Not a barricade but a bridge: Macron, Le Pen and the ‘republican front’ trap
Not a barricade but a bridge: Macron, Le Pen and the ‘republican front’ trap)

As French politicians and parties swing into campaign mode a year out from the 2022 presidential elections, polls strongly suggest that the final round runoff will be between current President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader of Rassemblement National (National Rally, RN) Marine Le Pen. Compared to the last time these candidates faced each other, the margin between them has narrowed significantly: in 2017, Macron defeated Le Pen 66-34; a recent poll by Harris has Macron winning 53-47.

With the growing threat that France might elect a fascist president next year, the so-called republican front strategy has been dusted off once again and broadcast by a range of political and media figures. Le Monde’s : “The republican front must be revived”. Christophe Castaner, current MP and former interior minister under Macron’s administration, also called for a republican front against the RN, stating in an interview that his party’s job “is to show what the National Front [the former name of Le Pen’s party] really is and that, in view of the presidential elections, their ‘fresh coat of paint’ is a facade that doesn’t match their reality”.

The republican front is the standing agreement among French political parties that aims to prevent the far right from taking power. In the French two-round electoral system—in which the two most popular candidates from a first round of voting compete in a second-round runoff—if the far right makes the second round, the republican front demands that all candidates and parties, regardless of political colouring, support the non-far-right candidate. The republican front helped defeat the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, when he ascended to the final presidential round in 2002 against conservative Jacques Chirac. The republican front swept Macron to victory against Le Pen junior in 2017. And Macron and his party La République En Marche! (Republic on the move, LREM) will count on that same commitment to keep Le Pen out and clinch victory again next year.

Yet the tightening of the margin between Macron and Le Pen shows that this commitment may not be as sturdy as in say, 2002 when Chirac defeated Le Pen senior in a landslide 82 percent to 18 percent. Castaner addressed this hesitancy, criticising those considering not voting for either Macron or Le Pen: “Those who plead ... neither–nor [neither Macron nor Le Pen] have neither courage nor honesty”.

Honesty is an interesting virtue for Castaner to preach. As interior minister, he lied to the media about anti-government Yellow Vest protesters violently attacking a hospital in 2019. (Fact check: the Yellow Vests were seeking refuge in the hospital from the rubber bullets and tear gas that Castaner had ordered police to unleash on their protest.) More than Castaner’s hypocrisy, his implication that Macron presents not just an alternative but a bulwark against the far-right threat belies the president’s record in welcoming far-right ideas into the mainstream.

Macron and his administration have spent the last eighteen months running a vicious, Islamophobic campaign against France’s Muslim population, under the guise of fighting “political Islam” and “separatism”. When a school teacher was murdered by a teenager for showing racist caricatures of the prophet Mohammed in a classroom in 2020, Macron weaponised the killing to accelerate a campaign against Islam he had been running since at least the year before, when he called for French society to unite against the “Hydra of Islamism”. Macron has long recognised that his main competitor is the far-right Le Pen: instead of choosing to battle the far right by opposing its bigoted positions on Islam and immigration, Macron and his team have championed the far right’s talking points and normalised its ideas.

Indeed, in a televised debate with Le Pen in March, Macron’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin attacked Le Pen for being too “soft”—softer, Darmanin said, “than we could ever be” on the question of Islam. In November, Macron and Darmanin dissolved the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF). Described by Darmanin as an “Islamist office against the republic”, the collective was actually a liberal civil liberties organisation that defended the rights of Muslims in France and noted that they routinely are targets of police and state repression.

Macron’s political attacks haven’t stopped there. Anyone who attended a protest against Islamophobia was labelled an Islamo-leftist. The Higher Education Minister Frédérique Vidal went further, announcing a “probe” into the extent of Islamo-leftism’s apparent grip on French universities and academics. Darmanin professed to be “shocked” at separate aisles for halal and kosher food in supermarkets, implying that separate aisles breed separatism itself. Macron’s party even banned a Muslim LREM candidate for wearing a hijab in a local election campaign flyer.

The national student union was the focus of media ire for holding autonomous meetings of people of colour as hysteria about “anti-white racism” gripped the airwaves. Macron’s education department banned the use of gender-neutral language in schools—less a defence of the French language’s integrity, more a dog whistle to the far right, for whom any attempt to undermine traditional gender norms is creeping “cultural Marxism”.

While the French establishment has a long commitment to Israel and routinely accuses the countrys critics of anti-Semitism, the Macron administration recently went further. Last month, Darmanin made the extraordinary decision to pre-emptively ban Palestine solidarity protests planned in Paris. The police arrested the head of a France–Palestine solidarity organisation for his role in organising a protest.

Macron’s illiberal march culminated this year in the so-called law against separatism. The president’s office says that the law, which comfortably passed both the French National Assembly and Senate, is not about targeting Muslims but those “who in the name of a wrong or reconstructed vision of a religion behave in a way contrary to the republic”. Yet rarely does the word “separatism” leave Macron’s lips without the word “Islamist” accompanying it.

The law clearly scapegoats France’s Muslim population, with measures such as banning “virginity certificates”—a humiliating gesture that paints Muslims as misogynistic and illiberal. More worryingly, civil servants and even contractors working for the civil service are prohibited under threat of fine or prison from expressing any political or religious opinion—including the wearing of religious garments like the hijab.

The law also allows for the shutting down of places of worship that “preach hate”. Recently, construction on a mosque in Strasbourg  after the Turkish organisation building it, Milli Gorus, refused to sign the “Charter of French Islam”, another pillar in Macron’s campaign against separatism. Darmanin launched a legal challenge to the mosque’s construction and against the Greens-led Strasbourg city council for financing an organisation that “supports political Islam”.

Paraphrasing Socialist Party head Olivier Faure, Macron’s rampart against the far right is a bridge. Macron takes votes on the left for granted and tries to undermine Le Pen’s growing base by adopting classic far-right stances. Yet, evidently, this has not dented Le Pen’s popularity. Even young people are moving towards the far-right leader, with 30 percent of those aged 25 to 34 supporting her, up from 23 percent in 2017.

Macron’s bridge not only welcomes Le Pen: it extends to a more generalised far-right backlash brewing in French society. A group of retired generals penned an open letter decrying the “disintegration” of France due to political Islam and immigrant “hordes” on the outskirts of cities. CNews, a right-wing network critics label the French Fox News, has hit record ratings and right-wing provocateurs such as Éric Zemmour are given a soapbox to denounce migrants and Muslims.

A reactionary march last month by police officers against violence on the job was as much a reaction to last year’s Black Lives Matter movement and its spotlight on French police brutality as to the recent killing of a police officer. Statistics consistently show that support for the far right is higher within the police force, a fact that surely motivated Darmanin when he exalted the slain cop as a “hero in the war on drugs” and conferred upon police the noble title of “soldiers”.

Despite all of this, the logic of the republican front demands that the victims of Macron’s anti-left, anti-Muslim, anti-worker rampage should still vote for him in 2022—to keep out the far-right threat. Without underplaying the severity of what a Le Pen victory would mean, for many of France’s oppressed, the illiberal society Macron is supposed to be protecting them from has already arrived under his leadership. If Le Pen wins, it will not be despite Macron’s efforts—it will be because Macron and his administration did everything they could to prove they weren’t “soft”.

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