Le Pen 2.0: Analysing the Front National

The French political landscape has been a turbulent place in recent months. From President Sarkozy’s dismal ratings in the polls to the controversy surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn, next year’s presidential elections are already shaping up to be an enthralling contest. And in the midst of it all, the Front National seems to be gaining momentum in its bid to upset the mainstream parties.


Since Marine Le Pen stepped into her father’s role as head of the party in January, she has set about completely revamping the image of the Front National. Aware that the party has been held back by its reputation for extreme views on a range of issues – her father famously described the gas chambers at Auschwitz as a ‘detail of history’ – Marine Le Pen is trying to rebrand and relaunch the Front National. And she is succeeding.


In April, the news that Ms Le Pen had decided to expel Alexendre Gabriac from the party made headlines in French media. The move followed pictures of the 20 year-old – who represented the party on the Rhone-Alps regional council – giving the Nazi salute. As the story broke, much attention was given to the fact that Le Pen had overruled the recommendation of a party disciplinary committee - on which her father sits - that the young man should be let off with a reprimand.


And the Gabriac affair is only one example of the many ways in which Marine Le Pen is making her mark. Media-savvy and politically shrewd, Le Pen chooses her battles carefully and seeks maximum media impact. Making the most of the difficult economic climate at home and abroad, she has spoken out loudly against the evils of globalisation. A withdrawal from the euro and a return to protectionism are high on her political agenda.


Immigration and religion are also key issues for Le Pen and in this respect her strategy is, in many ways, a continuation of her father’s. Similar to Le Pen senior, she focuses on areas that speak to the fears and worries of the electorate, presenting seductive arguments that seem to present a simple solution.


In pressing for stricter controls on immigration, for example, she says that it is simply a question of economics: with unemployment riding high, French jobs should be given to French people. She argues that France cannot afford to keep letting immigrants in. This argument fits into the FN’s long-standing policy of national preference, a key theme since the 1980s.


Her stance against Islam – she has compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of France – is presented as a defence of the republican principle of laïcité (the French form of secularism). Le Pen claims that she simply wants to protect France from the fundamentalists who want to impose sharia law in France. In a recent interview with Radio Netherlands, she said ‘I am not racist, not anti-Semitic, not xenophobic, but patriotic’.


For the mainstream parties, a reinvigorated FN presents a significant threat. Her approach is softer and more enticing than her father’s, and political opponents find it difficult to engage with her arguments on their own terms. It is partly for this reason that she is sitting somewhere around 20% in the polls. Another major factor contributing to her success is the growing disillusionment with mainstream parties. Lines between left and right have become blurred on issues such as law and order and the economy in recent years. Disenchanted voters have turned to the FN in the past and this appears to be occurring again.


Recent scandals such as the Bettencourt affair and controversy surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn have done little to help the situation. Indeed, Marine Le Pen was quick to exploit the DSK scandal: while other politicians remained silent, Le Pen loudly denounced a corrupt and depraved political elite in France (while implicitly positioning herself as the opposite).


At present, there is a strong possibility that Marine Le Pen will break through to the second round of next year’s presidential elections. That said, it is extremely unlikely that she will be elected president. France is not ready to elect a president from the far-right.


However, whether Marine Le Pen is elected or not is not the key issue here. Rather, it is the impact that the evolution of the FN will have on the French political landscape more generally. While never holding any real power on the national stage, the FN has, since its breakthrough in the 1980s, played an important role as an agenda-setter in French politics.


The FN’s ability to play on the fears and concerns of the electorate has always been its strong point. Under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party managed to propel its concerns to the top of the national political agenda, forcing mainstream parties to react to, and position themselves on, contentious issues such as immigration, identity and law and order. It is not by chance that these topics have been the focus of the Sarkozy presidency.


But the threat now is more dangerous. It was often easy to dismiss Jean-Marie Le Pen as a caricature of an extremist. Not so with Marine Le Pen. Her speeches attempt to cloak the themes of the FN in respectability – and, given her results in the polls, it seems to be working. Forget the presidentials, the real challenge will come from the FN’s impact on the political agenda. This is Le Pen 2.0, a new operating system that is leaner, more efficient and ultimately, more dangerous.

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I cannot figure out why media outlets are so intent on branding Marine Le Pen a "far-right" extremist. No offense to the writer here, but if he was at all familiar with Le Pen's platform he might know that conveniently generalizing her that way is largely unfounded. The obvious attempt to dismiss her as such reveals either a complacent ignorance or disingenuous propaganda maneuver on his part. Perhaps he's just couching things in terms he knows will score points with his bosses and other media giants. Regardless, the truth is that Ms. Le Pen is not "far-right"... in fact she leans to the left on a number of substantial issues. But of course Matthew Moran does not know that - or he doesn't care - and if he does know he apparently doesn't want the average reader to know. For British/French media outlets the idea seems to be to try convincing French voters to write off Le Pen and her ideas as crazy or extreme, even while most lack the detailed knowledge to make an informed decision for themselves. God forbid the French people make the "wrong" decision after being given a fair, unbiased presentation of Le Pen's full platform. Matthew Moran may not care about the alienated, lower-class French people ignored by the political elite - who are struggling to find steady employment in the nation their ancestors built - but Marine Le Pen does. She won't slap her working class countrymen in the face by pandering to droves of immigrants who are only too happy to undercut the French worker, no matter how politically fashionable it is for Mr. Moran's boss to do so. Enough is enough.

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