France's far-right temptation

7 min read
21 April, 2022

The results of the first round of France’s presidential elections on 10 April, which saw incumbent President Emmanuel Macron take first place ahead of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, didn’t surprise many people.

Despite a sudden surge for leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon which placed him less than two points behind Le Pen, France found itself in the same scenario as in the 2017 elections but with a new record number of votes for far-right parties: 33% versus 21% five years prior.

Although leftist parties gained more than 50% of the votes cast, the far-right is at a level never reached before during a presidential election in France.

The majority of them went to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (Rassemblement National), then the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim ‘polemicist’ Eric Zemmour, and, finally, the ‘sovereignist’ Nicolas Dupont-Aignan.

"The far-right presence in politics has become normalised and doesn't generate the same bewilderment and anger as before"

These results can be partly explained by the role that Zemmour played in the campaign and in the media, which gave room for his racist ideas to spread and made Marine Le Pen appear almost ‘moderate’.

“Marine Le Pen’s score is a bit higher than in 2017,” Mathieu Gallard, account director at market research firm Ipsos, told The New Arab.

“This is the ‘Zemmour phenomenon’. A part of the governmental right oriented itself towards the far-right on questions of Islam, immigration, and women’s rights. They voted for Zemmour, so the score of the far-right generally progressed.”

Even so, Zemmour did worse than many expected. A majority of his voters switched to Marine Le Pen at the last minute in order to cast a ‘useful vote’ and push forward the candidate they felt had the best chance of reaching the second round.

On the right, many supporters of The Republicans (Les Républicains) ended up voting for Macron and on the left Jean-Luc Mélenchon got the votes of traditional leftist voters.

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The inheritor of a political empire built by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, a politician openly known for hating Jews, the gay community, Muslims, immigrants, and the European Union, Marine Le Pen has worked hard to normalise her party’s image, changing its name and rebranding it to focus on social justice and people’s livelihoods.

During her campaign, Le Pen managed to appear close to the French people and canvassed on the ground, avoiding large events and meetings and distancing herself from media scrutiny.

“Marine Le Pen’s de-demonisation operation worked really well,” Jean-Yves Camus, associate researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, told The New Arab.

“She understood that the French people’s worries are mostly about economics with the rise of energy prices, a decrease in their purchasing power, and what will happen with the retirement age [Macron’s latest proposal is to raise it from 62 to 65 years old], so she focused her campaign on it. Her campaign was tactically good.”

The media also focused intensely on Zemmour’s extremism, giving her room to appear not only normal but also relatable. During a long interview with French public radio France Inter on 5 April she even went as far as talking about her love for cats.

A TV screen displays the live televised debate between the leader of the far-right National Rally (RN) party, Marine Le Pen, and French President Emmanuel Macron on 20 April 2022 in Paris, France. [Getty]

“Le Pen just didn’t talk about a big part of her program, which is the same as before, and it was barely mentioned during interviews,” Etienne Ollion, a sociologist and research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told The New Arab.

“Everything is on her program, clear as day, but we just don’t talk about it.”

According to Ollion, the far-right also benefited from the current government’s actions against immigrants, such as local authorities tearing down migrant tents in Calais, and French Muslims, with the ‘anti-separatism’ bill.

“On the other hand, the National Rally imposed itself as a protest vote,” Ollion said. “The popular vote, the anger vote, was usually spread between the far-right and a part of the left, but it’s being redirected towards the far-right. A lot of anti-Macron votes went towards the National Rally.”

Another difference with previous elections where the far-right has reached the second round, notably in 2002 with Jean-Marie Le Pen facing then-current President Jacques Chirac for the first time in his party’s history, is that there were no large protests or uproar from leftist and anti-racist organisations, labour unions, or civilians.

“The far-right presence in politics has become normalised and doesn’t generate the same bewilderment and anger as before,” Gallard told The New Arab. “Many people on the left are tired of having to participate in the ‘republican front’, we feel more resignation than anger.”

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Surprisingly though, even with the far-right now more politically powerful, there has been a consistent increase in France’s tolerance index.

In its 2020 report on racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) reported an increase in tolerance towards people considered ‘minorities’, while, however, also pointing out an increase in aggressive racist actions.

In this context, many worry about the possibility of Marine Le Pen reaching the presidency, especially when confronted with Macron, who still appears to many voters as arrogant and unwilling to compromise to woo left-wing voters. It still, however, seems unlikely.

“The most likely scenario is Macron winning the presidency,” Ollion told The New Arab. “Having Marine Le Pen as President would create a very unstable political life. There would be a permanent struggle between what she would try to pass compared to what the Constitution authorises, and with a population that might not accept her reforms,” he added.

“Even if elected, the parliamentary elections are right around the corner [12 and 19 of June] and it depends if she manages to make a coalition with a part of The Republicans. She might try to go around the parliament anyway through referendums, and we saw with Trump that people with those ideas don’t respect the rules.”

On an ideological level, Le Pen’s program is accessible online and clearly states that she would stop further immigration and start deporting people already living in France. “Some wonder if she changed, but on the immigration part, the answer is clearly no,” Camus told The New Arab.

"Macron is still the favourite to win France's presidential election on 24 April. But it won't be due to genuine public support, rather, a society that is more divided politically than ever before"

“The only thing is that she didn’t say how she would proceed. You can’t possibly force a country to accept people you deport, so what would happen with them? We would have thousands of people who can’t be regularised but can’t be deported either.”

The far-right contender has also long proposed a ban on Muslim women wearing headscarves in public, calling it an ‘Islamist uniform’. In recent weeks she and her allies have tried to soften their rhetoric, saying it could happen “little by little” and would be decided by lawmakers.

If Macron was to win the presidency for a second time politics would most likely shift towards the traditional right, especially after official support from former president and member of The Republicans Nicolas Sarkozy following the 1st round results.

Sarkozy was convicted of corruption in two different trials in 2021 and was Macron’s unofficial mentor at the beginning of his political career.

“Sarkozy’s support is not free and we could even expect his return to the government,” Camus said.

“I don’t think much is going to change if Macron wins, it will be just more officially on the right, but he won’t really be able to do more on the questions of immigration and Islam. It’s just one of those topics we don’t know how to handle in France.”

Barring any unforeseen events over the next few days, Macron is still the favourite to win France’s presidential election on 24 April. But it won’t be due to genuine public support, rather, a society that is more divided politically than ever before.

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Norway after six years spent in Lebanon. She reports on the environment, women's issues, human rights, and refugees in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena