The de-demonisation of the Front National

A recent poll suggests that one-third of French people agree with the ideas of the Front National. What lies behind this apparent normalization of France’s once outcast far-right?

The most recent poll on the popularity of France’s Front National (FN), a regular barometer conducted since 1984, shows that one third of respondents agree with the ideas of the Front National. For the first time in thirty years, those who see the Front National as “a danger for democracy” are no longer a majority (47% who do, versus 47% who don’t). This is 8 points more than just 1 year ago and at a level not seen since the transformative year of 1984. Do these figures indicate that Marine Le Pen has succeeded in her strategy to “de-demonise” the French far-right? It would be premature to say so.

Since her election at the head of the party in 2011, Marine Le Pen has certainly managed to soften the image of the movement. She is getting rid of its neo-Nazi fringes. She firmly condemns anti-Semitism, considering the existence of the gas chambers a non-negotiable fact of history and describing the Holocaust as “the summit of human barbarism”. Taking the same turn as the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the People’s party in Switzerland and in Denmark, the Progress party in Norway, she claims that far from being “racist”, her party is the defender of secularity and of democracy, against an Islam presented as a religion of intolerance, oppressing women, homosexuals, and Jews.

This kind of message is more acceptable in the old established Western democracies. The same poll shows that, for the first time, those who see Marine Le Pen as representative of “a nationalist and xenophobic far-right” are outnumbered by those who associate her with “a patriotic right attached to traditional values” (respectively 43 and 44% in 2013, compared to 46 and 37% in 2011).

Yet, the core message of the party has not changed. It advocates “national preference”, re-baptised “national priority”, which consists of giving jobs, housing and social benefits to “the French first”. Yet, far from being “normal”, such policies are anti-Constitutional, contrary to the principle of equality before the law, without distinction of race, origin, or religion and, as such, this idea is still massively rejected by the French public. To the 2013 Barometer question asking if one should treat differently a legal immigrant and a French citizen looking for a job, 24% of respondents agree with giving priority to the French citizen, 73% think it should not make any difference. This is a first obstacle on the way of the FN to “normalization”.

The second is the lack of political credibility Marine Le Pen and her movement still suffer from. Only 35% of the sample considers that the Front national has the qualifications necessary to join a government, the majority sees it as a protest party, good for “gathering opposition votes”. Only 35% think that Marine Le Pen brings “new ideas to solve the problems of France”, while 81% don’t agree with “the solutions she proposes”.  When it comes to voting, in spite of the very good score of Marine Le Pen in the first round of the 2012 presidential election, drawing nearly 18% of the valid votes, 67% of the French electorate do not consider ever voting for her party, which shows it is still not quite perceived as a party “like the others”.

Lastly, the apparent improvement of the FN’s image is not the result of a global trend in French society, it mainly reflects the evolution of the right. The Barometer shows the growing proximity of the supporters of the main conservative party, the UMP, with the positions of the FN, on issues such as immigration, Islam, and law and order, while the opinions of left-wing sympathizers remained stable. This evolution started in 2007, when Nicolas Sarkozy, in order to win back Le Pen voters in the presidential election, put the issue of “national identity” and the supposed threat of multiculturalism and Islam at the heart of his campaign.

Sarkozy won the election, but in the long run his strategy legitimized the intolerant ideas of the FN and radicalized his own camp, blurring the border between the mainstream right and far-right. Today 54% of the UMP sympathizers do not see the FN as a danger for democracy. Many see it first as a “patriotic right defending traditional values”, a majority would consider forging an electoral alliance with the FN.  As this case of the French FN shows, “normalization” of far-right parties not only depends on their political resources and leadership, but also on the way mainstream parties and above all, those on the right, react to them.

Policy Network, 26 March 2013