Shortly after the first results of a first-round vote in France had started to come in, indicating a huge loss for the Socialists and a first place for Sarkozy’s right-wing alliance, Prime Minister Manuel Valls rushed to make a statement. “The Front National is not the first political force in France”, he said relieved, highlighting the party falling short of its goal to attract the majority of the French voters. A major defeat of the French extreme right? Not really.
After having attracted every fourth voter on the first round, Front National (FN) failed to win even a single French departement during the second ballot a week later. However, Marine Le Pen knows exactly, as we all do, the obstacles placed by her ideological rivals. It is the nation’s political institutions that played a crucial role in the party’s latest results. France’s electoral system, combined with the joint efforts of both right and left alliances, are really what has generated this somewhat unexpected outcome.
The truth, on the other hand,is rather uncomfortable for the traditional political spectrum in France. Marine Le Pen’s party alone attracted 25 percent of the vote, while its rivals’ electoral shares account for larger coalitions of parties. Thus, while the wider French right alliance hit the first place in the second round of the elections, Sarkozy’s UMP fell behind the FN – the latter attracted the majority of the country’s electorate purely on the basis of votes counted. This is not even to mention the presence of the party in 62 French assemblies, a significant gain compared to its two in 2011.
Even if none of Le Pen’s candidates has been finally able to win a seat out of 98 of the country’s assemblies, the party’s advancement into the second round has been marked as historic, not only because it reached its highest electoral point since its creation.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to unify the numerous right-extremist forces and merge their ideological differences under the newly formed FN, he did more than reshaping the conservative populist wing of French nationalism. The parachutist of the 1950s has been inevitably shaping the future of France’s political terrain in the 21st century.
His successor in the leadership of the party, Le Pen’s daughter Marine, was aware of this as she took over the presidency in 2011. However, the new leader immediately acknowledged the need for changes. Thus, the FN saw itself undergoing significant image improvement in order to advance further and regain its political prominence after a short decline in the late 2000s. The elimination of racist elements of the party’s rhetoric has been put at the epicentre of this reorientation strategy. However, quite often Le Pen has had to face the voices of her very familiar past, the ones she struggled to muzzle. Very recently she again had to contradict her father’s ideas as the latter repeated his assertion that “gas chambers were a detail of World War II”, a statement that has earned him convictions over the last 28 years.
Despite the profoundly xenophobic and racist character comprising the FN’s core ideology, this anti-immigration Eurosceptic party still appeals to a large part of the French populace. Those being directly affected by economic turbulence are especially likely to perceive the European integration process as a threat and are keen to support Le Pen’s Eurosceptic positions. This is not merely because a supposed mismanagement of the current financial crisis by the EU seems to be a major factor. A retreat to national identities in France is being reinforced as Germany’s dominant role in the Eurozone appears to neglect the aspirations of its neighbours in the west, and the renowned Franco-German friendship strains under the massive weight of fiscal consolidation rules.
Under these conditions, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the FN won last year’s European Elections. Since June 2014, the party has held the majority of French seats in the European Parliament. As a result, Marine Le Pen has now a unique opportunity to exercise political influence, making use of its key role in and against Brussels.
France’s extreme-right leader can look back to the successful path of the FN towards establishing itself as a decisive factor in French politics. And while social discontent within the Eurozone’s second largest economy will continue to grow, this newest face of populism will keep benefiting – translating its rewards into election victories on the national and European level. As a consequence, the head of France’s extreme right can hold high ambitions. She knows that rising unemployment and insecure jobs, the country’s downgraded role in global and European politics, as well as increasing xenophobia and public disillusionment will continue to create a fertile ground for extremist political views. The political transformation her father had wished for, has begun to take concrete forms and its face is coloured with tricolore stripes: it is a manifestation of re-emergent nationalism as a force against the conservative pro-European views currently imposing themselves in Brussels. One could barely imagine a more disastrous ideological frame for the advocates of the European ideal.
Unless the Eurozone’s elites start to reconsider their line of approach, these problems will only remain and grow. Whether the next shock for the EU is to come from Albion, l’Hexagone or the Mediterranean coast is yet to be seen.