International Workers’ Day, or 1 May, has traditionally been the French far-right Front national’s (FN) show of strength. Since 1988, the party founder Jean Marie Le Pen has “linked the social and the fatherland” by a march in Paris that ended at the golden statue of Joan of Arc on Place des Pyramides. This year, however, the party leader Marine Le Pen’s plans reflected the party’s downward spiral.
In Paris, the left-wing opposition marched in defiance of the government and her father (now expelled from the party) still held his speech, but the FN leader retreated to the South. In the friendlier sea breeze of Nice, she planned to mark the day with a gathering of European far-right parties as a show of international clout.
Yet even this alternative did not go according to plan. Two of Le Pen’s main allies – the Dutch Geert Wilders and Italian Matteo Salvini – cancelled their participation in the last minute to show Marine Le Pen’s declining European influence. A year after receiving 11million votes in the presidential elections on 7 May 2017, the FN’s star is waning fast. The party is torn by infighting and cannot get its message across in France as well as internationally.
A year after the elections, as opposition from the left is mounting ever louder protests against the President Emmanuel Macron’s reform plans, how did the FN fail to capitalise on its big electoral success?
One significant factor in the FN’s downfall was bad expectation management. Before the 2017 elections, party leadership had built a momentum with activists and potential voters with the promise to become “France’s first party”.
Marine Le Pen’s project of “dédiabolisation”, or detoxification of the party brand to purge its overtly racist image, seemed to succeed in breaking the anti-fascist taboo around voting FN. Simultaneously, polls preceding the first round of the elections consistently predicted Marine Le Pen to come on top, further feeding activists’ premature triumphalism.
The actual results landed Le Pen in second position in the first round and far below the 40% bar in the second head-to-head round. Despite gaining its best-ever result with 11million voters, this underperformance, which was compounded by the party’s failure to make headways in the legislative elections a month later, fuelled members’ and activists’ resentment and frustration.
Ripping at the Seams
A year on, the FN is still unable to paper over the cracks created by its relative failure. This is mainly because these cracks run deeper than just one election defeat, and the 2017 elections made them all too visible.
The FN’s success has always been its ability to provide a voice for disparate – and often antagonistic – voices on the French fractured far-right scene. Jean Marie Le Pen managed to get old Vichyites, monarchists and supporters of French Algeria under the same roof, even though they did not share the same goals and priorities. This success was notable for a scene that was notoriously riven with personal and ideological rivalries.
Le Pen managed to bring these people together through a project of “rehabilitation” and through the creation of strict party control. In the late 1970s he appropriated the term “immigration”, which had previously not been heavily politicised, to provide a respectable veneer to racism on the far-right and attract voters who were sympathetic to its idea, but not its image. Marine Le Pen’s project of detoxification went further in rebranding the party as a “friendlier” face which was “neither on the right nor on the left”.
Simultaneously, the party’s fortunes have always been tied to a Le Pen. Jean Marie Le Pen ascertained his image as the sole voice of the party, particularly after the split of the late 1990s. When his daughter took control, her face became personified the party’s new “detoxification” project, going as far as adopting the banner “Assembly Blue Marine” rather than the traditional Front national for the Presidential races. Her individual performance became linked to the party’s success.
This became all the more obvious after Le Pen’s dismal appearance in the presidential debate before the second round of the elections in 2017. It not only fractured her personal authority publicly, but also discredited the party as a qualified messenger.
Nonetheless, the party’s centralised structure allowed no internal criticism of the leadership, fuelling further resentment. In search of responsibility for the party’s failure, Le Pen dropped her technocratic number two, Florian Philippot, who has since founded his own competing movement, “The Patriots”. In the meantime, disagreements between members have come to the fore, while the FN has been debating its “rebirth” and rebranding continuously.
To try and recover some sense of prestige, Le Pen has recently shifted strategy to host international far-right actors, most memorably when she hosted Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor, at the FN’s rally in March, where he fired up the audience with “let them call you racists”. The European gathering on 1 May was supposed to be another milestone to showcase the party’s international leadership. Yet this international turn only reveals the depth of the FN’s crisis a year after its major success: by pretending to exert influence abroad and allying with the likes of Steve Bannon, Marine Le Pen taints her “detoxified” brand.
Ultimately, the FN’s bad year reveals that parties of the populist far-right are not infallible. For a long time, scandals and accusations of misdemeanour and racism ricocheted away from the FN, which appealed to a disgruntled and angry base that seemed unreceptive for “polite” critique. However, coming so close to power, the cracks in the FN armour may get the better of it.
This does not mean the message of the French far-right is not dangerously popular with the electorate, but just that the messenger is wounded. While the French political class is mainly preoccupied with the quick succession of government reforms, other actors are trying to appropriate the FN’s appeal to nativism and nostalgia. Whether the far-right flame is taken up by the centre-right Les Républicains’ new hard-right leader, Laurent Wauquiez, the growing Identitarian fraction in the far-right or any other of the groups, this may be an ugly contest to watch.