How the French far-right rose to prominence


European politics was shaken by a surge in support for the far-right and far-left in the first round of France’s legislative elections on June 30. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party won 33% of the popular vote, ahead of the far-left New Popular Front (NFP) alliance on 28%.

The current president Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition came third with a disappointing 22% of the vote. The result prompted Le Pen to say that the “Macronist bloc” had been “all but wiped out”.

France’s two-round system means that a run-off vote (an extra vote held to decide the outcome of an election with no clear winner) is required to see exactly how this will translate into representation in the national assembly. But it’s clear that the far-right is going to be a significant parliamentary force in France in the near future.

The advance of the far-right in France is in large part down to the National Rally’s concerted effort to mainstream its far-right politics. However, it has been given a helping hand by the collapse of the French party structure over the past couple of decades.

Read more:
French far-right in sight of majority for first time after first round of voting – here’s what happens now

The National Rally, which up to 2018 was called the National Front, has not just changed in name. Since Le Pen was elected as president of the party in 2011 she has embarked on a persistent, and sometimes painful, quest to bring the party in from the extremes that were associated with her father’s leadership.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had served as president of the National Front since 1972, was prosecuted repeatedly under France’s hate laws. In 2017, for example, he was ordered to pay €5,000 (£4,200) after describing people from the Roma minority as “smelly”. He had previously been fined €30,000 for remarks about the Holocaust.

This does not mean that the party has abandoned its often overtly xenophobic politics and generally hostile commentary about the need to preserve France as being “French”. Jordan Bardella, who is aiming to become prime minister, promised last week to ban dual nationals from some state jobs if the National Rally comes to power.

However, in recent years, the National Rally has fused this discourse with broader populist themes that have a far wider resonance with voters. Stopping undocumented immigration and reversing pension reforms that raised the retirement age, for example, were central to the National Rally’s election campaign.

A portrait of Jordan Bardella, the president of the French right-wing party National Rally, on a newspaper cover in Paris, France, July 1 2024.
Yoan Valat / EPA

The rise of the far-right in France has also been enabled by shifts in the French political landscape. In 1958, Charles De Gaulle crafted the Fifth Republic system of governance that centralised power around the president and away from the parliament. The party structures that had ruled France since then have collapsed spectacularly over the past two decades.

The mainstream centre-right Republicans and the centre-left Socialist party have both gone from government to electoral obscurity. The Republicans, who governed as recently as 2007 with Nicolas Sarkozy, scored a lowly 6.5% in Sunday’s vote. And the socialists, who brought François Hollande to power in 2012, have been forced into a coalition with the much larger and more radical NFP movement.

The Socialist party is particularly notable for its collapse as the force for left-wing politics in France. The party’s politicians have suffered from, at times well-founded, perceptions of being out of touch, lumbering dinosaurs who are unable to hear the concerns of voters.

In 2013, while he was still president, an opinion poll found Hollande to be France’s most unpopular president. He was hit by anger over tax hikes, unemployment, and rows over his government’s immigration policy.

Repeated corruption scandals on the right and the inaction of Hollande’s socialist presidency have withered the two mainstream parties. And it was into this vacuum that Macron was able to build a new political movement, En Marche (which was later renamed La République en Marche), which catapulted him to victory in the 2017 French presidential and legislative elections.

However, his unpopular reforms and inability to tackle voter’s concerns about security and migration have left little else on France’s political spectrum other than the extremes. Bardella’s upbringing in a suburban working-class neighbourhood in Paris, and the National Rally’s constant rhetoric about social justice, also mean that the far-right is being seen by many voters as more representative of their concerns than the far left.

Bardella has accused successive governments of giving generous social provision to the inner cities at the expense of French nationals and those in the countryside. He is viewed by many as unafraid to voice their opinions on social provision in France. He has built his reputation as a straight-talking politician in a sea of professionals, in a vein similar to Donald Trump in the US.

Utopian promises constrained

The National Rally has made much of its readiness to govern. However, power tends to do two things to populist parties.

First, it can temper their policies. The National Rally has already begun backpeddling on cornerstone policies like economic and trade protectionism. France faces a range of budgetary restrictions that would mean many of the big-ticket social welfare promises made by the National Rally would be significantly diluted.

Second, power can also work to “lance the boil” of their toxic politics. However painful and unpalatable their gains are, it is only in their success in actually securing office that voters will finally see that they cannot deliver on their utopian promises. For example, Georgia Meloni has had to adopt a far more pragmatic political approach in Italy than her pre-election firebrand rhetoric indicated.

As with the parties that came before them, the National Rally has neither a bottomless pot of money, nor will it be able to rely on electoral success to enact any policy it wants should it come to dominate the legislative elections on July 7.

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