In 2017, Marine Le Pen was defeated by Emmanuel Macron in the second-round run-off of the French presidential elections. She received 10 million votes, a terrifying figure that was 3 million more than her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, obtained in the second round in 2002. Macron, with his new jerry-built party, La République en Marche, won the presidency with 17 million votes, which included those of many left wingers hoping to block a far-right victory.
The huge breakthrough for Marine Le Pen was possible because the traditional governing parties of the right and left, the Republicans and the Socialist Party, were burned electorally by their pro-business austerity politics. The Republicans received 7 million votes in the first round. The Socialist Party, leaving government, received only 2 million votes—a historic collapse. The radical left France Insoumise got 7 million votes. Ten million voters stayed at home for the two rounds, and 5 million citizens did not even enrol.
The mass reaction to Marine Le Pen’s success was disappointing. Almost twenty years earlier, when it was announced that Le Pen senior had got through to the second round, many thousands of people hit the streets. Demonstrations went on all night. Our revolutionary group held a dynamic public meeting in a cafe at three o’clock in the morning! Ten days later, on 1 May 2002, at least 1.5 million people demonstrated against fascism across the country, school students struck, and anti-fascist rallies were organised every day between the two electoral rounds. However, in 2017, when Marine Le Pen got to the second round, only a few hundred demonstrators were on the streets the same evening, and the first of May demonstrations between the two rounds were many times smaller than in 2002.
The difference between these two mobilisations is a sign of Marine Le Pen’s success. Over the ten years since she became president of the National Front, she has managed to bring the party into the mainstream. She changed its name to National Rally (Rassemblement National) because of the connotations of the old name. She expelled her father from the party because he was incapable of giving up his habit of regularly suggesting that the Nazi massacres for racial purity were no big deal.
Although she insisted that she was clarifying and not transforming the party program, support for the death penalty and opposition to abortion disappeared from the manifesto. She switched the party’s official alliance in Europe, joining a less openly extremist grouping, the European Alliance for freedom, and abandoned the idea of leaving the European Union. She also built new stronghold regions in the deindustrialised north-east of France, adding to her traditional regional base in the south-east. (A quarter of manual workers on the electoral lists voted Le Pen in the first round in 2017, while almost 30 percent of them abstained.)
Now, one opinion poll has found that one-third of French citizens would like to see Le Pen “play an important role” in the country’s future. This makes her the second most popular political leader in France. Another poll predicts that she might get 44 percent of the second-round votes if she is again in a run-off against Macron. She claims that she can become president in 2022 as a “people’s candidate”.
How dangerous is she? Her program demands that France make a “patriotic choice” to replace the “globalist choice” made by other ruling parties. It defends bigger military budgets and promises 15,000 new police officers and 40,000 new places in prisons. It pledges tougher prison sentences, massive cuts in immigration, the banning of state health care for undocumented migrants and of social housing for non-French nationals. The manifesto insists that French nationality should be available only to children of French nationals, and a government campaign to encourage French families to have more children is proposed. All mosques suspected of “extremism” should be closed, the National Rally says. Given that Le Pen claims that a Muslim headscarf is “a sign of radicality”, one can imagine that few mosques would escape her definition of extremism.
Just as important as her program are her unofficial statements of intent. These include her expressed desire to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves in the streets, her promise to “defend the workers by opposing the immigration, which brings down wages”, and her recent lies that “so many neighbourhoods now are controlled by criminal or Islamist gangs”.
The mainstreaming of her party has been so effective that National Rally representatives frequently appear on all the major TV political talk shows, on which journalists, with a couple of honourable exceptions, are ever more accommodating. Younger party spokespeople, the chirpiest and best-dressed Nazis in the country, are regularly treated as future decisionmakers on breakfast TV.
Yet Le Pen’s electoral rise does not reflect any automatic progress of fascism. There are several factors that make it difficult for the National Rally to grow. The main recent episodes in the class struggle in France have not gone their way politically. Take first the inspiring Yellow Vest movement (2018-19), for example. That movement began in regions and in social classes that show a high level of electoral support for Le Pen.
The lively insurrectional mobilisations around the country could have become a real force for popularising the far right. But this did not happen. On the contrary, thanks to the tireless work of many hundreds of local left activists and trade unionists, the political tone of the Yellow Vest movement moved very much to the left. Indeed, protesting police violence became one of its main priorities, a cause Le Pen could not afford to take up. (Well over half of all police who vote, vote for the National Rally.)
The mass revolt over pensions was not good for Le Pen either. High levels of political class consciousness were expressed in the strikes and demonstrations against the new pension law in 2019 and 2020. The movement ended in victory for the working class—the measures have been shelved indefinitely (using the pandemic as an excuse). While defending pensions was at the centre of the political agenda, Le Pen had to keep quiet. On the one hand, defending pensions was so popular that she could not afford to support Macron’s law; on the other, her large base among small businesspeople did not allow her to support mass trade union action.
The pandemic has not particularly helped Le Pen either: although millions have harsh criticisms of Macron’s management of the crisis, neither the far right nor the left succeeded in popularising the idea that they had a much more effective strategy against the virus.
Le Pen’s attempt to build a solid party structure in towns around the country is also fraught with difficulties. An oppositional party that received 10 million votes would normally be able to organise street demonstrations of tens of thousands. But the National Rally cannot manage it. In the 2017 presidential campaign, while Mélenchon of France Insoumise could attract more than 50,000 people on the Marseille dockside for a mass meeting, Le Pen’s biggest meetings were of a few thousand people. This year, Le Pen even abandoned the party’s habitual 1 May far-right demonstration in Paris, replacing it with an online meeting.
In fact, the National Rally has considerably fewer members than it had several years ago. At the municipal elections in 2020, the party had difficulty recruiting candidates for town councillors (the party won 1,498 town council positions across France in 2014, but only 827 in 2020). The party has six members of parliament, compared with twelve Communist Party MPs and seventeen belonging to the radical left France Insoumise.
Although Le Pen plans to pass through a stage of building an electorally based far-right party, as the far right in Italy or elsewhere has been able to do, her long-term fascist objective remains. The symbol of the National Rally is still the flame borrowed from the Italian fascist tradition. Just like her father did with his “jokes” about the holocaust, Marine Le Pen regularly provides knowing winks for the core of Nazi activists in France. When Génération Identitaire, a White Nationalist group, was banned here two months ago for hate speech, and for “building a private militia”, Le Pen defended them.
And in April 2021, when a group of retired military generals called those who believed in “true French values” to be prepared for civil war, she immediately declared that they were right and that her party would welcome them with open arms. The generals’ open letter spoke of the “danger” of decolonial theories, which they claimed would cause a “race war”, and of the dangers of Muslim separatism and of Black Blocs. It concluded: “This is no time to hesitate. Otherwise, tomorrow civil war will put an end to this situation of rising chaos, and you [France’s political leaders] will be responsible for the thousands of deaths which will occur”.
The characteristic of the present period that has most helped Le Pen is the horrific and reactionary terrorist attacks carried out in France in the name of radical Islam (even though the attackers generally have few or no links to the mosques or to the Muslim community). The killing of a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, (for “insulting the Prophet”) in 2020 and last month’s killing of a police station employee, Stéphanie Monfermé, were manna from heaven for the National Rally.
More manna came in the form of racist initiatives by Macron and his ministers over the last year. A new law against “separatism” is just going through, which obliges all Muslim organisations to sign a charter of agreement with Republican principles. The aim is purely propagandistic—to tell the 10 million who voted Le Pen: “We distrust Muslims too, vote for us!” While the bill worked its way through the Senate, several amendments were approved, which, while having little chance of being in the law in its final form, have encouraged a vast racist talkfest in the media. One amendment is for children to be banned completely from wearing a hijab; another would prohibit mothers who wear a hijab from attending school trips along with other parents.
Macron has also dissolved organisations such as the Collective against Islamophobia in France, despite zero evidence that they have any sympathy for terrorists. Meanwhile, his education minister, Blanquer, declared that the hijab “is not welcome in French society”, and the minister of the interior, Darmanin, attacked supermarkets that sell halal food, while criticising Marine Le Pen for being “too soft” on the Muslim question!
This cynical ideological campaign claiming that Muslims want to separate from wider society is based entirely on lies. For example, there are ten times fewer Muslim families sending their children to religious schools than there are families sending their children to private Catholic schools! There are 9,000 private Catholic schools in France, and around 70 private Muslim schools.
Wider racist posturing is also part of Macron’s recipe for re-election. A moral panic hit the newsrooms when it was “revealed” that the national union of students (UNEF) sometimes organises meetings exclusively for non-whites, in the context of thinking about how to fight racism. In rigidly universalist France, this is often considered shocking, and the Senate recommended that the student union be banned. Astoundingly, some Communist Party and Green Party senators voted in favour of the proposal. In the media, the talk was of the terrible danger of “anti-white racism” taking over the country’s youth.
A second racist panic was organised around university teaching and research. The education minister claimed that “Islamo-leftism” was “a gangrene” in the universities, and that good honest intellectuals were being terrorised by decolonial studies merchants. The lie was effective—more than 60 percent of French citizens in polls said that “Islamo-leftism” in the universities needed investigating, even though the extremely establishment Council of University Presidents replied with the angriest press release in its history, accusing the minister of using “pseudo-concepts popularised by the far right”.
Given the divisions on the left and on the right, which mean that 9 million first round votes will no doubt be enough to get through to the run-off, Macron has every interest in putting far-right priorities at the centre of public debate. Jean-Luc Mélenchon was right to describe the second-round run-off between Macron and Le Pen in 2017 as “more of a duet than a duel”. “Macron represents the system, and Le Pen is its life insurance”, he commented. Macron, even though he came from a strand of the right that had not traditionally prioritised Muslim-bashing, is going full-on racist as a diversion from class struggle, and in this manner is laying the basis for a further increase in far-right support.
Marine Le Pen’s political weaknesses, (never giving support to popular class struggles such as the defence of pensions), and her organisational weaknesses (having difficulty maintaining local party structures and meetings), provide a lot of space for anti-fascists to reduce her support through information campaigns and determined harassment actions. There is right now no broad-based national anti-fascist campaign. Each left party denounces Le Pen and her racism, and some even campaign against Islamophobia, but there is a real need for something more. Anti-fascist meetings and rallies have for years been rare, localised and small.
Yet the potential is clear: there have been inspiring mobilisations by newish (mainly non-white led) anti-racist networks in recent years, in particular against police racism. In addition, there are plenty of anti-racists among the young and among trade unionists, who might mistrust or not be attracted by political parties, but who would be ready to mobilise against the fascists. National anti-fascist initiatives are sorely needed. As this article was being written (4 May) a group of left MPs, movement activists and trade unions published a call for a national demonstration against the ideas of the far right. This must become the basis for more ambitious campaigns.
Thanks to Susan, Daniel, Fred, Greg, Ray, Stéphane and Ian for comments on an earlier draft.