Fascist National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen will likely win the first round of the French presidential elections on 23 April. She will probably lose in the second round of voting on 7 May, but with well over 30 percent of the ballots – double the level her father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, polled in the second round in 2002.
How can fascism be so popular in France, a multicultural country characterised by massive workers’ struggles in recent years? And what specific dangers are we facing?
The FN has one member of parliament, two senators, 358 regional councillors and gained around 1,500 local councillors and majority control of 11 town councils in the 2014 municipal elections. In the 2012 presidential election, 6.4 million voted for Le Pen; in the departmental elections of 2015, 5.1 million people voted FN.
The party presents itself as mainstream, and the media do little to expose the fascist core of the party. On every issue, the big news outlets give a platform for FN spokespeople to give their views; even the BBC in Britain recently produced a positive portrait of the fascist leader.
The organisation has been gaining support among groups that were previously resistant to its ideas: women, civil servants and even teachers. Polls show that half the police force supports the FN.
Collapse of the mainstream
The main reason for its rise is the deep disillusionment with traditional parties of the left and right, which have pushed through neoliberal policies for the last 20 years (even though working class resistance has ensured that the attacks have advanced much more slowly than in Britain).
Socialist Party president François Hollande has shocked people so much over the last five years that at one point his popularity dropped to a record-breaking 4 percent! Hollande previously said that he should be judged by his record on unemployment. Unemployment continued to rise. Worse, he pushed through a vicious labour law that attacks national minimums in working conditions and overtime pay, and which is likely to severely weaken trade unions. The law was forced through despite very little public support, mass strikes and a huge wave of creative demonstrations.
The mainstream right has no solutions to the country’s economic and social crisis, and is deeply divided. Its presidential candidate, François Fillon, has been shown to be a thief and a liar (stealing around a million euros of public money, paid to his wife and children as salaries for jobs they did not do).
In this context, the FN has been able to present itself as the untried alternative. The convergence of “left” and right governments on neoliberal policies, and the success in opinion polls of Blairite “neither left nor right” candidate Emmanuel Macron, allow the fascists to present themselves as the only alternative to a system that is making workers suffer and is rife with corruption.
The FN’s success has also been helped by the opportunistic use of Islamophobia over the last 20 years by the mainstream right and left, often supported by parts of the radical left (as with the 2009 public banning of the niqab and the 2004 law expelling from high schools those who wore headscarves).
This Islamophobia was vividly illustrated last year by the farcical but dangerous campaign by right wing mayors to ban full body swimsuits from the beaches of their towns. The Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, applauded the bans and spoke of the dangers of Islamic jihadism being heightened by the selling of such clothing. He also declared that questions of French identity were more important than economic issues. Valls spoke of Marianne, the symbol of France, in the following manner: “Marianne bares her breast, since she nourishes her people; she wears no veil, since she is free. That is the meaning of the Republic”. Muslims around France nervously cancelled seaside holidays. Meanwhile, right wing leader Nicolas Sarkozy called for a national law banning the swimwear.
Tragically and scandalously, all left wing organisations, including those of the far left, refused to put significant energy into mobilising to defend Muslims. They satisfied themselves with occasional symbolic actions and well-written press releases: not one major left or far left public meeting about the beach racism was organised – because all the organisations are divided on Islamophobia and are often at best unable to distinguish secularism from racism. It is unsurprising that Le Pen reaps the benefits of this situation, and is calling for headscarves to be banned on public transport, in hospitals and elsewhere.
From open fascism to detoxification
The National Front was founded in 1972 by a number of fascist groups. They concluded that they could grow only by hiding their sympathies with the Vichy government, which had worked hand in glove with the Nazis in World War Two, and by masking their nostalgia for French colonialism. When economic crisis hit in the 1980s and the Socialist government disillusioned its supporters, the FN began to get a larger following.
The main strategies used to fight its ideas were woefully insufficient. On the one hand, groups such as SOS Racisme concentrated on a moralistic anti-racism that brought many people into activism but which could not stop the fascists from building their organisation. SOS Racisme later degenerated into a campaign “in favour of integration” rather than against racism.
On the other hand, groups such as SCALP (Sections Totally Against Le Pen) concentrated on aggressive small group street actions against the FN, which could not involve wide layers of people. Finally, groups such as Ras l’Front (Fed Up with the Front) concentrated on the production and selling of a somewhat highbrow magazine with a far left image, which had great difficulty attracting anyone who was not already a revolutionary.
I do not write this with the intention of giving out good and bad marks: activists within all these types of groups often did essential work in difficult circumstances, but at the end of the day the strategies were insufficient to stop the FN.
In the late ’90s, a national campaign led by social-democrats, “Manifesto against the National Front”, aimed to hold protests everywhere the FN was active in public and, in particular, to harass those sections of the mainstream right that were prepared to ally with Jean-Marie Le Pen. It was effective, and led to the party splitting over strategic differences. The breakaway group collapsed after a few years; as for the FN, it was very much weakened and, organisationally, took 15 years to recover.
Electorally, it was a different story. In 2002, Le Pen got through to the second round of the presidential elections, before losing with only 18 percent of the vote. In 2011, his daughter, Marine, became leader of the party and set about “detoxifying” it in order to gain wider support.
Although 58 percent of French people still see the FN as “a danger to democracy”, Marine Le Pen’s denials that the FN is still a fascist party have had tremendous success. She pushed her father out of the party he founded because he continued to say that the Holocaust was a mere “detail” of history.
FN members who make openly anti-Semitic statements are, these days, suspended or expelled. Marine Le Pen never refers directly to “race” nor does she make anti-Jewish “jokes” like her father did. She has promoted young and talented cadre with a managerial style, such as Florian Philippot, the gay vice president of the party, who is now working hard to recruit other future leaders in some of the most prestigious universities in the country. Since Marine Le Pen became leader in 2011, party membership, which then stood at 20,000, has more than tripled.
Abandoning traditional right wing economic viewpoints, she has preached seemingly left wing policies with an anti-immigrant slant. “The mainstream left and right have been cutting social services”, she says. “We will restore social services by saving the money spent on immigrants”. She is now promoting protectionism, wanting to mandate that shops carry a certain percentage of goods made in France and calling for France to leave the European Union if it does not make huge concessions. Le Pen welcomed the election of Donald Trump and is enthusiastic about his racist and nationalist priorities. She presents this moment as the beginning of a reawakening of (white) nations across the world.
Although she says that no-one in her party holds extreme views, Le Pen regularly reassures the fascist core by making indirect references to their shared tradition. She will recommend a little-known white supremacist novel, or compare Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of France.
She defends the thesis of the “great replacement”, according to which the French population and its identity are being swamped and will drown in the influence of hordes of immigrants. She warned in a recent speech that magistrates and other civil servants taking part in criminal proceedings against her and against other FN leaders will be punished if she wins office. Finally, she participates in Europe-wide meetings with other fascist organisations.
Rebuilding fascist forces
The FN has a long way to go. Its highest vote at an election to date has been more than 6 million people, but its annual demonstration in Paris every May attracts only a few thousand. In many towns, the FN cannot give out leaflets in the marketplace because of left wing mobilisations. And one-third of the 1,500 FN local councillors elected in 2014 have since resigned.
For the last 20 years, the mainstream right has refused to make alliances with the party. And internal faction fighting is rife between a traditionalist wing – which includes Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion, who joined the demonstrations against gay marriage despite her aunt’s objections – and a more opportunist wing around Le Pen, Philippot and her newly promoted cadre.
However, if the numbers of votes and supporters keep rising, the faction fights will cause little damage. The disintegration of the mainstream right, which now seems inevitable, will probably give rise to parties willing to build alliances with the fascists.
Further, FN is taking very seriously the building of a national machine. Regular weekend schools for FN cadre are training them in modern communication methods. A number of the new cadre have come from traditionally left wing organisations that were hardline secularists and ever more Islamophobic.
In the 11 towns controlled by the party, great care is taken not to be too openly racist or fascist, in contrast with the tactics of 10 years ago, when the town of Vitrolles had a fascist mayor. The FN town councils concentrate for the moment on good governance and keeping the books balanced. In many other towns, patient grassroots activism around local issues is occurring.
Although much of its support depends on the old hate the immigrants/harsher sentencing for criminals discourse, the party has been careful to round out its program. It declares its support for proportional representation in all elections, has jumped on the ecology bandwagon by claiming to champion organic farming, and, despite the traditionalist Catholic wing inside the party, pretends to champion secularism (in order to use it against Muslims).
The damage already caused
For the moment, the FN has gained the sympathy of a third of the population, but only a small percentage of the elected representatives. Its political influence is far wider than its street presence. Its widespread popularity in the police force can only help to reinforce the violent racism and repressive thuggery that are on the rise. And its influence has moved the whole of the political debate to the right.
This is why the mainstream Conservative candidate has been talking recently about “anti-French” (meaning “anti-white”) racism and why Islamophobia has been so much of a priority for governments of the left and right. Attacks on mosques and on individual Muslims are on the rise.
The antifascist movement we need
When Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential elections in 2002, it prompted a huge wave of daily demonstrations and university and high school student strikes. Tragically, this episode, which drew millions onto the streets, did not leave behind it a powerful and broadly based national antifascist organisation.
Small antifascist networks and local ad hoc mobilisations are regularly seen, but nothing systematic on the level required. A national antifascist campaign is sorely needed to coordinate initiatives against FN conferences and marches and to produce educational material. It is a very serious weakness that mass antifascist activity on a national scale is not being organised right now, when Le Pen’s reaching the second round seems likely.
The reason is the confusion on the activist left about how to fight fascism: in the local networks, several groups in practice exclude non-revolutionaries; others refuse anyone who speaks on behalf of any section of a political party. It is not unusual to hear in antifascist groups confused ideas such as “the Socialist Party are also a kind of fascist organisation”.
In addition, many left wing activists think that only success against unemployment and poverty will weaken the fascists, and do not see the need to stop the fascists building their machine. The worst possible outcome in May would be if Marine Le Pen gets through to the second round without any mass reaction in the streets.
Whatever the year to come holds, the need for a broad, national, antifascist campaign is ever more urgent.
John Mullen is an activist in Ensemble in the Paris region. His website is www.johncmullen.net.