The Far Right’s Revival in France

France’s far right is prospering in the polls. It may well doom Nicolas Sarkozy’s chances for reelection.

One of the things that was taken out of the 2007 French presidential election was the collapse of the far right (the Front national or FN), the same far right which five years earlier had shocked the world and France by placing second in the presidential race with 16.9 percent of the vote. Its poor 10.4 percent showing in 2007 was followed by a drubbing in subsequent legislative elections and an equally weak showing in the 2009 European elections.

It has rightfully been said that Nicolas Sarkozy took a lot of the far-right vote in 2007 with his tough law and order platform and populist rhetoric. It helped him with working-class voters, many of whom had supported the FN in 2002 despite their left-wing roots.

Following the party’s collapse, which put it on the verge of bankruptcy and forced it to sell off its headquarters in an affluent Parisian suburb, the far right was buried. Sarkozy and the traditional right had permanently integrated most of the FN’s electorate, and it would collapse following the inevitable retirement of its historical lider maximo, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

It turns out that the far right was buried far too early and the party that passed for dead or at least moribund four years ago is roaring back with a vengeance.

The FN’s recovery started during the regional elections of 2010 in which the party won 11.4 percent of the votes in the first round, doing much better than polls had predicted. And now, a bit more than a year from the important 2012 elections, the party’s new leader, Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, is polling at roughly 17 percent of the vote. Given that, except for 2007, the FN’s vote has been underestimated, some wonder if those result hide a much higher reality. Despite all the warnings and bags of salt which must be applied, especially in France, to polling one year out from the actual election, the FN’s return merits analysis.

In the history of the French far right since World War II, the FN has been, by far, the most successful group with the notable exception of the Poujadists in 1956. Founded as one among many tiny far-right cells, the FN’s rise started with a shocking success in a 1983 local by-election and later during the 1984 European elections when it came out of nowhere to win a full 10 percent of the vote.

In the 1988 presidential election, Le Pen won 14.5 percent compared to just 0.8 in 1974. The number steadily increased from 15 percent in 1995 to 16.9 in 2002.

Accompanying this rise in the polls was a shift in the party’s rhetoric. From a more sectarian and old-style neofascist and anti-statist platform in the 1970s, which attracted the support of only some pieds-noirs (French inhabitants of Algeria living in France since the 1960s), the FN adopted a more populist tone mixing law and order with a rejection of “global liberalism” in order to appeal to working-class voters whom, during the recession of the first years of the Mitterrand presidency, were abandoning their traditional left-wing solidarity in favor of the FN. By 2002, the FN was the largest party among this electorate.

Part of the FN’s success came from its ability to move beyond the sectarianism and old-style racism and xenophobia which characterizes perennial neofascist and other European far-right movements, but Jean-Marie Le Pen’s personal appeal and charisma played an equally important role.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s message in 2007 integrated some of the most popular themes of the FN, which despite their association with a controversial and oftentimes despised party, still attracted much sympathy or at least attention among the wider electorate. His rhetoric about the “value of work” and the “meritocratic society” struck a chord with the boutiquiers (small businessowners, a traditional FN demographic) and much of the lower middle class. His tough talk on crime, justice and immigration appealed to the working class moreover, which had voted FN in droves in 2002, as well to part of a traditional conservative electorate that was increasing sympathetic toward Le Pen and his party.

Sarkozy won roughly 31 percent of the vote in the first round — a very strong showing. Le Pen won 10.4 percent. To further add to the unambiguity of what happened to Le Pen’s vote, the correlation between the increase in the right’s vote and the decrease of the far right’s support was near perfect. The FN, which had weathered the exodus of a good part of its leadership and base in 1999 with the secession of the megretiste wing, seemed condemned to die out with the imminent retirement of its historical leader.

That, however, may have been wishful thinking on the part of the mainstream right and others. The success in public opinion of the FN’s new leader, Marine Le Pen, plays a significant role.

The youngest of the FN’s patriarch’s three daughters, she was certainly not set to succeed her father until fairly recently. Her elder sister was Le Pen’s favorite until she joined the 1999 putsch and Marine was long unpopular with the FN’s leadership and office holders. Yet, as we learned in 1999 and more recently in 2009, splits from the FN may claim the support of a majority of the party’s office holders but will never be able to come close to the FN in the polls. Her lack of support with the FN’s traditional cadres is more than compensated by her strong support among the party’s membership and electorate.

Because the FN is an expert in carpetbagging, with its main leaders often being elected in a region where they’re not actually from (especially in the case of Le Pen, whose native Brittany is one of the FN’s weakest regions), it is quite indispensable for a leader to have a region or turf of their own.

Marine always struggled to find her place in one, notably because she faced resistance from local leaders. In 2004, she tried her hand, without too much success, in the Paris region. Since 2007 though, she has found herself a solid base in the small city of Hénin-Beaumont in the old mining basin of northern France. There she managed to be the FN’s only candidate to qualify for the runoff in the 2007 election while the party was creamed in other places. In 2008, her list won a bit more than 28 percent of the vote in the municipal elections against an embattled socialist mayor. When that mayor was forced out in 2009 for particularly slimy corruption, the FN won 39 percent in the first round of the by-election, then lost narrowly in a runoff against a “republican front” spearheaded by the right, claiming a record 47.6 percent of the vote.

Last year, Marine successfully implanted herself in the region as a whole. At the party’s congress earlier this month, she crushed her rival, Bruno Gollnisch, an old-style sectarian far rightist, more than two to one.

Her leadership ushers in a change in rhetoric if not in ideology. Rather less controversial than her father, who throughout his career held peculiar opinions about the Holocaust and the German occupation, she has been able to frame the party’s traditional anti-Islamist message in the mantle of the defense of the republican value of secularism — a very important concept in French society. Reflecting partly her implantation in a municipality of the old mining basin devastated by unemployment and factory closures since the early 1990s, she is emphasizing a more statist and “social” anti-liberal stance.

Her success does not stem from merely cosmetic changes in the party’s identity. She has been able to pick up considerable support among former Sarkozy voters who have been left more than dissatisfied with the president’s agenda. While high unemployment continues to plague France and government corruptions seems abound, the president has enacted unpopular pension and labor reforms, reducing his approval ratings to barely 30 percent.

In opposition to the liberal conservatism of the current government, the Front national manages to appeal to largely working-class voters as the 2010 regional elections amply demonstrated.

The example of the small, declining metalworking town of Gandrange in Moselle, northeastern France, is emblematic in this regards. During his 2007 campaign, Sarkozy came to the town and promised that its steel plant would not shutter. In a commune that had given Le Pen 25 percent of the vote in 2002 but was traditionally leftist, Sarkozy won 50.2 percent in the runoff election. The steel plant closed in 2009 however and in the most recent election, the president’s party won a meager 15 percent of the vote. The FN won 25 percent.

Beyond the symbolic value, the dissatisfaction felt by the residents of Gandrange toward Sarkozy, the man they had helped elect in 2007, is typical of his deep troubles with the working class which may hurt his chances for reelection in 2012.

Sarkozy’s gains with the working class were crucial in 2007 but as crucial were his gains with the FN’s traditional, older electorate. These voters, largely lower middle class and small businessowners, were enamored by Sarkozy’s rhetoric in 2007. Today, they are widely unhappy with his policies and feel let down with the various corruption stories. Their economic position is threatened by the crisis, making them receptive to the Marine Le Pen’s more “social populist” message which she worked up to major success in Hénin-Beaumont since 2007.

Allegations of government corruption further feed the FN’s insistence that all major establishment parties are rotten. And seemingly, these voters haven’t been bought over by the government’s tough immigration policies. They demonstrated that in 2010 when they gave the FN some very good showings.

The election is still a long time ahead and polls a year out can never give an even close approximation of the results. Yet, the far right is definitely back on its wheels and it hasn’t been killed by the retirement of its strongman. Sarkozy is facing serious competition not only from the left, but also from the far right which he was supposed to have killed for a generation four years ago. He may not be doomed yet, given that he remains a wily and skill campaigner, and given that everything political is subject to change. But with just a year to go before the next election, never has a French president been so weak and so threatened from all flanks.