This coming Sunday, France will go to the polls to select its new President in what is a critical election for Europe in many respects. One of the key issues that has characterised European elections in the past few years, has been the rise of the far right across the board, making these parties plausible competitors in European party systems. The Front National's performance in the polls suggests that, indeed, Marine Le Pen is a viable contender. Why is this happening and how does it compare with what is happening elsewhere in Europe?
A brief look at some electoral results gives us the full picture. And this picture is mixed.
More specifically, this picture tells us three things
1. The Front National is indeed improving its performance in a broader context of the rise of far right parties across Europe. The explanation is often 'the winners and losers of globalization' which holds that economic strain exposes the inequalities of globalization with the losers expressing their protest through voting for the far right. The picture, however, is mixed as a number of far right parties actually decreased from 2009 to 2014.
In fact, among the European countries that have experienced the severity of economic crisis, only Greece has elected a far right party in its parliament, while such parties remain marginalized in Spain and Portugal. Ireland doesn't have a far right party at all. France itself was not one of the worst hit, it has relatively low levels of unemployment (at approximately 10% in 2016) and a fairly well- functioning welfare system. The classic 'winners and losers of globalization' view, therefore, does not hold comparatively for the simple reason that whilst all societies have losers, not all have successful far right parties.
2. Far right party performance, including the performance of the Front National, varies depending on election type. These parties tend to perform better in the context of second order elections such as European Parliament elections where voters can express their disapproval of the incumbent and main opposition party without risking placing an extreme party in government.
3. In terms of actually governing, therefore, the prospects for the far right are fewer. The last time the Front National made it to the second round was in 2002, when the then party leader, Jean Marie Le Pen, was defeated by Jacques Chirac by 82.2% to 17.79%. Does this mean we are exaggerating the potential for success? No. It means we are only focusing on success in terms of access to office, while overlooking another, less straightforward form of success, which is the ability of these parties to drive party competition regardless of whether they win elections by the very fact that their electoral success is a possible, even if not likely, outcome. The very fact that a Le Pen victory is plausible is the main problem.
In order to understand where this phenomenon is coming from, we need to examine the variations comparatively. Which are the most successful far right parties, and why are some better able to capitalize on voters' economic, social and political insecurities than others? How does the Front National fit in this picture?
Supply: the 'new winning formula'?
While European far right parties differ in many ways, it is their shared emphasis on sovereignty and policies that promote a 'national preference', i.e. policies that place the 'native' inhabitants first in a range of areas including welfare and social services, that allows us to place them within the broader 'far right umbrella'. Nationalism is the key issue 'owned' by the far right. These parties offer 'nationalist solutions' to a range of socio-economic problems in order to capitalize on voters' insecurities.
With few exceptions (including the Greek Golden Dawn and the Hungarian Jobbik) the European far right parties that are most successful are those which are using a 'civic' version of nationalism in their rhetoric: i.e. those that are able to tailor their discourse to the liberal and civic characteristics of national identity so as to present themselves and their ideologies as the true authentic defenders of the nation's unique reputation for democracy, diversity and tolerance. Although far right parties are exclusionary by nature, this exclusion is no longer justified solely in ethnic terms, but rather is targeted at those who do not share 'our' liberal values such as democracy, multiculturalism and the rule of law. These parties present 'our' nation as one of tolerance, liberalism and diversity threatened by an influx of intolerant, reactionary and narrow-minded 'others'. 'We', they argue, do not exclude on the basis of race but on the basis of toleration, i.e. those who reject 'our' liberal democratic values. Instead of, therefore, justifying their positions on ascriptive, exclusionary, immutable criteria of national membership such as race and common descent, which is what fascist parties did, the 'new' far right increasingly uses ideological justifications thus increasingly occupying mainstream ground.
The Front National is doing precisely that. Since Marine Le Pen took over from her father, as she has pursued a strategy of "de-demonization" of the party and a softening of its rhetoric. The party justifies its anti-immigrant agenda (i.e., its policy of the "préférence nationale") by invoking primarily the cultural and civic aspects of national identity, offering ideological rather than biological, rationalizations for who belongs to the French nation. The party increasingly presents the other as hostile because their so-called intolerant beliefs pose a threat to "our" national values, rather than because of their ethnicity per se, thus shifting the boundaries of exclusion from ethnicity to ideology.
Has the 'new winning formula' changed the voter profile?
This is precisely the aim: both in France and elsewhere in Europe, the far right seeks to penetrate the middle classes. Who votes for the Front National? The classic view is, the economically insecure. This usually translates to the automatic assumption that the economically insecure are first and foremost the working classes: blue collar, manual workers in precarious employment, or the unemployed. But economic insecurity is not only an argument about the haves and the have- nots, the unemployed and/or the working classes. It is an argument about the extent to which deteriorating economic conditions may have a negative impact on the expectations and/ or the socio-economic status of both labour market outsiders and insiders, i.e. a broad range of social groups, including the middle classes.
This is why the front National's traditional voting base is slowly changing. In addition to the 'angry white men', i.e. the unemployed or low income working class males with low levels of education that are the more likely supporters of the far right, Marine Le Pen's 'de-demonization' strategy has reached a broader electoral base that captures "younger" votes and achieves a closing of the far-right gender gap in France.
Context: the competition
In this crucial election, Marine le Pen is attempting to capitalize on economic and political insecurities by putting forward her own 'nationalist' solution to French problems. Why should voters trust these solutions? In many ways, the increase in support for her party- and far right parties elsewhere- at times of economic instability constitutes a paradox. First, is the paradox of the centre: valence theories of party competition might lead us to expect that, during times of instability, voters are more likely to opt for the party they believe is a more credible manager. This should be the large, mainstream, non-populist parties that have long-term experience of governing. Then there is the paradox of the left: economic crisis is mainly an economic problem, and thus we should expect that parties which have 'issue ownership' of the economy are more likely to benefit electorally. But neither are benefitting, and the reason is the competition. Le pen and the European far right are not only exploiting voters' insecurities, but also the inability of the competition to attract voters because of their own ideological and identity problems. We may observe the so-called crises of the centre and the centre-left across Europe: in the recent elections in the Netherlands, the Labour coalition lost massively; in Greece PASOK imploded after the eruption of the economic crisis, never to regain its ground while new liberal- centre and centre-left initiatives remain marginalized; in the UK, Corbyn's Labour party is in search of its identity between 'old' and 'new'; and in France Hollande is seen as having failed to offer solutions to France's problems including social integration, vulnerability to terrorism and exclusionist- though highly protectionist- labour market. The consequences of this are severe: instead of offering compelling new solutions that directly contradict the far right narrative, competitor parties believe that in order to compete they must 'copy' far right agendas. And so instead of distancing themselves, they allow party competition to be driven by the far right.
It is unlikely that Marine Le Pen will win the elections (I say this with a caveat. After all, Brexit and Trump, too, were unlikely). Despite increasing support in the recent Dutch elections, Geert Wilders' Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) didn't do as well as Wilders had hoped. For many, this was seen as a break to the far right trend. But there is another way to look it: The biggest danger posed by far right parties is that, regardless of whether they will win electoral contests, they are now entering the mainstream. Partly because of the new winning formula that blurs the line between what is extreme and what is mainstream, partly because of their increasing attempts- and successes- in attracting the middle classes, and partly because of the crisis of left and liberal centre, these parties are now permeating mainstream ground. They are effective in driving the agenda, consolidating the narrative and setting the terms on which other, mainstream actors, compete. Regardless of the electoral result, Marine Le Pen is a viable contender. And this is precisely the problem.
So how can we protect our societies from the far right? The answer is very much in how we respond. We need competitor parties with compelling new solutions to our insecurities, ones that contradict rather than co-opt the far right narrative; ones that set the agenda and define the parameters of the competition, rather than being led to compete in the far right arena.