Marine Le Pen: The long journey of the extreme right in France to the best result in its history | International

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When, in 2002, Jean Marie Le Pen came into the second round of the French elections by surprise, beating one of the strongest European politicians of that time, the socialist Lionel Jospin, France (and the entire EU) was left in shock. It was something impossible to imagine. The so-called republican front was born then as a barrier to the extreme right with which it was impossible to sit at the same table to discuss politics, or anything else. President Jacques Chirac refused to debate with the candidate of the National Front, racist, Islamophobic, condemned for denying the Holocaust, an undisguised ultra-rightist. Chirac swept the second round with 82.21% of the votes.

That crushing defeat did not mean, by far, the end of the National Front, as has become clear in the French presidential elections this Sunday in which Marine Le Pen has achieved, with 41.8% of the votes according to estimates, the best result in its history and becomes an inevitable actor in French political life. As he titled this weekend an analysis in New York Times the American journalist based in Paris Rachel Donadio “Macron can keep the presidency, but Le Pen has already won”.

That first knock in 2002 was a worrying indication that its roots in French society were deeper than many sociologists and political scientists had been able to detect (the vast majority of the polls were wrong in that first round) and also the beginning of a long journey towards respectability promoted by the daughter and heiress of the party, Marine Le Pen, a process that went through a name change -since 2018 it is called National Regroupment- and even by the expulsion in 2015 of his father from the formation he founded, after a series of homophobic slurs — “I don’t condemn homosexuals individually, but when they hunt in packs, yes” — or for insisting that the gas chambers were a “detail of history.”

Marine Le Pen has managed to get more talk about her love for cats than the racism of her training in this campaign and, above all, she has gotten voters who seemed impossible to get close to the extreme right to vote for her without any complex, after having become the standard-bearer of the France that does not make ends meet. The result makes it clear that French people of all walks of life have opted for the party that, in areas such as immigration or security, maintains an ultra-incompatible discourse. A novel that achieved an important impact when it was published in France —which has just been published by Random House in Spanish— can serve to illustrate this transformation. The novel is titled What’s missing in the night and its author, Laurent Petitmangin, recounts how a father, a lifelong socialist, discovers that his 20-year-old son has become a follower of Marine Le Pen.

Marine Le Pen and Jean-Marie Le Pen in September 2014 in Frejus.VALERY HACHE (AFP)

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“I asked him if he didn’t mind hanging out with racists,” says the novel’s narrator, to which the young man replies: “They’re not racists, that was before. In any case, my colleagues are not racist, no more than you or me. Against emigration, not against emigrants. They are not against those who are already here, as long as they don’t mess around. Believe me, these guys are on the side of the workers, twenty years ago you would have been on the same side. Move your ass. They’re sick of all this bullshit in Europe. They receive money from Paris and redistribute it here. Whether you like it or not, people like what they do.”

This process of “dediabolization”, as French analysts have described it, has achieved undoubted success at the polls which, due to the two-round electoral system, translates into very little concrete power, but with increasingly higher percentages. It only has six deputies in the French National Assembly —not enough even to form its own group— out of a total of 577. However, in the 2019 European elections, Marine Le Pen defeated Emmanuel Macron, with 23.34% of the vote against to 22.42%.

For Jean-Yves Camus, an analyst at the Observatoire des radicalités politiques of the Jean Jaurès Foundation, there is something real about this transformation: the National Front of Jean Marie Le Pen was born in 1972 as a formation that wanted to bring together all kinds of extreme groups: “ It was a party that sought to federate all the components of the extreme right, from the revolutionary nationalists to the militants of the reactionary and conservative right, including monarchists, fundamentalist Catholics and even neo-Nazis.”

Since 2011, Camus continues, Marine Le Pen began a profound transformation of the party. She “she changed her speech, wanting to make it more reassuring, more social, more adapted to the popular electorate”. However, this scholar, an expert on the extreme right, believes that the form may have changed, but not the substance: “Although I prefer to speak of the radical right and not the extreme right, so as not to give the impression that RN is a fascist party, the hard core of the program remains the same: a xenophobic and authoritarian nationalism, anti-European and increasingly closer to the concept of illiberal democracy implanted in Poland and Hungary”.

But the fact is that this facelift has worked: Marine Le Pen’s party has risen in percentage of votes election after election and has made it to the second round of the presidential election twice in a row, in 2017 and now. The program remains basically the same — almost total closure of borders to immigration, expulsion of foreigners in an irregular situation and discrimination in access to social benefits, undisguised Islamophobia with a battle around the veil ban — with some strategic changes — as he made clear in the debate on Wednesday, he no longer defends France’s exit from the EU, although he does defend a profound transformation of the Union.

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen during the debate last Wednesday.
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen during the debate last Wednesday.DPA via Europa Press (Europa Press)

And it is not only about a reconversion of the party, but also about the consolidation of its image as someone who can be president. In 2017, his debate with Emmanuel Macron was a disaster and he sank his image, which was not too bright either. Macron swept the second round, with 66.1% of the votes, although far from the unanimity that Chirac achieved. The republican front presented its first fissures. In addition, there had been an advance in favor of Marine Le Pen: it was impossible for Macron to refuse to debate with the candidate, as has happened in these elections. This time the debate has been much more even. Le Pen has shown one of her great political virtues: she learns from her mistakes. And he has found a way to convince French people who feel defeated and betrayed by the system that she can be the solution to his problems.

Another literary work, the four-volume comic Everyday Battles, by Manu Larcenet —which won the Grand Prize at the Angoulême Festival in 2004— already intuited the long journey of the National Front. The protagonist, a war photographer who has hung up his cameras, goes to visit his father’s old colleagues in a shipyard that is about to close. They are friends of his since childhood. “This shipyard, the machines, ourselves… All this is going to disappear. It is a sad world, labor costs less than fuel and people arrive from all over the planet willing to work for a quarter of our salary”, says one of the workers about to retire. “Don’t listen to him, he is old and scared. I am also afraid and, given the results of the last elections, I am not alone”, assures another of the workers, referring to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s passage to the second round in 2002. “Don’t tell me that you have become a facade, that you believe his roll ”, replies the protagonist. “I have not become a facha, I want things to change.” In one of the great paradoxes of European politics in the 21st century, it has taken Marine Le Pen two decades to get hold of that message of change with an ultra-reactionary party.

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