Has the French far right become the new normal?

Sunday 30/04/2017

When National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen passed to the second round of the French presidential elections in 2002 it was a shock to all of French society. No one expected the far-right party to reach the final electoral stage in one of the oldest democracies in the world.

Politicians, observers and civil society were stunned. Newspapers and magazines saw the Socialist Party’s loss to the far right as the end of the world.

This was reflected in their headlines after the election: “The Le Pen Bomb,” wrote France Soir. “The Shock,” wrote Le Parisien. “The Earthquake,” wrote Le Figaro. “France does not deserve this,” wrote L’Humanité. “No,” wrote Libération.

Between the first and second rounds of the election, much of France went through a state of anger, fear and continuous protests. It also underwent a period of fraternity and solidarity to counter the racism personified in the National Front.

On May 1, 2002, more than 1 million people took to the streets to protest against the National Front and Le Pen. Jacques Chirac, the rival candidate at the time, refused to share a platform with Le Pen in a televised debate, as had been the tradition.

Today, 15 years on, Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, qualified for the second round in the French elections. Contrary to what happened in the 2002 elections, however, the National Front victory did not come as a shock. Perhaps the bigger surprise for some was her failure to win the highest number of votes in the first round, in which she did not get more than 22% of the vote.

The front pages of French newspaper on April 24 focused mainly on Emmanuel Macron, predicting his forthcoming victory over Marine Le Pen in the second round of voting. “The sensation Macron,” wrote Le Parisien. Compared to France’s 2002 elections, the media expressed less fear about having the far right present at this level.

What happened to France that made the far right succeeding to the second round of the presidential election seem par for the course? Why are the media and the general public in France not gravely concerned?

When Macron was asked if he would be willing to share a platform with Le Pen in a televised debate, he answered affirmatively. When did acceptance of the far right become normalised?

Such acceptance of the far right was impossible during the time of Jean-Marie Le Pen, given his history. It was not easy with Marine Le Pen either at first, despite her attempts to disassociate from her father’s anti-Semitic views and his shocking statements about foreigners.

Since assuming leadership of the party in 2011, however, she has launched a campaign to improve its image. She managed to remove the more toxic figures from the party while also suing people who branded her or the National Front party as racist in court.

Gradually, the party’s image changed considerably in the eyes of a significant proportion of the French population. The party is no longer viewed as the home of racists nor associated with the violent dark forces that were active in the 1970s and that supported a “French Algeria.”

Marine Le Pen exploited the country’s economic crisis, presenting her party as the answer to the troubles of millions facing unemployment and for those fearful of losing their jobs. She presented her party as the protector of France from the dangers of globalisation, the European Union, the Islamic invasion and the attack of immigrants.

Since 2011, her party has been making electoral gains. It peaked by securing the confidence of 7.7 million voters in April. Maybe Le Pen will win even more votes in the next round of this year’s elections.

The National Front has become a force to be reckoned with but has the party really changed or is it just a new image for the electorate? We may know the answer after the elections when the party’s inner fighting will come out in the open.