The ‘rise’ of the far right. It’s been presented in the media as a sudden shift of epic proportions, a phenomenon affecting every country in the Western world. Only look at Trump, Brexit, UKIP, Wilders, Marine Le Pen, we’re told. They’ve each stunned the centre liberal political establishment – that much is certain.
As the first round of voting approaches, it’s France’s controversy-ridden presidential election which has been billed as the most shocking, the most outrageous yet. France, after all, is the crown jewel of the enlightenment. It’s the land of philosophers and revolutions, the cornerstone of western European leftism, hardly the sort of fertile ground where the far right is meant to rocket into existence – and yet the far right leader of Front National (FN), Le Pen, has been placed either first or second throughout the race. While a recent surge by communist-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon (now registering around 20% in polling) has stunned and shocked the media, hurling the election further into uncharted territory, the position of the far right, we’re told, remains uniquely strong. But contrary to popular narratives, the march of the French right hasn’t been sudden. This process has been slow and steady, if it’s occurred at all. Understanding this is key.
The Le Pen phenomenon began decades ago during the 1960 ‘week of the barricades.’ For all the Le Mis imagery this title may conjure, it was in reality one massive display of white resistance to decolonisation. In the face of president Charles de Gaulle’s apparent surrender to anticolonial struggle in Algeria, the colonist community revolted. Barricading their neighbourhoods, they made high contacts in the military and began calls for a coup. Their key ally back in France? Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, a former intelligence officer accused of torture, who called for the barricades to be exported to the streets of Paris. Ultimately, this reactionary rebellion would collapse. In the meantime, however, Jean-Marie had shot to fame.
Over the next two decades his rise was slow, if his profile remained high. Factional disputes dominated the extreme right and Jean-Marie lost his parliamentary seat just two years later. It was against this backdrop that FN was founded in 1972, a coalition between otherwise disparate far right formations. At its head, Le Pen. For the moment, however, the broad right remained loyal to the Gaullists. Their capacity to provide the sort of antisocialist, anticommunist, nationalist France that conservatives longed for ensured this. Stability prevailed.
Then came 1981. In what was widely seen as a stunning result, perennial Socialist party candidate Francois Mitterand triumphed in that year’s presidential elections, soon adding a left legislative majority to boot. Even before 1981, antisocialism had been rife, spurred by a 1970s-born Communist/Socialist coalition. Following the victories of 1981, it went through the roof. FN was quick to exploit this fear. Especially in these early days, they were encouraged by the ‘mainstream’ right who saw them as something of a rearguard. Coalitions between the centre and far right proliferated – and sky-high growth was the result.
Electoral success soon followed. Starting in 1983, the party crystallized as a force at the ballot box. Le Pen was elected to Paris’ local council and by 1986 they had reached 35 MPs. Just two years later, Le Pen captured 14.4% of the presidential vote. Front National had become an unignorable part of the country’s politics.
From here the story is full of twists and turns, curves and controversies. But ultimately, despite them all, little changed in FN’s fortunes. The party would maintain the roughly constant support of the exact same segment of French voters year in and year out: 15% in 1995, 18% in 2002, a blip at 11% in 2007 (when many of their supporters flirted with hard right ‘mainstream’ candidate Sarkozy), and 18% again in 2012, now under Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine.
It is here, the ascension of Marine Le Pen to the party’s leadership, that the narrative tends to begin. Le Pen II quickly initiated a ‘de-demonisation’ of the party (a dubious trend virtually unchallenged by the media), driving out some of the more overt racists and even expelling her own father. We are told that this slightly sanitised edition of FN significantly widened its appeal. Two key pieces of ‘evidence’ prop up this myth: the European elections in 2014, and the regional elections in 2015. In each, FN far outperformed previous results. Yet, these were low turnout elections. FN received far fewer actual votes than they had in the presidential race of 2012. They certainly had more success than their opponents in mobilising supporters. Yet, facing an imploded Socialist party and a deeply divided mainstream right, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The media, however, went into meltdown. Headlines across the world screamed warnings, telling of catastrophes to come, proclaiming FN the new, authentic voice of a disenfranchised working class.
It was against this perfect backdrop that we’ve seen Le Pen’s climb to apparently new heights this year. But how high are they really? And how new? Le Pen has been polling at an unshakably consistent 24%, a 6% growth from where the party was 15 years ago. A bump, certainly, but amidst a perfect storm, over a decade and a half, that 6% bump begins to lose its luster.
And yet, that’s not the only complication in this story we’re being spun. Around 40% of French voters remain undecided. Le Pen, it’s true, has the most solid support base in the country. Yet there’s a flip side to this. Le Pen is an undeniably controversial figure from a yet more controversial party. Just as her support base is solid, so too is her opposition. It seems entirely conceivable that when push comes to shove and the vast mass of undecideds finally pull the lever, her share of the vote will fall. In fact, this is exactly what happened in 2012. She was predicted at times to win the first round. Instead, she failed to even qualify for the run off. The possibility of FN receiving 22%, 20%, even 18% remains entirely real, even likely. And on top of this, there is no doubt whatsoever that she will be smashed in the second round, regardless of her opponent.
Why is all of this important? Surely the fact that a solid chunk of French voters are more or less neo-fascists is nothing to celebrate? That is certainly true. The persistent presence of a semi-viable far right in election after election is a terrifying phenomenon in its own right. Yet we must reject the narrative we’ve been given. If we allow the working class to be painted as far right, as xenophobic, as spoken for by demagogues like Le Pen, there’s a very real risk this will start to be internalised. Scorn and distrust may do what the far right has always failed at: building a real popular base. The working class remains the most radical, progressive section of our society. We saw this during the uprisings against the new labour law in France last year. We see it in our own political struggle on a constant basis. And we see it in election results as well. The majority of those earning below average wages rejected the Tories in 2015 and Trump in 2016. We must not only acknowledge this but celebrate it.
There is a second risk as well. The neoliberal centre, the Blairites and Clintons, Lib Dems and Macrons of the world, are making a forceful case that only the centre can beat back the right. ‘Unite behind us,’ they say. ‘We must create a broad tent or else we risk sliding irreversibly into nationalism, racism, even fascism.’ This is not true. We must not panic. We must keep our nerve. Retreating again into the confines of the Third Way will do nothing but isolate and defeat any hope for change. The combined left, though divided, continues far outpolling the right in France. Simultaneously, a new age of street mobilisation continues. The myth of the rise of the right is an attempt to discipline us, to scare us into backing the old, stale, professional centre ground. We must not be tricked. We must continue to make our arguments loudly, forcefully, and independently. We must continue to mobilise. Capitalism remains our primary enemy, and when it falls, fascism too will take a hitting.