Can France's Far-Right Reinvent Itself?

Eight months after the presidential election, the National Front still hasn’t figured out how to become the party of the people.

Marine Le Pen smiles after delivering a speech at the National Front Congress in Lyon, on November 30, 2014.  (Robert Pratta / Reuters)

Through much of the last two years, the populist far-right seemed poised to conquer France. In the surreal aftermath of Trump and Brexit, the prospect of a victory by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front (FN), felt alarmingly possible. After decades of mounting racism and economic insecurity, Western democracies were lashing out at the ballot box.

But today, eight months after the French presidential election, the FN seems flummoxed by Emmanuel Macron, the country’s centrist president, who, with his hefty budget cuts and far-reaching welfare reforms, would seem to be the party’s ideal adversary. Instead, the Front’s deputies in the Assembly largely abstained from debates on pro-business labor reform and have kept similarly quiet on tax cuts that benefit the ultra-rich. When voters are asked to identify who they consider to be the primary “opposition” to the government, most pick the left-wing populist La France Insoumise over the FN. Tellingly, it was the fiery Jean-Luc Mélenchon, La France Insoumise’s leader, and not Le Pen, who coined “president of the rich,” a popular epithet for Macron.

The National Front’s inability to seize the moment stems, in large part, from a raft of internal contradictions. Some of the party’s most prominent members claim to be devoted to the welfare state; others see it, at best, as a necessary evil. Some are secular and favor gay rights; others are proud, “family values” Christians. Today, its big tent is being stretched to the limit—if not already showing signs of tear.

Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the FN’s identity crisis than the departure of Florian Philippot, the party’s former vice president and national spokesperson. He had embodied the FN’s “de-demonization” strategy—less racism and xenophobia, more education, healthcare and progressive economics. A graduate of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, he joined the FN in 2011, working with Le Pen to refine its critiques of globalization and reframe French politics as a clash between “globalists” and “patriots.” Electoral success followed, thanks largely to low-income voters, many of them from former bastions of the left. In the first round of the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen won more support from working-class voters than any other candidate, according to an Ipsos poll.

“Compared to the old platform of the Front, which was much more [economically] liberal, we were more focused on a defense of the forgotten France, of public services, of low-income earners and retirees, of re-industrialization,” Philippot told me when we met at his office in Strasbourg last fall.

But despite his achievements, Philippot irked many high-ranking party members with his constant calls for France’s departure from both the eurozone and the European Union—institutions that, in his view, largely benefitted multinational companies and German exporters, at the expense of French businesses and workers. He resigned from his post in September, citing both his stance towards the EU and concerns that the party seemed set to return to its doomed obsession with immigration. “They’re returning [to] an identity-based rhetoric. It’s really a step backwards,” he said. Since Philippot’s break with the FN (he insisted he was pushed out), he has co-founded a political party called “the Patriots.” In Brussels, it has aligned itself with a parliamentary group that includes fellow eurosceptic parties like Britain’s U.K. Independence Party and Italy’s Five-Star Movement. (The FN sits with another group that includes the Dutch Party for Freedom and Alternative for Germany.)

Criticism of the so-called “Philippot line” intensified following the election. Jean Messiha, the author of Le Pen’s 2017 presidential platform, told me a renewed focus on national identity and immigration will lead to electoral gains. Such a return to the party’s roots “doesn’t mean the euro isn’t a problem,” Messiha said. “There’s an economic and monetary sword of Damocles linked to the EU and the euro, but this sword of Damocles … doesn’t descend to the level of citizens.” On the other hand, he believes terrorism has a way of mobilizing people—of drawing them toward the FN’s ideas and of pitting them against governments that supposedly fail to protect them. As he put it: We don’t have a monetary [policy] attack capable of opening the eyes of our citizens. But other attacks, we’ve had them.”

The Front’s leaders, however, insist that they don’t want to revive the FN of the 1970s and 1980s, the days of the party’s Holocaust-denying president Jean-Marie Le Pen and his obsession with immigration. “We can’t be monomaniacal,” Sébastien Chenu, the party’s new spokesman and one of eight FN members of the National Assembly elected in June, told me. “We have the pillar of identity. We have the pillar of sovereignty. And we have the pillar of anti-system. I think it’s on these three pillars that the discourse needs to be based.”

On social issues, too, Chenu said the party must evolve: While Le Pen’s 2017 platform called for the repeal of same-sex marriage, “we won’t say we’re against marriage next time,” Chenu said, referring to same-sex marriage. (Shortly after I spoke with Jean Messiha, he landed in hot water: In reference to the party’s former vice president, who is gay, Messiha told Le Monde that “you don’t work with Philippot if you’re not gay.”) “We need to appear like a party that wants to govern France and not just [as] a protest party,” Chenu said.

This logic animates the push for the party to pick a new name, which is expected to be announced at the FN’s “re-foundation congress” in March. With a new name comes an opportunity for a re-brand of sorts, leaders like Chenu and Le Pen hope. Yet they also insist that nothing fundamental has changed since the election. The platform remains the same, even though the party has effectively taken “Frexit,” or a call for France to leave the European Union, off the table (for now). What’s unclear is whether the longed-for overhaul can wrestle with the demons lurking just beneath the surface.

Consider the recent history of Hayange, a small town in Lorraine. In 2014, Hayange elected the FN’s Fabien Engelmann as mayor. Under Socialist Party control for nearly two decades prior, Hayange has struggled to recover from the collapse of the steel industry, and suffers from an unemployment rate of 18 percent, roughly eight points above the national level. Despite the town’s very real economic struggles, Engelmann, a former trade unionist, has fashioned a reputation for cartoonish race-baiting and vicious attacks on political opponents. He organizes an annual “Festival of the Pig” celebration that attracts droves of far-right sympathizers; critics say it is intended to send an anti-Muslim message. Engelmann also unsuccessfully sued a community activist for defamation after the latter called him a “would-be dictator” in a Facebook post. And he recently cut off electricity to a local chapter of a well-respected national charity after claiming it had been overrun by communists.

Engelmann has no significant economic achievements to point to. When we spoke, he stressed the importance of national sovereignty and protectionism. But he also wasted no time bringing up the “danger of Islamization,” and argued that immigration puts French identity at risk. Engelmann also explained why he refuses to participate in national commemorations of March 19, the anniversary of the ceasefire marking the end of the Algerian War. For one thing, violence persisted after that date, he said. “France brought a lot to Algeria,” he added. “You know, in 1850, people were still dying of syphilis in Algeria. France colonized the country, they put in hospitals, roads, a lot of things. Of course, there were bad things, on both sides. But if you talk to nostalgic people in Algeria that miss French Algeria, there was a certain democracy. Go to Algeria today. Look at the democracy now.”

Engelmann doesn’t speak for every FN member, of course. But other mayors from the party share his penchant for provocation. In Hénin-Beaumont, a working-class town in the north, National Front Mayor Mayor Steeve Briois has kicked out the country’s most prominent human-rights group from its publicly funded headquarters, tried and failed to ban street begging, and unsuccessfully fought for the right to display a nativity scene in town hall. The presence of characters like this suggest that the FN still hasn’t figured out how to translate anti-establishment sloganeering into material gains for working people.

It’s difficult to see anything changing until another FN politician rises to challenge Le Pen. To some degree, the party still operates as something of a personality cult. (At the national party headquarters, a non-descript building in a residential neighborhood in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre, guests are greeted by intense security checks from armed guards sporting blue patches that read “Marine.”) In a recent opinion poll, she yet again proved herself to be the most disliked politician in France. If the nation isn’t exactly smitten with Emmanuel Macron, it continues to despise Marine Le Pen.

“If people from the National Front are really asking themselves questions about the basics and about strategy, and they want to bring them forward, they need to run against Marine Le Pen for the presidency of the National Front,” party treasurer Wallerand de Saint-Just told me. “Philippot thinks there are differences, so he left the National Front. But if people don’t run, if they stay in the National Front, and they work for Marine Le Pen, then they need to definitively shut up. That’s democracy.”

Still, for all that ails the FN, Joël Gombin, a political scientist and expert on the National Front, does not believe there is a glass ceiling on the party’s support. Its future, he said, ultimately depends on the political configuration surrounding it. “All the researchers who tried to say, ‘Ok, now they’ve reached their upper limit,’… they’ve been refuted by the facts,” Gombin said. Before Macron, the FN benefited from Francois Hollande, an unpopular Socialist president who failed to curb unemployment and rein in finance. And while Macron’s administration is in its early days, so far, it does not bode well for ordinary people. He has pushed changes that weaken collective bargaining, lower housing subsidies, and slash taxes on wealth and capital gains. An overhaul of unemployment insurance that could increase government scrutiny of welfare recipients is next.

Perhaps the most sensitive question for the FN is that of a potential electoral alliance with the Republicans, France’s mainstream conservative party, which has struggled to differentiate itself from Macron’s La République En Marche. All signs suggest a rightward lurch: Last month, rank-and-file Republicans elected staunch social conservative Laurent Wauquiez as their next president. He has since called for redefining France’s relationship with the EU. Wauquiez recently said that he favored a model of “concentric circles” for the EU: France would belong to a core of six to 12 countries sharing a broad set of policies; the second circle would be limited to eurozone membership; the third would be a free trade zone, to which Britain could theoretically belong.

While Chenu brushed aside the immediate prospects of an alliance with the Republicans, he did not rule it out. “The right would need to be not what it is today,” he said. What might that mean? Less liberal on economic issues, guided by a “strong national and social conscience,” and far less submissive to Europe. “Tomorrow, if the Republicans say, ‘We’re challenging Europe as it is, we’re moving toward a Europe of nations, and ... the state needs to be strategic, regulatory and protective, not just laissez-faire and not protecting the most vulnerable,’ then yes, maybe we could talk,” he said. A few weeks later, Marine Le Pen made a similar point in a television interview, and invited Wauquiez to “propose an alliance” with the FN.

The FN will soon have the chance to test its new look. France’s next major elections are in 2019, when voters will elect representatives to the European Parliament; mayoral and town-council elections are slated for the following year. These contests are key: To contend for the presidency in 2022, the National Front, or whatever it calls itself by then, will need a strong base of elected officials across the country.

Gaëtan Dussausaye, president of the FN’s youth wing, stressed the importance of the upcoming mid-term elections. “We’re able to convince when we have local representatives that are well-established and legitimate,” he said. “After we’re able to demonstrate on the local level that the work is well done, that the town is cleaner, the cultural agenda is broader, that there’s less taxes, that there’s more security, it has a ripple effect on nearby towns and scores increase.”

Dussausaye also said that Macron’s agenda—like that of Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy before him—is doomed. “Macron, he’s sort of a wild card, the final master stroke of the system to survive. After Macron, they don’t have anyone left,” he said with a laugh. “And all the better for us.”