Three questions

‘Macron helped advance the far right’: French centrist parties veer rightward to maintain power

Head of far-right National Rally party Marine Le Pen speaks at a debate with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on political talk show "Vous avez la parole" ("It's your turn to speak") on France 2 television on February 11, 2021.
Head of far-right National Rally party Marine Le Pen speaks at a debate with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on political talk show "Vous avez la parole" ("It's your turn to speak") on France 2 television on February 11, 2021. © Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP
Text by: Romain BRUNET
6 min

A televised debate on Thursday between France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Rally party (formerly the National Front), promised to be lively. But what was unexpected were the ideas shared by a pair that is supposedly at odds politically. Sociologist Ugo Palheta discusses the shift in French political rhetoric – and a widening economic chasm between the majority and the “elites” – that he says could lead the far right to power.

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It was a debate intended to define the differences between the government and the far right. Instead, it revealed a number of similarities.

At the heart of Thursday’s discussion was a controversial government bill on “Islamist separatism” that would "confirm respect for the principles” of the French Republic and which is currently under consideration by the National Assembly (lower house).

French President Emmanuel Macron has described the draft law as a means of countering what he sees as religious laws eclipsing France's overarching republican, secular values – an idea he calls "separatism" as France’s diverse communities self-separate into smaller religious or ethnic communities.

The new legislation also aims to fight Islamist radicalisation by cracking down on online hate speech and curtailing foreign influence on mosques and religious groups.

Macron has vowed that the proposed legislation would ensure public life in France embodies the principle of laïcité, or secularism, codified in a 1905 French law that guaranteed freedom of religion, ordered the separation of church and state, and required government neutrality in religious matters  

"Secularism is the cement of a united France," Macron has said.

But the bill has been criticised for unfairly stigmatising the Muslim community.

Far-right leader Le Pen praised Darmanin for his recently published essay, entitled "Le Séparatisme islamiste" (Islamist Separatism). "I read your book very carefully. And, apart from a few inconsistencies, I could have put my name on it,” she told Darmanin at the France 2 televised debate.

>> Read more: Strengthening French secularism by clamping down on 'separatism'

Her sweeping statement offers one indication of how the gulf between Macron’s centre-right administration and the National Front may be narrowing.  

At one point, Darmanin even teasingly reproached Le Pen for not being forceful enough. "Madame Le Pen, in her strategy of de-demonisation, is almost becoming too gentle, I think,” said Darmanin, adding with a touch of irony: “I do not find you tough enough on this."

FRANCE 24: You've written a book describing the current mechanisms in play that could bring the far right to power in France. Did the debate between Gérald Darmanin and Marine Le Pen provide a good illustration of this?

Ugo Palheta: Unfortunately yes, because we appear to be rushing headlong into xenophobic demagogy. They spent two hours discussing the place of Muslims in French society at a time when we are living through both a health crisis and an economic crisis. This debate signals once again that Macron’s majority, which is currently losing dominance, is trying to recuperate momentum by gaining the support of the far right. Even if the strategies are a little different in the way that Islam is stigmatised, there are still many policy overlaps and an escalation that goes as far as denying certain foundations of secularism.

It is very clear that our fundamental freedom to worship is being called into question by this upcoming ‘separatism’ bill. Representatives of all religions confirmed their fears about this on Thursday night. As for Le Pen, her proposal to ban all conspicuous religious signs in public spaces is simply contrary to the declaration of Human and Citizens' Rights, which should not be surprising since her political family has always been opposed to the Enlightenment and the values of equality.

Is this part of the recent drift by centralist parties towards the far right, as you describe in your book?

Palheta: As the political crisis deepens and the gulf between the people and the elites widens, the ruling power tends to play the identity card more, which benefits the far right. My book describes a process that started long before Macron came into power. It was already happening with [former presidents] François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac. As soon as you adhere to the neo-liberal framework, you put in place policies that debase the living conditions of the majority of the population. At the same time, the National Front, which changed its name to the National Rally, managed to engage some of society’s anger by diverting it in the direction of what they alleged was the enemy within – in other words, immigrants and Muslims.

The government is trying to reclaim the population’s trust by adopting much of the vocabulary and proposals of the far right in a blatant attempt to win votes. This is what Chirac did in 1991 with his speech about 'noise and smell' and what Sarkozy did in 2007. And this is what Macron is doing today with a strategy that starts from the principle that the working classes are, above all, concerned with identity issues – while the reality is that they are actually suffering most from their social situation rather than their identity. The problem is that, the further you extend your reach into the far right, the more the far right progresses: Jean-Marie Le Pen won 18 percent in the second round in 2002, Marine Le Pen 34 percent in 2017, and a recent poll put her as high as gaining 48 percent in the next election.

Is Marine Le Pen winning the presidency in 2022 a real possibility?

Palheta: Yes, we have to assess the situation as it stands today. Given the penetration of the ideas of the far right in both the political and media fields – with more and more columnists representing this political ideology daily on our television stations – and the polling scores of the National Rally, it is a very real possibility. And this is all the more true because Macron continues to highlight the authoritarian drift of the state. The neo-liberalism that he embodies is, necessarily, authoritarian. One cannot put in place a series of measures that greatly impoverishes the majority, that increases instability, without being contested. In the face of opposition, the authorities have adopted a very brutal strategy for maintaining order by repressing social movements, as we have seen with the Yellow Vest protests. In the past four years, Macron has helped the advance of the far right.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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