The Front National in France, which seeks to build a mass fascist movement, has built a sizeable electoral following through racist populism writes Miro Sandev
The fascist party the Front National (FN) is on the rise in France, with its leader Marine Le Pen leading the polls for preferred president on 27 per cent.
Across Europe there is a growth of far right and fascist parties, feeding off terror attacks, austerity and the refugee crisis. Both the AfD, which received double-digit shares of the vote in recent German state elections, and the Sweden Democrats who are the third largest party in their country, have successfully modelled themselves on the FN. But where did the FN come from?
It emerged out of an initiative by the revolutionary nationalist movement Ordre Nouveau, bringing together the disparate forces of the French far-right in the 1970s. Despite cultivating respectability and running in elections the FN wanted an authoritarian nationalist state to replace the democratic Fifth Republic in place since the Second World War.
Led by former army lieutenant Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s platform celebrated economic inequality, featured explicit racism and demanded “national preference”—priority for French nationals over foreigners in jobs, housing and welfare support.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the party radicalised its immigration policy to include restriction of nationality to blood right, review of all naturalisations, caps on immigrant children in schools, forced deportation of immigrants convicted of a crime, a ban on mosques, and repatriation of three million non-European immigrants.
Because of the revulsion most people have towards explicit Nazism, the FN play down their links to the Nazis in an attempt to cultivate respectability. FN’s approach is different to that of Golden Dawn in Greece who openly use Nazi symbols and salutes and have organised squads to murder opponents. But this is a question of tactics only—both aim to build the same kind of party.
One of the goals of fascist parties, as distinct from other right-wing groupings, is to create a powerful street force, capable of organising violent attacks against people of colour, migrants and ultimately against workers and trade unions.
The FN has created internal military units called the Department of Protection and Security, composed of ex-military or gendarmes personnel, which the party says are used to provide security for its leaders. But it is clear that they are primarily used to carry out violent attacks within the poor, largely migrant populated estates—the banlieus.
One group, known as The Ghosts, had over 200 former soldiers and its job was to infiltrate anti-racist groups to spy on them and disorganise them, as well as leading attacks on young migrants in order to fuel unrest and support for the far right. Other violent organisations which the FN has been associated with are the Bloc Identitaire, GUD and Maison du Peuple Flamand.
The FN regularly talks down its links with these groups as it tries to build electoral support.
The 2002 presidential election saw Le Pen beat the Socialist Party in the first round with 16.9 per cent of the vote, before losing comfortably in the second. The campaign in 2007 continued the effort to move into the political mainstream and for the first time the party drew on the French Republican values of “liberty, equality, fraternity”.
It continued down this line until Marine Le Pen took over the reins in 2011. The shift to a new, younger face provided an opportunity to remove the stigma still attached to the party.
Marine tried to distance herself from the FN’s old anti-Semitism and present it as a mainstream party. She cemented her position the following year by winning 17.9 per cent in the presidential elections, improving on her father’s best effort of 16.9 per cent.
Marine’s tenure has seen largely cosmetic changes to the party’s brand, but a maintenance of its core policies on immigration, national identity and Islam.
Some candidates for the 2014 municipal elections were expelled for explicitly racist remarks and the party’s links to jackbooted paramilitary groups have been pruned, but not eliminated. Former leader and Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen was expelled from the party following a notorious public spat with Marine over his racist comments.
Some policies have been dropped while others have been sharpened such as: extending the list of public sector jobs open only to French nationals, deporting foreigners convicted of crimes even before serving their sentence; and exiting the Eurozone as an immediate imperative.
On other social issues such as gay marriage and abortion rights, the party’s regressive views have not changed substantially.
In the March 2014 municipal elections, the party distanced itself from the more radical elements of its agenda and instead highlighted its organisational competence and fitness for office. Marine Le Pen’s strategy was vindicated by the party winning 11 municipalities. In the European elections two months later the party picked up first place with nearly 25 per cent of the vote and 24 seats in the European Parliament.
Coinciding with the FN’s Republican turn has been an orientation away from the explicit racism and anti-Semitism of Le Pen senior, in favour of Marine’s anti-Muslim racism deployed through the denigration of Muslim culture and religion.
Whilst vulgar racism occasional seeps in, the FN has skilfully deployed the Republican catchcry of “laicite” as a more palatable dog-whistle.
This secularist notion has been traditionally associated with the separation of church and state, and initially targeted powerful Catholic bishops. But in the FN’s hands it has become a rallying call for a range of policies that treat Muslims as a suspect community.
This has been used to repackage racially discriminatory policies as a defence of liberal values and personal rights. By doing so the FN has been able to court liberal voters who would normally vote for the Republican party.
The major parties’ embrace of Islamophobia, and the acquiescence or even outright support of many writers and intellectuals, has helped normalise the FN’s policies.
Right-wing President Nicholas Sarkozy emerged as a mainstream figure willing to initiate, rather than only mimic, racist attacks on ethnic minorities. The Socialist Party, which took power in 2012, vowed to uphold Republican values by, for example, banning any women’s only aqua-gym classes in pools.
Socialist Party Prime Minister Manuel Valls publically supported the sacking of a nursery worker for wearing a hijab and personally intervened to condemn the serving of halal meat in a prison.
The left and even far left groups like the Communist Party and the Left Front have been disoriented by their commitment to this version of secularism and have willingly entered into the Islamophobic front.
The campaign to ban the wearing of the burqa and niqab in public was a led by a pair of MPs from the Communist Party and the main right-wing party the UMP. Left Front presidential candidate Melanchon said that women who wore the niqab were engaged in a spectacle of “self-humiliation” that amounted to a “breach of public order”.
Even the New Anti-capitalist Party has failed to challenge Islamophobia in a concerted way. This emerged most prominently when Ilham Moussaid was chosen as the candidate for the party in the 2010 regional elections and her hijab immediately became a contentious issue.
Despite some support from the party, leading members refused membership to other women who wore the hijab, based on pseudo-feminist arguments. They also actively campaigned for the exclusion of Muslim students from school unless they uncovered their hair. The following year, Moussaid and a dozen activists resigned from the NPA because of the discrimination.
For a party that feeds off social discontent like the FN, the Hollande presidency has proved fertile ground. Unemployment stands at over 10 per cent. It’s 24 per cent among those aged 18-24 and 46 per cent for young people without higher qualifications. Attempts to reduce the budget deficit through tax increases have hit middle and lower income households.
The FN has responded with populist rhetoric about the need for “economic patriotism”. It bolstered its opposition to the EU as a threat to the French nation by calling for import quotas and tariffs, and a policy forcing public bodies to source their food products from France.
The other major change introduced by Marine Le Pen has been a turn to support social welfare, although mainly as a way of demanding priority for French natives. In some regions the party has embraced the notion of the “big state”, pledging itself to economic interventionism, the expansion of public services and high spending on welfare.
The stance has appealed to a portion of workers suffering from austerity, with Marine Le Pen’s highest share of the presidential vote in 2012 coming from the lowest income earners (24 per cent).
The party has managed to take advantage of these concerns particularly in deindustrialised regions, combining economic populism with anti-immigration extremism.
Although it’s important to not overstate these developments, as the party is populist and tailors its political line depending on the demographics of the area in question. So in the South-East, where the party’s base is predominantly middle class, there is an emphasis on low-tax policies and smaller government.
The disorientation of the left has paved the way for the FN to present itself as the only credible alternative to the austerity of the major parties.
In order to beat back the FN, the left will need to throw itself into direct struggle against austerity as well as the state of emergency and confront the poisonous islamophobia of the French state.
The recent massive strikes and occupations of squares by workers and students against Hollande’s pro-business reforms are showing the way forward.