Defeating Le Pen

Le Pen and Macron posters just before the final round of the 2017 election.

Le Pen and Macron posters just before the final round of the 2017 election.

It’s been a while since Western liberals have been able to cheer a victory. Emmanuel Macron has given them what they needed. He has triumphed over Marine Le Pen with more than 66% of the vote behind him. After Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, the liberals feared that France would fall next as if politics were just a series of trending hashtags.

A vote for Macron was a vote for reassuring telltales. It wasn’t a vote for political substance. The man presents the same agenda as Hollande but clarified and purified. The extreme centre is back: $65 billion cuts every year, 120,000 less civil servants and corporation tax levelled to 25%. The idea that this is going to produce harmony in France is absurd. Yet that well-crafted illusion is exactly why the Macron platform has won.

Much like Obama’s team in 2008, the Macron campaign set out to create a blank slate for the popular imagination to project onto. Once this was achieved, Macron was able to unveil an austerity package and still expand outwards from his supporters in the media and the astroturfed crowds. Le Pen just provided a moral cover to his victory. And it was very apt of Obama to intervene on Macron’s side.

This is enough for the liberals who don’t think there is anything fundamentally wrong with Western society. So long as the European Union survives and technocrats remain in power, the system can destroy countless lives in the end of capital accumulation. The possibility of a recurring stand-off with right-wing nationalism is not something to worry about because it legitimates neoliberals like Macron in the end.

Ghosts of the Algerian War

The National Front’s success is not new. It became a permanent fixture in French political life in the 1980s. The immigration debate is dominated by the far-right and the French political centre dances to Marine Le Pen’s tune even if it doesn’t want to acknowledge it. The race problem in France has been transmuted into a Muslim problem, which has allowed the FN to monopolise identity politics in the country.

Macron may have won, but this election is the second time in 15 years that the far-right has come within shouting distance of the Elysee Palace. The last time was in 2002 when conservative President Jacques Chirac defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen with over 82.2% of the vote. The National Front leader won just 17.8% after politicians of the right and the left mobilised a ‘republican front’ against Le Pen. But the daughter is far stronger than the father.

Many American and British far-righters wonder why ‘political correctness’ and multiculturalism have not permeated Southern Catholic Europe to the same extent that they have Protestant countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. And yet the level of diversity in France is greater than it is in the UK. For starters, France has the biggest Muslim population in Europe and the colonial legacy runs deep beneath the country’s race relations.

Not least because the French settler regime was defeated, but the ‘loss’ of French Algeria in a bloody conflict with the FLN led to outbreaks of political violence on the streets of Paris and ultimately hastened the demise of the Fourth Republic. It’s almost always forgotten that Vichy thug Maurice Papon had the cops attack a pro-independence march of Algerians in October 1961, killing an estimated 200 people and throwing their lifeless bodies into the Seine.

It’s also important to note that the Fifth Republic was founded during the May 1958 crisis, in which the French political class found itself at odds with the military establishment. General de Gaulle came out of retirement to draw up a new constitution with strong executive powers, all as part of the efforts to defend the French Empire. Yet in the end, it was de Gaulle who settled with the FLN and the narrative of ‘abandonment’ was confirmed for the French settlers.

Building Hegemony

Historically, the National Front has based itself in the south of France, where you find a great deal of racial resentment from the former settlers. The hardcore of the FN are originally the former soldiers from the Algerian war, including Jean-Marie Le Pen, as well as Vichy collaborators and even monarchist elements.

As a lieutenant in the Algerian war, Le Pen has been accused of participating in torture and extrajudicial killings. Many of his early political allies were members of the Secret Army Organisation (OAS), the dissident right-wing paramilitaries who waged a terrorist campaign to sabotage the Evian Accords. This past would help establish Le Pen as a leading neo-fascist.

A plethora of far-right groups emerged in the 1960s, Le Pen set out to unite these disparate groups into a single force capable of breaking through the media and the post-war consensus. When the National Front was founded, the party was just one among many: there was the New Order (ON) and the Party of New Forces (PFN). This fragmentation prevented any one group making electoral gains.

Much like how the British National Party came out of fierce empire loyalists, the FN emerged from the ranks of colonials who lived and fought in Algeria only to return to France once the war was lost. Fascism is what happens when imperialism comes home. Where John Tyndall would fail in Britain, Le Pen has succeeded in France. The FN outlived all of its major rivals and eventually became the dominant far-right party in the country.

The long march to 2002 began in the 1980s when the FN first made its breakthrough into the mainstream. In 1984, the FN won 10 seats in the European elections and in the cantonal elections of the following year the party won 8.7% of the vote. By the presidential election of 1988, Le Pen had expanded his base to 14.4% of the vote. This was how the FN became legitimate.


In the 1980s, Le Pen styled himself as an anti-Communist with neoliberal economic credentials and a pan-European vision. With the end of the Cold War, the FN had to adapt to a new terrain and took on economic populism as a new electoral strategy. The party began to refocus its racism against French Muslims after the Salman Rushdie fatwa.

In the last 25 years, the FN would adopt a new strategy for building on its early gains. Shifting from anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, converting from pan-Europeanism and neoliberal reform to euroscepticism and protectionism. The collapse of the Communist Party and the failures of the Socialist Party opened up the ideological space for Le Pen to create a new base.

“There are two Front Nationals: one in the north of France which is anti-religious, very socialist, quite leftist; and one in the south, which accepts the euro, which is – economically speaking – liberal and Catholic,” Alain Minc, an adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, has said. “The only thing which helps them to stick together is the prospect of winning one day.”

This is the challenge posed by Marine Le Pen today. If this coalition is to be broken, the French left has to build the alternative in northern France and reclaim working-class support and restrict the FN to its petit-bourgeois origins. That was the strength of Melenchon’s platform, which brought together the social and national with the political and economic. It might have been a winning ticket had the left not been so internally divided.

If Melenchon can’t capitalise on the gains he made in the presidential campaign and liberals sit back in complacency, the results of Macron’s austerity policies could be disastrous. Not only would Le Pen be able to grow her constituency further, but despair at the mainstream could lead to more abstentions. Le Pen got double the vote of her father, and once she reaches the 50% mark she’s in the winners’ league.

June’s parliamentary elections will be a crucial test. Unlike Macron’s En Marche!, the National Front is a real party, with far more experience getting out the vote, particularly when it comes to local elections. Given its growth in regional polling during the Hollande years, it’s not unlikely that Le Pen will eventually get what she so desperately wants. Pity the French for not doing enough to stop her.

Photograph courtesy of Lorie Shaull. Published under a Creative Commons license.