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The Frightening Normalisation Of Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen at a rally of the foregone-FN

As recent polls present Marine Le Pen as a front-runner for the next presidential election and attest that victory would have been hers had last year’s election taken place today, staff writer Thomas Ullmo looks into the causes behind her frightening normalisation.

Despite its ignominious ideals, the far-right’s recent history is one of growth and of “mainstreamisation”, in France and all over Europe. Founded in 1972 by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, the National Front (FN), ancestor of the now called National Rally (RN) has efficaciously embedded itself within the country’s political landscape. But what is most striking is its steady electoral improvement. From a humiliating debacle in 2022 in its first second-round appearance where it garnered 17.79% of the vote, to last spring’s face-off where Le Pen seduced nearly 42% of voters the party has come a long way. Indeed, in 2022, the far-right was just a mere 9 points away from acceding the presidential function. A gap it could bridge come 2027 given the intense social fever seizing France. And with 2 consecutive second-round appearances under her belt – in 2017 & 2022 – Marine Le Pen is determined to turn the tables.

Cutting the Umbilical Cordon Once and for All: Le Pen’s Exploits

Whilst Marine Le Pen’s political debuts once remained tainted by the shadow of her father pushing her in his wake, she has, since 2011, transfigured the party to suit her chances. Indeed, Jean-Marie Le Pen repeatedly made despicable and heinous utterances, including denying the extent of the holocaust, which has meant that the family has historically been subject to reprimands over racism, antisemitism, and revisionism – to name a few. This greatly contributed to its past detestation but Marine Le Pen has made it her life’s mission to limit this marginalisation and enter the mainstream.

So has the far-right really changed? Well, though it remains ultra-nationalist, the RN has detached itself from the foregone-FN presided by Jean-Marie Le Pen. But how, and more importantly why? 

First, Marine Le Pen is not her father. She is much less controversial (though she has had her share of blunders). This may or not be her true self. She really might be the moderate, socially implicated, and conscious patriot she portrays. Or, this may be a façade, a strategic illusion to give herself a semblance of humanity, empathy, and consideration for popular demands. Unfortunately, for her supporters the latter is likely. Don’t get me wrong, Marine Le Pen is less radical than her father. This is true and hardly contestable given his controversial public record. But what is even truer is that she has finally conceded that ideological extremism will never satiate her power-hungry appetites. Unlike her father, she refuses to be confined to the realm of mere incantation and polemics. She truly wants to be president and is steadily convincing people that this would be a good thing, albeit in a deceptive manner.

Second, she has made radical ‘clear-cut’ decisions to sanitise her public image. Committing political patricide in 2015 by expelling her father from the party (of which he was honorary president), changing the party’s name in 2018, using the ‘Le Pen’ label less and less… Marine Le Pen has acknowledged that her identity handicaps her political ventures. Whilst such strategies will obviously not make voters doubt her heritage, it illustrates her willingness to chart her own route and avoid familial assimilations. Anxious to uplift her acceptability, Le Pen has also modified the party’s structure and hierarchy by initiating a generational renewal and personnel overhaul. Out with the old dinosaurs, in with the young lions. This has greatly favoured the RN’s fresh presentability. This “change” has been advertised and ratified in a tweet celebrating the party’s 50th anniversary where she wrote: “From a party of protest, we have made a party fit to govern”.

Finally, to deradicalise her discourse, Marine Le Pen has opted for quite a few ideological volte-faces

No more Frexit

The biggest change concerns Europe. A once-fervent and convinced Eurosceptic, Le Pen has since altered her stance. She no longer advocates for ‘Frexit’ or the abandonment of the common currency which she supported in the name of national sovereignty. Two cornerstones of her 2017 program which have weirdly vanished in her 2022 manifesto. Probably discouraged by the British experience she has also had a sudden yet tardy epiphany by acknowledging ‘Frexit’ scares and divides more than it assembles. As such, the prospect of leaving the EU would be folly and highly unlikely to gather popular support

Moreover, the EU has changed since 2017. It is no longer the politically inactive and dislocated organism it once has. It is becoming more of a community and has taken effective and responsive steps to be increasingly en phase with the great challenges of our time – namely ecological transition, containment and response to Russian authoritarianism and building greater autonomy for the continent. The EU can no longer be the easy and convenient scapegoat she so redundantly flagged to avoid questioning herself and her ideas. The global geopolitical scene is also not akin to 2017. Things have changed, and recent developments seem to have also attenuated Euroscepticism amongst her European populist allies who now all see some form of utility and benefits (took them a while) in EU-membership. 

Purchasing Power and conquest of working-class electorates

One of Le Pen’s best political exploits has been her emphasis on falling purchasing power. This has been a great worry for France and she has certainly been on top of it over the last year. Whilst other parties have chosen to address a plethora of themes and were either too busy quarrelling internally (Nupes) or subordinating themselves to others (LR), Le Pen’s all-out strategy on purchasing power proved fruitful. It legitimated her persona. 

Le Pen has been rewarded for her accurate understanding of popular revendications as 58% of citizens consider her close to their concerns. This represents a staggering 19-point upsurge from 2017 (39%), which evidences that she has pulled on the right lever to coax voters. Never mind that many economists disapprove of her economic policy, tactically affirming and publicising her “social fibre” has allowed Le Pen to diversify and widen her electorate. This map evidences the geographical heterogeneity of RN voters compared to 2017. And, as yet another testament of its ‘mainstreamisation’, the evolution of the RN’s vote-penetration has been astonishing.

Democratic attachment and Presidential Stature- how she won the pension battle without even breaking a sweat

The survey above also studied how voters perceive Le Pen regarding variables such as democratic values, presidential stature, and reforming capabilities. Spoiler alert, she fares better than well within public opinion here too. 

Associating Marine Le Pen with attachment to democratic values sounds counterintuitive. Yet 57% of people accredit her this devotion. An 11-point rise from 2020 (46%), and 15-point since 2015 (42%). But why? Has she really converted into a true and ardent democrat? Well, that is how she presents herself at least. Her democratic credentials have been reinforced during the hard-fought battle against the government’s pension reform plan. Yet she who was depicted as the ‘true winner’ of the crisis has not done so by occupying public debate or disturbing the government in parliament. She has, in effect, remained awfully quiet and discrete, contending herself with a couple declarations and amendments par ci par là. This is also the strategy she chose during the recent chaotic context of urban violence and riots following the exacerbation of police violence. She rarefied public speaking, letting the Home Secretary instrumentalise the unrest for her.

Taking some distance from the climate of turmoil and insurrections in the streets has allowed her to appear more composed, patient, and strategic- in short more ‘presidential’. This is reflected in opinion samples: 47% of respondents accredit her a presidential stature. In 2017, this number was only 27%. Moreover, 51% of citizens believe that she has the capability to reform the system. This is odd considering she isn’t doing very much to deviate the government’s political course.

EXTERNAL FACTORS

The Left’s failings

Le Pen justified her silence by lamenting the behaviours of La France Insoumise (LFI) (“France Unbowed”), a radical-left party famed for its agitating methods. She argues, perhaps rightfully, that incessant vociferations, obstructions, and noisiness in parliament have no place in a respectable and well-functioning democracy. But French democracy is neither respectable nor well-functioning these days and it is hard to see how she intends to restore democratic virtues by slumping in her seat, merely spectating the engagement of others. Nevertheless, the polls prove her right: the left has missed this golden opportunity to win over working-class electorates from the right. The left is aching for a reassuring, consensual and true leader capable of governing the country. Precisely what Jean-Luc Melenchon fails to incarnate as his party’s (LFI) ‘chaotic’ mannerisms allowed Le Pen and her 88 representatives in the National Assembly to be seen as the“adults in the room“, while the “Unbowed” gave infallible credit to their depiction as childish and irresponsible disrupters reifying tensions. All their combat amounted to was comforting Le Pen in her power-reaching capabilities.

Zemmour’s emergence

Another factor to Le Pen’s normalisation has been the advent of Eric Zemmour, an ex-journalist and polemicist who ran for presidency in 2022. Accustomed to judicial condemnations for racism and incitement to hatred  the political engagement of this unprecedently radical figure has created an ideal distraction for Le Pen who can now, paradoxically, denounce the extreme nationalism of another. Indeed, voters, media outlets and politicians felt compelled to abhor Zemmour whilst seemingly forgetting about the RN’s own xenophobia and racism. His emergence has also facilitated, to Le Pen’s delight, the political migration of her most cleaving collaborators who joined the ‘Reconquest’ movement. His electorate is also diametrically more concentrated on upper-class citizens, allowing her to stress her anti-elite, “people’s representative” posture even further. Contrary to her, this fervent adherent to the “great replacement theory” has yet to understand that radicality and deliberately instilling fear amount to an electoral disservice. All in all, this recentred Le Pen on the spectrum.

Macronists: the far-right’s Frankensteins!

Macron and his ministers also bear great, if not huge, responsibility for the far-right’s pre-eminence. Indeed, the government has embarked on a very disconcerting slippery slope by obsessively and meticulously discrediting the left whilst having ambiguous words for the RN.

French Home secretary and eminent rightist minister, Gerald Darmanin, talked about “the intellectual terrorism” of the Nupes (left parliamentary alliance), repeatedly professed accusation of “eco-terrorism” against environmental groups and has accentuated his already-conservative, caricatural anti-woke and excessively order-obsessed discourse. As recently as last week, he managed to make headlines for failing to condemn the umpteenth manifestation of detestable police violence which left a young man nearly half-skulled due to an LBD (Blast ball) shot in the head. Moreover, other government members have also referred to the left as “factious groups that seek to bring down the Republic”, perpetuating a hatred of the State and the police. A provocative rhetoric that perfectly inscribes itself in the security-driven discourse of the far-right. The problem is that these fanatical attacks have as their sole purpose the demonisation of the left and for sole effect, an electoral windfall for Le Pen.

What is curious is that Macron’s camp don’t stand to gain much from this. Indeed, by standing on its political promised land, namely security and immigration, Renaissance (Macron’s party) is detoxifying the RN. This strengthens its admissibility and political weight, thus making it exceptionally menacing for 2027.

Yet ministers still favour condemning the left’s supposed instigation of violence, whilst having few words to abhor extreme-right violence guilty of having set a mayor’s car and house aflame for promoting the installation of a refugee reception centre in his city. His continuous persecution by far-right groups compelled him to resign as he felt ‘abandoned by the State’ who took no actions to protect his integrity. The government did not even denounce these horrific actions until after the mayor announced his resignation- two months after the events!

Moreover, while the government was under fire for dealing with left wing protests through heavy handed tactics, it allowed neo-nazis to march in total impunity through the streets of Paris in the name of free expression. This double-standard approach is questioning and quite embarrassing for a president that prided himself on eradicating the far-right when he has, in fine, become its unwitting creator.

The government’s disturbing focalisation on the left, full of misleading historical assimilations, made it insinuate that the RN is the “more republican” opposition party. But presenting leftist forces as the main culprits of tumult is a disloyal detorsion of the reality. It solely serves to occult opposition to a president, whose violent politics and blatant disregard of popular sentiments have desacralised his office, rendering him publicly inaudible and subject to constant ad hominem attacks. And this is regardless of France’s relatively good economic performance regularly held by the government as a protective shield. We are talking about emotions and perceptions here. Thus, exhorting greater productivity or vaunting a competitive and attractive economy with a slowly withering unemployment rate will not solve people’s sorrows and disillusionment. It is, in fact, this exact technocratic tone and insensitive and cynic argumentation that have irreversibly distanced them from the population.

Regicidal longings

Macron’s vertical exercise of power also contributes to Le Pen’s normalisation. The government’s continuous refusal to resort to consultative processes bolster the illusion of her democratic credibility. Moreover, deep anti-Macron sentiments are so latent that voters are likely to refuse casting a ballot for the sake of the republic’s stability. Indeed, the ‘republican front’ (alliances of moderate political forces against the far-right) is fading and eroding to the point where, come 2027, it may become a vestige of the past. More alarmingly, as a product of governmental schemes, it is mutating into an “anti-Nupes” republican front”. There are no doubts, the president’s severely polarising persona is crystallising resentment and that is to the far-right’s exclusive benefit as people increasingly contemplate it as the most viable political offer on the market, capable of restoring order and satisfying popular reclamations.

Thankfully, 2027 is a long time away. Macron, though weak and decadent, has time to repent and adjust his strategies. Indeed, whilst he carries great personal guilt for the far-right’s rise, Macron’s presidential crown means he retains room for action to avoid inflicting durable damage to French society. After all, he better put at the least the slightest efforts in as the stakes are high, for the citizenry but most crucially for himself. Indeed, if Le Pen succeeds him, Macron will be the first president to pass the torch to racists, xenophobes, and denialists. A legacy that will inflict drastic and permanent damage to his image and legacy which he loves and values so much. Instrumentally reinforcing the far-right will no doubt come back to bite him where it hurts.

Let’s not get distracted from the RN’s true intents

Now that we have identified the factors and dynamics underpinning Marine Le Pen’s distressing normalisation, let us now debunk arguments some advance to justify it.

Though the RN has professionalised and “mainstreamed” its discourse, hoping to fool voters into adhering to her de-demonisation, let’s not get distracted from the reality. Le Pen’s profound change in ‘imagery’ doesn’t entail she has entirely foregone her historic convictions which remain, regardless of how she presents them, at the far-right of the spectrum

On ‘Frexit’ for example. While the idea has been abandoned discursively, it is more out of pragmatism and electoral utilitarianism than ideological belief. Her Euroscepticism is now disguised, hidden under the rug rather than out in the open. She still advocates a renegotiation of European treaties and agreements which she, for the most part, opposes. The surprising character of her change of position also rests in the intrinsic inadequacy between aspects of her program and the EU principles and values they contravene. A profound change in EU norms is a prerequisite for the RN to implement its ultra-nationalist policies especially regarding immigration and national primacy. Not to mention that her international positions are also inimical with Brussels

But so why has Marine Le Pen adhered to the prospect of remaining if it seems the EU represents all she hates, namely freedom, democracy, human rights, ecological responsibility…? Well, in effect, her plan is to engage a structural change of the institution from within. She, like other European far-right parties, have the ambition of imposing profound changes to EU policymaking. Popular in nearly all Member States, and some even in power domestically, the conservative/far-right also form strong, though dispersed, parliamentary groups in Strasbourg (in the ECR and ID parties). Successive failing governments, economic and refugee crises, incompetent politicians and neglect of European elections have opened the EU’s doors to them and made the pre-existing cordon sanitaire implode. Their presence in parliament and at the head of national governments galvanised their ambition of imposing their cold, restrictive and discriminating conception of European civilisation and identity. Indeed, if the “Identity Right” penetrate the EU even further, the Union’s already controversial border policies will harden. We let them assail Europe. We could soon regret it because her “Frexit in all but name” would indubitably impede further EU integration and developments and gradually lead to its paralysation and subsequent obsolescence. 

Moreover, though she rejects accusations of racism, her party is still home to individuals who publicly manifest their hatred of ethnic minorities, and its program remains filled with xenophobic and discriminatory policies that thwart French constitutional values. Here is a small excerpt: inscribe ‘national preference’ in the constitution (whilst denying this to abortion), restrict pensions to natives, expulse families from their housing, banish European flags from public establishments, abandon NATO membership, forbid sentencing amendments, guarantee perpetual conviction… It is also her ambition to restrict citizenship by suppressing the existing birth right pathway to citizenship and making individuals attain naturalisation based ‘on merit and assimilation’. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Who knows the further repulsive laws she is planning to implement in private? 

Furthermore, the ‘ultra-presidential’ and monarchical nature of the French constitution, giving far-reaching powers to the executive will become even more abusive in Marine Le Pen’s hands. Indeed, the mere article 49.3 will allow her to bypass parliament for the adoption of her Islamophobic laws. She could even abrogate freedom of the press or amend free speech legislation to decrease hate speech intolerance. Let us not neglect and minimise the potential powers the constitution would give her! These fearful excesses interrogate yet again on the viability, legitimacy, and rightfulness of the Fifth Republic’s constitution. Revising it will be a necessity for it to be better tailored to citizen democratic revendications and expectations. But that’s a question for another time.

Conclusion: Le Pen’s partial but insufficient redemption

Has Marine Le Pen proven to be an at least “better than average” politician? Yes. Has she successfully elevated her movement from a fringe, marginalised and majorly repudiated party under her father, to a credibly threatening, popular and increasingly normalised one? Assuredly. Has she efficaciously and ingenuously capitalised on her adversaries’ mistakes? Undeniably. Have her de-demonisation strategies proved copiously beneficial in polls? Indeed. Can she now plausibly envisage striding the Elysée’s corridors as its lawful occupant? Regrettably. However, is her de-demonisation sincere? Can she be trusted in upholding the common good and restoring social concord? Would the imperial/supreme presidential powers be in competent, safe and reassuring hands should she win? Will she really fill the democratic void felt by citizens and left behind by Macronists. This is not as certain.

The turbulent climate currently present in France will not appease itself should she be elected. It will only aggravate. Hostility, defiance, resentment and violence will not be merely episodic, they will install themselves permanently. Her election would condemn an already ill and tormented French society to fracture. It will bury the last dying hopes of attaining societal harmony and reconstructing social ties. 

The one thing that is sure is that, for all the aforementioned reasons, the RN is not a regular party with a trivial ideology. No one should nor can doubt this, and some would do well to remember that. Parties have 4 years to find suitable candidates for the presidency. All will have – or at least should have – one mission: impede the RN’s accession to power. Though despair is tempting, nothing is set in stone. Next summer’s European elections are crucial, they will serve as a good benchmark to assess the situation and momentum leading up to 2027.

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