Jordan Bardella (L) and Marine Le Pen (R) at the 18th Congress of France’s Rassemblement Nationale, Paris, November 2022 (Alain Jocard/Getty)
On the evening of June 19, 2022, many in France watched as the far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) won 89 of the National Assembly’s 577 seats, an increase of more than ten-fold in their representation. Marine Le Pen’s movement had moved out of its traditional stronghold, the de-industrialized areas in the north of France bordering Belgium.
Le Pen and RN had finally made significant progress in their long-standing project of dédiabolisation (the purging of evil), opening the gates to an era of normalization. They had succeeded in moderating the presentation of far-right policies without any change in political position of a core ideology constructed upon the fear of others.
Almost one year after the legislative breakthrough, dédiabolisation and normalization continue their complementary dynamic. The party establishes itself within French society and institutions, promoting a viewer-friendly version of its political program.
The true nature of the party, rooted in fascist origins, cannot be entirely hidden and constrained. But within the recent destabilization and erosion of structures in French politics, with decades of governance that have left many fachés (angered) across the population, the RN can entrench itself as the “new normal”.
Since its establishment in 1972 as the National Front, the RN has been considered an outsider in the Republic, one which should be excluded from governance. Now, however, the party is the largest non-coalition entity in the Palais Bourbon. So RN’s leaders are concerned about ensuring that their députés live up to the importance of their role and the sanctity of the institutions to which they belong.
Thomas Ménagé, Assembly member from Loiret, underlined the RN’s mindset and strategy, “We’ve shown we work hard in Parliament, and the aim now is to prove we’re capable of governing the country when Marine Le Pen becomes President in 2027.”
Part of the RN’s normalization is to move beyond its hot-button issues such as immigration and French national identity, intervening with pragmatic positions on other topics.
For example, the RN is trying to insert itself in the debate on the fight against climate change, stealing an issue that traditionally has belonged to the Left. It is a defining contrast to other supposed populisms, such as Donald Trump’s MAGA movement, which have denied the scientific consensus.
Last month, Jordan Bardella, the young President of the RN and potential successor to Le Pen, promoted his participation in a debate on ecology — organized by the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles — with Hugo Clément, a prominent journalist reporting on environmental issues on France’s leading public broadcasting channels. The outrage provoked by Clement’s discussion with far-right figures went beyond the digital sphere, ending up as the topic of a famous late-night TV show: “Ecology: Should We Debate It With The Far Right?”
A Party Rooted in Hatred
Despite dédiabolisation and normalization, the RN’s extremist origins and ideology occasionally break through.
In November 2022, the party’s 9 de Fournas was accused of shouting xenophobic comments during an Assembly debate on the treatment of migrants. As the media focused on him, the legislator tried to suppress his posts on social media platforms. But he was unable to erase statements confirming a man obsessed with people’s skin color. It was a reminder of the RN’s “50-year-old racist DNA”.
Grégoire de Fournas in the Assemblée Nationale, July 26, 2022 (Thomas Padilla/MaxPPP)
In 1972, the newly-created National Front gathered personalities from hard-right and fringe groups such as neo-Nazis and former Pétainistes, supporters of the collaborationist Vichy regime between 1940 and 1944. The Front’s first treasurer was Pierre Bousquet, former Waffen-SS of the Division Charlemagne, a unit of French volunteers serving the Third Reich. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Front’s founder and Marine’s father, engaged in public hate speech as part of his political militancy, punctuated by far-from-spontaneous outrages. An instance entrenched in French public’s mind remains his one-time comparison of Nazi Germany’s gas chambers to a “detail of history”.
It is this heritage that RN’s dédiabolisation tries to obscure. As a result, Jean-Marie Le Pen has been excluded from the party since 2015 in a long politico-familial drama.
The party’s task might be becoming easier. Indeed, elements of the party’s program, based on the fear of others, turn out to be increasingly shared and taken for granted in French society.
“The Far Right Has Already Won”
Last month, François Gemenne, a Belgian expert in political sciences, observed how the “far right has already won” with the entrenchment of its views. It had “succeeded in imposing its vocabulary” and its “frameworks of thought” within French society. Gemenne cited the recent study of the Fondation Jean Jaurés which demonstrated how, despite remaining ideological differences with the Right, the proportion of Left voters — traditionally in favor of welcoming politics with refugees — thinking that there are “too many foreigners in France” has almost doubled since 2018.
An example of the entrenchment of far-right ideas is the extent of belief in the “Great Replacement”. This concept, developed by Renaud Camus in 2011, is a civilizational conspiracy theory. It is based on an ethnic idea of the nation that has been an inspiration for terrorism by white supremacists across the world, such as the Christchurch, New Zealand mass killer Brenton Tarrant.
In the 2021-2022 Presidential campaign, candidate Eric Zemmour was a fierce promoter of the theory, putting the concept into the mainstream. By autumn 2021, one poll found 67% of respondents were worrying about the potential of the Great Replacement.
The dam against far-right, xenophobic rhetoric has been broken within the discourse of the French elite as well. Fabien Roussel, the President of the French Communist Party, reworked the RN’s construction to portray the danger of “sieve borders”. Within the traditional right, the tendency is even more marked. Eric Ciotti, a leading figure in Les Républicains, continually emphasizes the “national priority” in face of the “migratory invasion”.
Before the last Presidential election, the Macron Government’s senior figures were co-opting elements of the extreme-right perspectives. Debating Le Pen in February 2021, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin criticized the RN leader as too “limp” or “not tough enough” on Islam and Islamism. While Darmanin tried to score points in the debate, a Le Monde columnist noted that this was proxy dédiabolisation of his far-right opponent by making her look “moderate” in comparison.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin (R)) and Marine Le Pen during a debate on Vous Avez La Parole, Paris, February, 11 2021 (Laure Boyer/Hans Lucas/AFP)
Disorganization and Deception in France’s Political Landscape
Fundamentally, the RN’s opportunity as the “new normal” comes from the breakdown of France’s traditional political structures and the popular disillusionment that accompanies it.
Amid ideological divisions, the consequences of ruling without satisfying a population, and crippling electoral defeats, both the center-right Les Républicains and center-left Socialist blocs have collapsed into weakness. In that context, the RN appears stable in comparison, at least at the national level.
Emmanuel Macron’s rapid ascent to the Presidency in 2017 had shaken up the equilibrium. His new-born party, La République En Marche, consisting of actors from both center-right and center-left, became the powerful and structured outlet for those politically defined as the liberals.
But Macron and En Marche did not ensure a new stablility. As the reforms of a hybrid political structure took the path of neo-liberal consensus, the declaration of a renewed governance was far from convincing to many voters. Macron’s wind of change became a storm of disappointment in his policies. The near-insurrection of the Yellow Vests from the end of 2018 was the vivid expression of the consequent anger.
So with one alternative for change losing legitimacy, the RN steps into the vacuum as the next alternative. As Macron raises the stakes of confrontation with his pension reforms, the far-right presents itself as the pragmatic vehicle for mainstream disappointment, frustration, and resistance.
Thus the RN, in a time of crisis, seeks to become the option of last resort. The party fosters the sentiment, “We never tried this one, as we were disappointed with the others, so why not give it a shot?’.
Members of the French left, such as Jean Luc Mélenchon and François Ruffin, in their attempt to rise to power, had developed the mantra: “Fachés (the angered) but not fachos (the fascists).”
But in the battle to win over the fachés, after two decades of governance by the “traditional” parties and the Macron Government, it is the RN — careful not to present themselves as fachos — who seem to be winning against a Left undergoing a fragile renewal. Is it still possible in France to stem the dynamic in which the far-right is the “new normal”?