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The evolution of National Rally

The evolution of National Rally

While its parliamentary surge has been forestalled, the French far right remains a neoliberal and repressive menace

from Monde Nouveau

Two key facts stand out following the French parliamentary elections. First, despite failing to win a majority, the far right National Rally (Rassemblement national) has made a clear breakthrough among managers who were previously hostile, and is strengthening its influence among blue-collar and white-collar workers; the increase is much greater among people with a level of education equal to or less than A Level than among those with a university degree. Second, while in 2014 the RN was still confined to a few historic strongholds, recent elections show that it is now established in rural areas and small towns, whether they have a Catholic or secular tradition—until recently, Catholics were reluctant to vote RN.

In the 1984 European elections, the Front National (FN, future Rassemblement national) was rooted in the working classes, was strongly male and had well-defined territorial strongholds. Today, this observation needs to be put into perspective, because as the electorate has expanded, it has changed, become more diluted and increasingly resembles the average population. In particular, the gender gap has narrowed since Marine Le Pen became party leader in 2011.

Marine Le Pen has implemented a strategy to de-demonise the party, based on a message of protecting women from the dangers posed to their rights not only by other men, but mostly by Muslims and Islam. Since then, the gap between men’s and women’s votes has narrowed before disappearing in 2022. Another characteristic of the RN is that the party is gaining ground in the most diverse age groups, both among the under-35s and the 60-70s, but within these two categories there is a stronger presence in the intermediate categories and at less privileged social groups.

Let’s be dialecticians for once. I think that at some point Marine Le Pen understood that by maintaining an “orthodox” line she was at a dead end and that she would never be able to rise above the level of a small radical party. To increase her electorate, she therefore had to change her style and eliminate the most ostensible aspects of fascism, even if it meant making a brutal break with certain people—her father, but not only her father. This break (these successive breaks in fact) almost immediately extended its electorate to previously inaccessible social strata and helped to confirm the party in this orientation. As a result, while the FN/RN undeniably retains its fascist roots, and while conditioned reflexes can still be observed at grassroots level, the priority for the party leadership (which has already eliminated those leaders who did not conform to the party line) is to take scrupulous care to avoid excesses. For example, a RN candidate has just been expelled from the party for making racist, sexist and anti-Semitic comments on social networks.

RN and the wider French far right. Infographic: La Horde

In short, the party leadership has been forced to change its style: this change of style has attracted new social strata which are obviously not fascists, and which in turn have helped to change the party’s fundamentals and attitudes. The influx of new activists, and consequently new leaders, will contribute to changing, at least a little, the face of the party. We have to bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of the population has no idea what fascism is and even less of what fascism has achieved, and for this we can trust the educational policy of the government of cultivating ignorance among the young.

So while the core of the National Rally remains fundamentally fascist—pessimism about the future of the country, rejection of elites, hostility to immigration and cultural diversity, etc.—I think that the overwhelming majority of voters, even members of the party is not. It can be assumed that beyond the main common markers (pessimism about the future of the country, rejection of elites, hostility to immigration and cultural diversity, etc.), the expectations of RN voters in economic matters, social and societal are more heterogeneous than in the past. If the RN comes to power, whether in a few weeks or a few years, the question of the party’s ability to reconcile electoral constituencies with necessarily disparate expectations and aspirations will arise more than ever.

At first the FN was a small party characterized by far-right dogmatism whose discourse focused almost exclusively on the criticism of immigration, cultural diversity and Islam. Now that its electorate is expanding significantly towards new social strata and new territories, its more heterogeneous social composition forces it to do what all parties do: take into account the expectations of the population on economic and societal issues. All surveys show that immigration is not the main concern of the population but purchasing power. In a country where 82% of the population thinks that the country is going in the wrong direction, what worries people is first inflation (43% of the population), poverty and inequality (29%), criminality and violence (27%), the health system (25%), climate change (24%) and finally migratory flows (21%). Concerns about unemployment worry 9% of the population.

We see in these circumstances that a party that claims to govern the country can no longer focus its entire discourse on immigration but on a wide range of problems that it will be forced to tackle. In other words the RN has become a party like the others and like all other parties it will be subject to this extraordinary inertia characteristic of societies with diversified populations, complex institutions, and subject to international constraints, which means that their their leeway will remain, I think, quite small. The Socialist Party, which had an ambitious social programme in 1981, very quickly had to bow to the constraints of the market and supra-national institutions; the Rassemblement National will no doubt do the same.

Local far-right groups in France. La Horde

Nevertheless, I remain convinced that the RN in power will release forces until now more or less contained: there will be more police violence, and more impunity for police violence. Fascist groups will increase their attacks on meetings against any popular demonstration, against immigrants, against sexual minorities. There will be more violent opposition to any cultural event deemed deviant by the far right.

In my mind, the real question is  how on earth has a far-right party been able to suck in working-class votes that used to be overwhelmingly Communist, and more marginally Socialist? What was the succession of failures for which the French left is responsible that led to such a situation?

What seems to me most unlikely in these elections that have just taken place is that the candidates opposed to the RN, right and left, have almost systematically omitted to raise the questions that could have constituted the best anti-extreme right propaganda: expose the economic and social program of the RN, which is a totally neoliberal program. The transition from macronism to the Rassemblement national will be as smooth as the overlap between their economic and social programmes: the RN voted with the macronists on all the antisocial laws that the government wanted to pass. The extreme right, as always, will finish the job and realize what the ruling right could not do.

~ René Berthier

Top photo: RN weekend in Paris, 2018. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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