

Mayer said surveys carried out in the wake of the 2012 presidential election showed 94% of FN voters agreed with the idea that there are “too many immigrants in France”.

According to one theory popular among party sympathizers, France’s population is gradually being “replaced” by foreigners.

This anti-immigration rhetoric is often tainted by religious prejudice.

In recent years, the National Front has largely junked its residual anti-Semitism in favour of Islamophobia – a crusade that has proved more palatable and appealing at a time of mounting concern about Islamist terrorism.

As one party member in Lyon put it, “Jews are not a threat to France, but the same cannot be said of Muslims.”

The retired doctor, who declined to give his name, said he feared the French would soon be “cleared out of our own land like the Serbs in Kosovo”.

The French far right is not alone in fearing its population will be “replaced” by migrants.

Invited to address the audience in Lyon, Krasimir Karakachanov of Bulgaria’s ultra-nationalist VMRO party said Europe was exposed to a “neo-Ottoman” onslaught of Islam-preaching, benefit-stealing migrants.

Going it alone

Like other far-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.

The party's support has grown most in impoverished, peripheral constituencies, home to a lower middle class fearful of losing jobs and social benefits to immigrant communities.

Its successful attempts to reach out to working-class voters have exposed an ideological divide between the party’s hard-right “old guard” and a more socially-minded component, which has grown in influence under Marine Le Pen's stewardship.

French media speak of a battle for influence pitting Le Pen's niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, against the party’s number two, Florian Philippot.

The former’s triumphant victory in a ballot for the party’s central committee on Saturday suggests the right-wing faction is likely to bounce back in the near future.

FRANCE 24's Clovis Casali reports from the FN party conference in Lyon

At 24, Maréchal-Le Pen is France’s youngest ever member of parliament and undoubtedly the party’s rising star.

She is articulate, attractive and fiercely conservative. Above all, she bears the hallowed family name.

Unlike her aunt, she believes the FN should have been at the forefront of the battle against gay marriage, which saw millions take to the streets in cities across France last year.

More recently, she spoke out against the decision to rehabilitate a party member who was suspended for posting a video in which he explained his conversion to Islam.

Her rise is likely to comfort those who believe the FN should reach out to mainstream conservatives from the UMP party in future elections.

It is a view shared by many activists FRANCE 24 spoke to in Lyon.

According to a recent poll by Harris Interactive, 55% of UMP sympathizers also favour some form of alliance in next year’s regional elections.

But others say the National Front only stands to lose from an association with discredited establishment parties.

“Our voters would not understand,” says Stéphane Ravier, who as mayor of Marseille's seventh arrondissement presides over France's largest FN constituency.

He says it is up to the party’s new crop of mayors to prove the National Front can be trusted in government.

So far, France's 14 FN mayors have gained notoriety for, among other things, attempting to ban begging, giving themselves handsome pay rises while scrapping free lunches for schoolchildren from poor families, and repainting a fountain without consulting the artist.

In Marseille, Ravier made headlines by banning public employees from speaking languages other than French – a slap at the city's large immigrant population.

He says his predecessors from other parties were "not brave enough" to do what he has accomplished.

“Besides, why should we hop onto a sinking raft when we have a beautiful ship of our own?”

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