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the le pen phenomenon: a protest vote or a vote of support?
Dimitris Rapidis, Director & Project Coordinator @BridgingEurope
Marine Le Pen is the leader of Front National (FN) in France, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the undisputed founder and head of the party from 1972 until his resignation in 2011. A lot has been written and said for the poweful and dunamyc leadership of Marine Le Pen, and certainly not out of the blue. Marine Le Pen is the political figure that has achieved to solidify and preserve the deeds of his father, and henceforth of his party, having achieved the party's best-ever result in a presidential election, gaining 17,9% in 2012. In municipal elections on March 2014, FN went a step further, having conceded 12 out of 42 mayoralties.
The success of FN and the achievements pioneered by both the father and the daughter are not all accidental. The longevity of FN shows that the party is not an anomaly in French political landscape or even the product of a protest vote in the context of a major economic crisis. Rather, it is the manifestation of a French political tradition which brings together two concepts of nationalism: that of an "open" nationalism aiming to penetrate in other countries so as to perpetuate France's infuence in the world, and that of a "closed nationalism advocating withdrawal into oneself as the ultimate tradition of national survival. Furthermore, it is a party that now has a stable and well-defined electoral base: primarily male, low-skilled and largely working class, thus remaining the most popular party among blue-collar workers (i.e. 35% in 2012 presidential elections).
Despite being unquestionably part of the far-right constellation, founded on the principles of biologico-racial and historico-cultural determinism, interpreted into the form of today's anti-immigrant xenophobia, FN has been significantly transformed under the leadership of Marine Le Pen. During the last three years, in the midst of the economic crisis, the party has adopted a more moderate stance with the aim of distancing itself from the deepest parts of xenophobic rhetoric, putting emphasis on the effect of new national-populist rhetoric that is linked with fears of European integration in terms of austerity and mass immigration. In this context, the triad of unemployment, immigration and insecurity is what strongly motivates voters to support the FN.
The gradual shift of FN's narratives has been also empowered through consistent hierarchical structures within the party that were also infiltrated into the public conception of internal function. The constant, activist training and propaganda were the driving forces of Le Pen in setting up and developing the ideologocal outlines of the programme, transforming the members from simple activists into political soldiers. In the meantime, FN's funding was increasing and it was no more dependent to state funding, but fundamentally to members' contrubutions and donations. The managerial perspective was finally incorporated into the party's finances and operational planning, a fact that significantly increased the leverage and impact of campaigns among the electorate. In absolute numbers, while FN had received €1,8 million in 2007, in 2012 the amount raised to € 5,7 million. This financial independence gave FN flexibility, penetration, and the free-hand to exploit its rhetoric through constant campaigns in many regions.
Shifting Debates to the Right
Since Marine Le Pen became president of the FN and embarked on a strategy of normalization to make the party more acceptable, its extremist image has softened in the eyes of the public. In addition, the growing public acceptance of FN's ideas led the conventional right to reassess the idea of electoral alliances, a shift that was realized in 2014 municipal election, where FN negotiated lists with joint candidates, especially in cases where the commonly endorsed candidate had increased chances to win. To reach this point, the party has already prepared the field for political alliances since the 1980s, when FN worked and participated on the ideological renewal of the right, investing on the effect of immigration toward deliquency, and then unemployment, in the French society.
This shift of discussions to the right characterized also the 2007 presidential campaign, during which the UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy built up his popularity by wresting back security and immigration issues from the FN. In 2011, President Sarkozy also reckoned that multiculturalism and the system of integration in France have failed, assessing that the conditions for acquiring French citizenship should be reviewed. Nonetheless, this shift was not widely capitalized electorally by the FN even if such major topics were monopolized by the party during the previous years.
The effect in the European Union
Since 1984 FN is consistently electing MEPs in Strasbourg. Yet, the party's electoral strenght is diminishing every five years in the round-up of the European Parliament elections, heading down from 10 seats in 1984 to 3 seats in 2009. The spark of the economic crisis and the social turmoil created are increasing the chances for FN to elect more MEPs in the forthcoming elections on May. This expectation is also prescribed in the ongoing opinion polls, as well as though the political communication strategy that the party has developed since 2012. But the major impediment lies in the performance of other like-mided political parties in the European Union. So far, only FN, the Freedom Party PVV from the Netherlands and the Golden Dawn from Greece are expected to elect MEPs whatsoever, yet the last two along with FN cannot bid for the creation of a political group in the European Parliament, as it is needed 25 MEPs in all EU28 to qualify for it. Given than both the Nethrerlands and Greece are small countries, even if the performance of both parties confirms predictions, it will not be possible to form a political group.
Therefore, if things go as aforementioned, the electoral power of FN will be almost nonsense in practice, as the party will be obliged to invest its survival on fragmented rhetoric, endeavoring to block legislations, and missing the necessary support to propose alternative policies with widespread appeal. Nonetheless, we should wait first to see what the results will be in European level for other parties and political groups as well, as the political landscape is more fragile than ever before. Unpredictable alliances on topic-related basis could not be possibly excluded in the long run.