The French Rassemblement National has long been one of the largest populist radical right parties in Europe. In 2011, Marine Le Pen became the leader of the party and started the process of bringing the party into the mainstream in an attempt to get rid of its extremist image. In this special report, I look at whether the party has really changed under Marine Le Pen.
History of the Party
Firstly, it is necessary to provide a brief recapitulation of the history of Rassemblement National (RN) which was named Front National (FN) until its renaming in 2018. It was co-founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972. Its political ideology has been typical of many rightwing parties in Europe; it has been nationalist, populist, anti-globalist, anti-EU, and anti-immigration. This party had very tough beginnings in terms of electoral performance. The newly-founded party completely failed in the 1973 parliamentary elections as it received less than 0.5 percent of the vote. The Front National remained obscure for the next ten years because it suffered from internal turmoil and disagreements.
The 1984 European Parliament elections marked the first important electoral success for the FN: it gained more than two million votes, which translated into ten seats in the European Parliament. The 1986 parliamentary elections were extremely successful for the FN: the party received 9.7 percent of the votes and obtained 35 seats as these elections were based on proportional representation. The sudden electoral success of the FN could be partially attributed to the fact that an increasing amount of French citizens had to face rising levels of financial insecurity and immigration in the 1980s.
However, because proportional representation stopped being used, the number of seats held by the FN plummeted to one despite a strong performance in the 1988 parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, in the next fifteen years, FN’s share of the vote rose and hovered around fifteen percent in both presidential and parliamentary elections. The biggest success of the party occurred during the 2002 presidential elections in which Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the elections by receiving 16.9 percent of the votes and coming in ahead of the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. However, in the second round he was decimated by Jacques Chiraq who received 82 percent of the votes.
Nevertheless, after this historic and surprising result in the presidential election in 2002, the FN started an era of decline in which it couldn’t repeat its successes from the previous two decades. In 2011, Marine Le Pen succeeded her father as the leader of the party and kicked him out of the party in 2015 because his anti-Semitic rhetoric was seen as damaging the reputation of the party. After taking over in 2011, Marine Le Pen launched her mainstreaming strategy to get rid of the extremist image of her party.
Motivation/Purpose of Mainstreaming the Party while Maintaining Political Ideology
Before looking into the changes and continuity the RN has experienced under the lead of Marine Le Pen, it is important to know what the main motivation or purpose of her strategy has been. The ultimate aim of every political party is to hold power. Marine Le Pen’s party never really held any power in the French Government as France doesn’t have a proportional voting system. In France, the majoritarian two-round electoral system is very detrimental to the RN. For example, in the first round of the 1997 parliamentary elections, the FN received 15 percent of the votes. However, it ended up winning only one seat in the end as the vast majority of the FN representatives lost in the second round of the elections. However, if France used a proportional representation voting system, the FN could have won around 50 seats in the 1997 parliamentary elections.
Nevertheless, French majoritarian elections are very disproportionate and only major parties have the ability to construct coalitions. The two major parties to the left and right usually built coalitions with smaller parties. There lies the second problem. As an outsider party, the RN has been ostracized by other parties who vowed to never form a coalition with the radical right party. This cordon sanitaire has blocked the RN from being part of any ruling coalition. Therefore, the only chance for the RN to rule would be to replace the UMP/Republicans as the most dominant right-wing party. Thus, Marine Le Pen’s attempt to mainstream the party serves as a strategy to acquire power by becoming the most dominant party of the right.
Since the start of her leadership of RN, Marine Le Pen emphasized that office-seeking should be the main goal of the party. In her inaugural speech of January 2011, she claimed that her party is ready to wield power: “The FN that I will preside will be a renewed, open and more efficient party. With your help, my own self-requirement is to turn our party into the most powerful, efficient and performant instrument for our strategy of conquering power.” Ever since Marine Le Pen became the leader of the RN, she has reiterated in multiple ways that assuming power is a long-term ambition of her party.
Thus, in order to acquire power, Marine Le Pen’s mainstreaming strategy has mainly served to increase and expand the electoral constituencies of the RN, “De-demonisation prioritises short-term maximisation of votes. The twin processes of FN normalisation and mainstreaming of its ideas seeks primarily to augment electoral support.” However, if the process of de-demonization would be excessive or if the RN would significantly change its political ideology, then the party would risk losing its original voters. De-demonization might be dangerous for the RN in that it could lose its distinctiveness which could lead to a loss of voters. In the wake of the economic and immigrant crises, the RN is incentivized to continue with its political ideology of nationalism, populism, and anti-globalism.
Hence, de-demonization is a strategy through which the RN attempts to attain political credibility and governmental respectability, while it is also retaining its original radical right ideology to mobilize its initial voters. This means that de-demonization “refers to the search for a point of equilibrium” between its original radical right agenda and normalization. All in all, Marine Le Pen tries to win over a broader support for her party through de-demonization while also retaining the party’s core features of nationalism and populism to keep her original electorate intact in order to win elections and exercise power as the most dominant party of the right.
In 2011, Marine Le Pen started introducing big changes to the party. Marine’s priority was to de-demonize the RN by getting rid of the party’s label of racism, anti-Semitism, and extremism in order to diversify and enlarge the party’s electorate by, for example, attracting the upper middle class which has historically never voted for the party. De-demonization also focused on reducing the vitriolic and extremist rhetoric which former members of the RN engaged in.
Firstly, the primary aim of the de-demonization process was to completely eradicate any signs of anti-Semitism from the party. Jean-Marie Le Pen has been known for his anti-Semitic stances. As Marine was trying to change the image of the RN after assuming the leadership, she became frustrated with her father’s anti-Semitic remarks. In April 2015, Jean-Marie said that gas chambers were just a minor detail and defended Petain and the Nazi collaborators. In August of that year, Jean-Marie Le Pen was excluded from the party as part of Marine’s de-demonization efforts. Other members of the party that were deemed to be overly radical and anti-Semitic were excluded as well throughout the years.
Next, even though Marine remains strongly anti-Islamic, she frames this issue in a different way than her father. In the words of Professor Nonna Mayer: “Marine Le Pen’s strategy is to present the party line in a more acceptable way. It is in the name of democracy and republican values that she stigmatizes radical Islamism, presented as a threat to women’s rights, to gays, and to Jews.” Additionally, Marine Le Pen said that she is not waging a war against Islam but that she is rather fighting the “Islamization” of French society. Marine Le Pen contends that Islam and secularism are directly clashing with each other in France. Marine claims that Muslims try to impose their values on France and thus she feels an obligation to defend her country. She argues that Islam is a threat to liberal democratic values and in this way she tries to avoid the labels of racism and xenophobia that became attached to her father after he framed the issue as a clash of civilizations – Christianity versus Islam. This shows that even though Marine and her father had the same anti-immigrant stances, their rhetoric and communication were drastically different which makes a difference in how they are viewed by the French public.
Next, Marine also has a different attitude about the government than her father. She views the state as the protector of the people and disagrees that the state would be doing things more expensively than the private sector. She argues that some domains that are related to the well-being of citizens cannot be entrusted to the private sector. Therefore, she believes that health care, education, transportation, and other domains should be the responsibility of the government.
In addition, Marine significantly changed her party’s stance on certain social issues. In the past, the RN wanted to reinstate the death penalty. Nowadays, Marine Le Pen argues for life sentences for the worst crimes. In addition, Marine has changed her party’s stance on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. Then, Marine severed ties with extreme parties outside France; she ended alliances (that her father had built) with, for example, the Hungarian Jobbik or the Greek Golden Dawn.
Finally, Marine focuses on a more diverse set of issues than her father and thus attracts a wider audience. Jean-Marie Le Pen primarily focused his policies around immigration while Marine also focuses on other policies such as defense, women’s rights, or social issues. She is also more sophisticated than her father who was a blatant racist; Marine engages in a more indirect racism which is possible to hide through her justifications. Marine diversified RN’s electoral audience as women and young people started to vote for the party in larger quantities. Now it is more difficult to describe a stereotypical voter of the RN.
Even though the party somewhat changed under Marine Le Pen, these changes are certainly overshadowed by the continuity of the party’s political ideology. The RN still maintains core elements of a radical right party even though it moderated some of its policies. The party is softening its public image while being still attractive to its original voters. As already mentioned before, Marine Le Pen has tried to transform the RN into the most dominant party of the right so she has striven to make the party more credible while preserving its radical right ideology. De-demonization of the party is only concerned about the party’s outward appearance but the core features of its political ideology remain the same. Superficial attempts to mainstream the RN did not change the party’s anti-liberal culture at all. All in all, even though the RN made some changes such as avoiding overt anti-Semitism, its main political ideology of nationalism, populism, and anti-globalism remained virtually the same.
This point is illustrated by one interesting study. A group of researchers conducted a qualitative textual analysis of the RN party documents before and after Marine Le Pen assumed a leadership position within the party. The researchers found out that there was a negligible change in the RN program and ideology before and after 2011. The team concluded that the RN is still a prototypical radical right party that has a simplistic frame which pushes nationalist, populist, and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Next, Nonna Mayer suggested that the RN is still advocating for very nationalist policies. The party promotes a nationalist preference/priority agenda which would be giving jobs, housing, and social benefits to the “French” first. This agenda would be anti-constitutional as it violates the principle of equality and it is widely rejected by the French public. The RN cannot become a truly mainstream party if it will continue advocating for such policies.
Scott Sayare claims that the de-demonization process is only a “matter of appearances” and didn’t alter the party platform in any way. The leaders of the party have been looking at their press coverage with a lot of scrutiny. This has been happening because the media could potentially twist and frame the stories of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s expulsion and political rebirth in a way that could make the party appear as a completely new entity that has nothing to do with the old FN. However, the vast majority of the French media remained skeptical of the new leadership of the party and could see through Marine Le Pen’s tactics of de-demonization.
Even Marine Le Pen stated herself that the core ideology of the party has remained unchanged. She makes her program seem less shocking but the core is the same: immigration as a threat to the economy, security and culture of France. When Marine was asked if the party is any different from her father’s, she responded with this: “Yes, it probably is. Because for a long time there were lots of people who shared our opinions but were scared off by the image given of Jean-Marie Le Pen. They were reticent to join us. Now I’m at the head of the party, that barrier has fallen away.” In a 2010 RTL interview, Le Pen stated that she never wanted to change the RN’s program but rather wanted to show the real image of the party which has been distorted by the media. Here, Marine Le Pen reveals the psychological underpinnings of her de-demonization strategy. She thought that her party would gain a lot of new voters because they could think that it is suddenly acceptable to vote for the party since Marine Le Pen is not as blatantly racist as her father. This further reaffirms the notion that de-demonization served only as a strategy to attract more voters in order to gain political power.
All in all, Marine Le Pen made some changes to the party through de-demonization such as getting rid of the anti-Semitic label and vitriolic rhetoric, but the party virtually remained the same as its political ideology of nationalism, populism, and anti-globalism prevails and thus isn’t mainstream enough to significantly compete in the elections. All of this can be summed up in the following quote by Emma-Kate Symons of Foreign Policy magazine: “While the slogans may have changed, Marine Le Pen is still singing the same song” of nationalism, xenophobia, and law and order as her father.”
The fortunes of the RN have improved since 2011. Since Marine took over, her party has performed better in both the parliamentary and presidential elections. In 2007, the party received only about four percent of the votes in the parliamentary elections; it improved to around fifteen percent in 2012. In the 2007 presidential elections, Jean-Marie Le Pen received about ten percent of the votes, and in the 2012 presidential elections, Marine Le Pen increased this share to eighteen percent. In 2014 and 2019, the RN won the European Parliament elections with almost 25 percent of the votes. However, even though Marine Le Pen managed to get into the second round of the 2017 presidential elections, she lost by a landslide to Emmanuel Macron. In the subsequent parliamentary elections of the same year, the party received around thirteen percent of the votes which translated only into eight seats in the French legislation. These last two elections showed that the RN is unable to achieve any significant political results partly because of the French two-round majoritarian voting system.
In order to improve the image of the party, Marine Le Pen changed the party’s name to Rassemblement National as she stated: “At the last minute, people didn’t dare vote because of that. So the fact of being called ‘gathering’, it’s more appeasing and I think it can bring us quite a few new voters.” The renaming of the party name solely served to improve the image of the party. However, this renaming backfired. Right after the Front National renamed itself to Rassemblement National, the French media pointed out that a party that was founded in 1941 to collaborate with the Nazis had a very similar name: “Rassemblement National Populaire.” This certainly didn’t help the party to bounce back after the two major election losses.
Next, several high-ranking members left the party. In September 2017, the party’s vice president Florian Philippot resigned from his position. This move signaled that there is an internal rift between the members of the party. Philippot was criticized by the more radical members of the RN that he brought the party away from the issues of immigration and Islam. A divided party like this will have a tough time becoming the main political party of the right. This is further magnified by the fact that more than 60 percent of the French say they do not plan to vote for the party at all because of its controversial ideas such as banning legal immigration or giving different rights to nationals and foreigners. Furthermore, the party’s reputation is undermined by an upcoming trial for allegedly embezzling funds from the European Parliament.
The future of the party under Marine Le Pen remains uncertain as she tries to balance the attempts of becoming more mainstream while continuing the party’s nationalist and populist agenda. If previous trends hold, the French majoritarian voting system and the RN’s cordon sanitaire will likely prevent the party from gaining any real political power as long as it continues with its political ideology of nationalism, populism, and anti-globalism.
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