{Political analysis} Observing le Pen and the National Front beyond the emotion. Part1: How did they occupy this place in French society?

Although Marine le Pen lost her bid to qualify to Round 2 of the French presidential election, she created a sensation and spread anxiety in scoring 17.9%: a record 6.4 million people voted for her.

A characteristic of the National Front is that it is divisive and acrimonious at many levels.

Firstly It is a self-evident observation that its Far-Right nature makes it an inherently divisive political choice. Its objective is to channel the anger of voters towards the rejection of anything and anyone that does not fit a narrow nationalist and authoritarian view of their world.

Secondly if having 15% to 20% of voters so frustrated that they prefer an authoritarian to a democratic alternative was not enough, the National Front also seems to possess a unique ability to violently divide its opponents among themselves on the way to analyse it, let alone address it and fight it.

In fact for the last 30 years the Left has been paralysed in its response. As Australian academic Geoff Robinsonobserved “when dealing with le Pen the Left keeps oscillating between blind panic and denial”.

The National Front has also become more divisive than ever within the mainstream Right. The ‘democratic republican Gaullist Right’ which emerged from the Resistance after WW2 traditionally refused electoral compromise with the Far-Right sympathetic to neo-fascist ideology. However in the last few years, the so-called ‘Popular Right’ faction inside Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party has been gaining influence and is clearly in favour of alliances with the slightly gentrified National Front that Marine le Pen has been ‘modernising’ since she took the leadership from her father Jean-Marie le Pen in January 2011.

So if it is impossible to dumb down 6.4 million votes into a magic formula that would explain it all, it is at least insightful to confront the various perspectives among commentators. Part 2 this post will quickly look at the type of mainstream analysis (eg. demonization vs victimisation of voters ) that have obviously failed to equip the National Front’s opponents with adequate tools. Then it will try to present fairly confronting research done either in France or abroad that challenges the predictable commentaries found in most media. 3 analyses stood out for your correspondent: Annie Collovald (suggested by blogger @Vogelsong) who dispels the myth that the National Front is due to a rise of the popular/populist vote; Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys (suggested by @Dr_tad) who co-authored a very confronting book ‘The Politics of Racism in France‘ who basically argue that the lack of serious opposition to le Pen is due to the complacency bred by the enduring myth that France is the natural home of the Human Rights and that the “Republican” system inherently carries a form of nationalism that prevents the Left from responding adequately. The 3rd analysis is provided by demographer Emmanuel Todd who argues that this election, contrary to being marked by the rise of the National Front illustrates the comeback of the Left…

But before we launch into an ‘analysis of these analyses’ in Part 2, a first section of this post had to be written especially for non-French observers who might wonder where these le Pen people are coming from…

PART 1 – Firstly a bit of History and a reminder of how such a party has come to occupy the place it has in French society.

Since the French Revolution, the French Right has been made up of 3 groups: the ‘Legitimists’ rejecting the ‘République’, the ‘Orleanists’ supporters of economic liberalism, and the ‘Bonapartists’ attached to social conservatism. Tensions between those 3 have shaped the Right throughout its history, as it initially struggled to give up its attachment to the feudal aristocratic system after the end of the Ancient Regime. Ultimately the ‘Legitimist’ reactionary monarchist Right put itself out of the game, whereas the more liberal ‘Orleanist’ Right (named after the Duke of Orléans, an uncut head survivor of the royal family) chose to embrace the new modernity that had started with the French Revolution and was going to accelerate with the Industrial Revolution. The third group, the ‘Bonapartist’ Right (named after the Napoleon you know) emerged from the ashes of the 1st Empire (an offspring of the French Revolution) in nostalgia for a strong government or leader.

Three revolutionary days in July 1830 overthrew the ultra-monarchist ‘Legitimist’ King Charles X and installed Louis-Phillippe, an ‘Orleanist’ who symbolically took the title of King of the French (as opposed to King of France – acknowledging the citizens, and not just the territory ) and who gained support from the wealthy bourgeoisie before the monarchy ended for good in 1848. The liberal Right understood that capitalism was going to help them maintain their elite status: aristocrats turned bourgeois under the new order of the République.


1830: after 3 revolutionary days in Paris, anti-liberal conservative King Charles X was overthrown by the bourgeoisie because of the measures he tried to take to limit their power (eg. restrictions to run as candidates for the Chamber of Deputies, newspaper censorship). They rode popular discontent coming from deteriorating economic conditions and installed Louis-Phillippe

The cherry on the cake came after the revolution of 1848: in an ironical twist the first elections opened to male voters gave the monarchists 500 seats, whilst the republicans only got 200! This signalled to the Right that if properly organised it could still hope to secure hegemonic position in this new world. So around 1880-1890 when they understood that the Monarchy would never be restored, the Catholic Right finalised its endorsement of the République: they were going to be in the tent for good… well, almost for good.

Indeed, the extreme Right which had never really given up, tried to regain ground in the 1930s when fascist paramilitary leagues and the monarchist counter-revolutionary Action Française agitated against the parliamentary regime. However they did not succeed to go the German, Italian or Spanish ways and it took the German occupation between 1940 and 1945 to see the Vichy Regime not fully collaborate with the Nazis but also run its own reactionary “National Revolution” based on the propaganda of “Travail, Famille, Patrie” (“Labour, Family, Homeland”).


1930s-1940s : fascist leagues – Vichy propaganda for the “National Revolution” run during the Nazi occupation opposing ‘Laziness’ (Paresse), ‘Demagogy’, ‘Internationalism’ to ‘ Labour’, ‘Family’, ‘Homeland’, ‘Discipline’, ‘Order’, ‘Courage’.

General de Gaulle (a military man! illustrating the only-Nixon-could-go-to-China syndrome) redeemed the sin committed by the radical Right. His fight as head of the Resistance and his alliance with the Communists during the Liberation prevented the ‘mainstream republican’ Right from being put in the same bag as the collaborators. It also gave birth to ‘Gaullism’ which was going to be the dominating template of the Right for the decades to come: a blend of soft nationalism (national independence from international organisations such as NATO), State intervention in the economy (large sponsored state projects including nuclear, telecoms, electricity, transports) and social conservatism (the Social Security was created by the National Council of the French Resistance). Until Sarkozy, whilst disagreements with the Left have been fierce and both camps have had their share of xenophobic policies during the colonial period and well beyond, a tacit agreement has always been the ‘official’ rejection of the Far-Right by the mainstream republican Right. Let’s not be naive: of course, they never hesitated courting racist voters, such as Chirac in 1991 when he invoked “the noise and the smell” (“le bruit et l’odeur”) of migrant neighbours to justify populist frustrations with immigration; but officially, the party line was “no alliance with the National Front”.

And in case politicians would forget, episodes came to remind the ‘Gaullist Right’ that radical-nationalists were way too uncontrollable and dangerous, such as in 1961 when 4 Army Generals tried a coup d’état in Algiers against de Gaulle once he had started to concede Algeria would become independent from the colonial empire.


1961: the attempted coup d’état by 4 Generals in Algiers to overthrow French President Charles de Gaulle and establish an anti-communist military junta. After a period of confusion de Gaulle addressed the nation (wearing his own uniform to remind everyone who was the chief). In the end, the conscripted army did not follow the renegade generals and the coup failed. L’Humanité, the Communist Party newspaper, titled: “Alert to Fascism!”

It is indeed in the post WW2 period that Jean-Marie le Pen started his political carrier in the small populist party ofPierre Poujade, the Union de Defense Commercants et Artisans (Union for the Defence of retailers and tradesmen). In 1953 this movement of small independent shop keepers was organising protests against tax collectors at a time when the post-war reconstruction was radically transforming the country. The modernisation of society was introducing whole new ‘managerial’ approaches and threatened to marginalise those constituents who saw themselves as the victims of this new “economic structural adaptation and competitiveness” suddenly imposed on them by the political class – 50 years before its time, a stance that echoed le Pen’s anti-system and anti-globalisation rhetoric. It is this conservative protest that le Pen joined for a 1st political career that made him the youngest member of parliament in 1956: he was 28. Poujadism eventually died off and le Pen moved on to a commercial venture in the music industry (notably producing Nazi marches!).


1950s: After receiving his law diploma, le Pen enlisted in the Foreign Legion. He was sent to Indochina in 1954 and Suez in1956 but in both cases arrived after the conflicts. He later voluntarily reengaged himself for a few months in the Legion to go to Algeria during the war of independence.

Jean-Marie le Pen came back to politics in 1972 when he founded the National Front, a catch-all extremist party providing an outlet to nostalgics of the colonial empire, of the Vichy regime, to traditionalist Catholics, anti-communist, neo-Nazis, anti-Semitics, or Royalists. With 0.74% of the vote at the 1974 presidential election, the debut was extreme…ly mediocre. However chance was on his side: in 1977 he inherited a fortune from Hubert Lambert, the son of a cement industrialist sympathetic to nationalist and monarchist causes. 30 million francs and a castle later (the same castle in Saint-Cloud near Paris that had been owned by Madame de Pompadour until 1748), le Pen was safe from financial worries for a while and was going to be able to focus on his political career.

The breakthrough happened in 1983 in the country town of Dreux near Paris, where one his friends, Jean-Pierre Stirbois, landed on the city council on a ticket that scored 16,7 %. It was the first time this group of agitated nationalists was able to put a foot through the electoral door around a score of 15%, which they have managed to keep since. A year later, the National Front collected 10 seats in the European elections of 1984, and le Pen secured a seat in the EU parliament in Brussels. But the major national breakthrough came when the Parliament election of 1986 switched to a ‘proportional representation’ determining the number of MPs with a straight percentage of the votes, instead of being a knock-off-in-two-rounds, which would always put the ’smaller’ parties behind as they never qualify to round 2. Lepenist candidates grabbed 9.7% of the vote (same as the Communist Party) and 35 seats.


Dady’s friends are coming for dinner…. The extremists of the early days are turning into an embarrassment for Marine le Pen who wants to appeal to the mainstream and wishes them to become less visible as they tend to scare the Joneses.. I mean, Monsieur and Madame Dupond.

To convert these overnight coups de theatre into an continued electoral success, the National Front needed visibility so Jean-Marie le Pen practised and perfected the “Troll” concept before it even became a staple of the internet. He managed to bring in the same tent a disparate bunch of extremists who scared mainstream society and who often did not have much in common other that their hatred for the social-democratic system they wished to bring down. In a typical fascist manner, Jean-Marie le Pen developed a cult of personality (he was the one in charge and the party behind him used to have rather low visibility) and designated scapegoats to explain all the issues that society was facing. His undeniable oratory skills and complete lack of remorse enabled him to line up outrageous media interventions on selected themes that would satisfy the various factions supporting him, without articulating coherent policies that might highlight contradictions or disagreements: so anti-Semitism, immigration, anti-communism, homophobia, etc were all the program had to offer.

A compendium of his most vicious lines would include that “gas chamber were a footnote in History books (a ‘mere detail’)” when their existence was not totally denied through awkward innuendos. Or that “HIV-AIDS patients needed to be isolated and parked like lepers“. Not to mention the constant racist islamophobic bashing against migrants, especially if they were Africans or Arabs.


1983 L’Heure de vérité (‘he Hour of Truth’, one of the major political talk-shows of the 1980s) – le Pen made his first of many appearances on National TV. The awkwardness of the long disclaimer from the anchor explaining that they despised his ideology but felt they had to invite him “in the name of the democratic debate” prefaced the impotence of the system to deal with the National Front.

After the 1986 experiment, the National Assembly returned to a knock-off-in-two-rounds system, which had the mechanical effect of preventing the 10%-15%-scoring National Front candidates to go back to parliament. However, the vote for le Pen at the presidential elections stayed around 15% until that fateful 21 April 2002 when he managed to squeeze between the conservative President Jacques Chirac and his socialist opponent (and then Prime Minister) Lionel Jospin.

A stunned country realised that an implicit fascist was just one step away from repeating Hitler’s coup of 1933 and get into power via a democratic election. The shock was such that most of the Left gave their vote to Chirac in the second round: the opponent they absolutely wanted to defeat just 2 weeks before! Australian readers might think of how dyed-in-the-wool Labor/Greens voters would feel having to cast a ballot for Howard as the only alternative to Pauline Hanson. A campaign to use rubber gloves to symbolise the reluctance even ran on the internet in the days before the final vote. In the end Chirac scored 82,21%, and with the collective relief from a threat that was never going to happened that year (Chirac was always going to win against such a scarecrow) the commentariat almost instantaneously forgot that le Pen did score 17.8% in that 2nd round. In other words this was no accident. There was a clear base of nearly 18% knowingly voting for the Extreme Right, and no one had a clue on how to address this issue.

Indeed, despite decades of observing and over-commenting the symptoms of this disease, mainstream media and politicians seem absolutely unable to provide any effective insight to show voters that the le Pen emperor is naked. So now that this History lesson on the rise of le Pen is out of the way, Part II of this post gets into the details of a few original analysis that challenge the failing mainstream consensus.

{ Sydney, 30 April 2012 }


21 April 2002: the unthinkable. Socialist Prime Minister candidate Lionel Jospin is knocked out of the race (despite a widely acknowledged positive record between 1997 and 2002). He immediately withdrew from politics.


A much younger but already disgusted DSK


The wake-up call was such that Chirac was never going to lose that election. (to the Marxist readers of this blog: yes, this is what motivated the most radical part of the Left to refuse to contribute to his re-election)


The persistent trend that mainstream media feign to forget. Apart from 2007 when Sarkozy “siphoned” le Pen’s votes by running a hard-right campaign, the Far-Right always scored between 15% and 18%… Including in 2002 when le Pen’s deputy, Bruno Megret, decided to run on his own.

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