Case Study of a European Political Party: The National Front of France

The National Front (FN) is a right-wing party that has gained notoriety and infamy for being racist, anti-Semitic, and even fascistic in modern France. What surprises most casual observers is the depth and popularity of its policies and its organizational ability. This paper endeavours to firstly, trace the roots, ideology and electoral history of the Front. Secondly, describe and analyze the efficacy of the Front based upon the adequacy of its representation, communication and mobilization of its supporters. Thirdly, a critique of the party based upon its ability to fulfil its roles and attain its goals and ideologies. But before we embark on any further discussion, it is imperative that we understand the role of parties and how they affect the political landscape in a particular country.

The Importance of Political Parties

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Almond et al. states that “political parties provide a critical link between citizens and policymakers”.1 This is largely due to the middleman role the party performs-from organizing votes and representing the citizens to being part of the legislative process and forming the government. It is by this role that parties are judged to be successful or be branded a failure.

The European context for political parties makes for an interesting study as certain patterns and alignments in both parties and voters have been in place for more than 75 years.2 This is evident in the history of the FN. Despite its rather recent inception, it has roots that go a long way back in time. This will be elaborated upon in the next section.

The Origins and Ideologies of FN

The FN was set up in 1972 as a coalition and amalgamation of ultra-nationalist, far-right parties whose ideologies that party members held on to were traditionalist notions that were considerably dated. 3 The Front comprises of members or ex-members of the Action Francaise-an anti-Semitic party during Vichy France, the Poujade -an anti-establishment movement, and Ordre Nouveau-an anti-communist militant student movement.

The formation of the FN, to a certain extent, was formed as a reaction to the political circumstance that surrounded the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in France. Firstly, there was a political vacuum on the right end of the political spectrum. No prominent or popular right-wing party existed, just fragmented and miniscule movements. Secondly, the collapse and unpopularity of the Gaullist centre-right government spurred public sentiment against mainstream parties. Thirdly, in 1972, the far-left Communists forged an alliance with the left-leaning Socialists that threatened the whole political bearing and orientation of France, which was potentially ruinous to the politically-embattled right.4

A prominent right-wing activist, Jean-Marie Le Pen believed that it was “ripe” and an opportune time to start an extreme right party that was to become an umbrella party of sorts to all forms of far-right ideologies. He became a major proponent of the formation of the Front, and in October 1972, the FN was established. The imminent reason for his push for FN’s creation was to counter and the Left, after what he viewed as the mainstream right’s failure and inability to contain these dangers.5 He was subsequently elected as FN’s leader after the latter’s inception.

The Front has experienced a varied amount of ideological shifts throughout the period of study. As mentioned above, its formation was largely as a counter to the left. As such, its initial electoral platform was based on anti-communism, rather than anti-immigration.6 Simmons notes that this may not be because immigration was not an issue but rather it was not at the centre of concerns at that time. Furthermore, running for elections on this platform would encompass unnecessary risk and hurt the image of a fledgling party trying to win votes.7

There have been two key shifts in ideology that is observed in the FN from the 70’s onwards. Phase one saw the shift from the Front’s anti-communist roots in the 1970’s to an anti-immigrant stance in the 1980’s. This change took place as the Front consolidated its support base for the immigrant issue aided by increasing unemployment levels and greater awareness in the public of the “immigrant problem”.

Phase two built upon the anti-immigration ideology, adding on the concept of National Preference which was introduced in the 90’s. This advocates French citizens getting priority in jobs, housing and education, registration of 3 million immigrants, removing their welfare rights and “tightening the rules” of citizenship among other issues.8

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The Front received poor electoral results from 1973 to 1981 where they consistently captured just near or even less than 1% of the national vote. None of their candidates got into parliament. Le Pen’s humiliation in running for the 1981 Presidential Election in which he did not even manage to secure the 500 signatures needed to run for presidency, encapsulated the “electoral desert” that the Front experienced during this period.9

The watershed came in the European elections in 1984 where proportional representation was introduced and which helped to revitalize the party.10 10 FN candidates won seats in the European parliament that year. Two years later, the FN got their highest-ever number of seats in the local assembly capturing 35 seats. Thus the Front was able to have some form of representation in the parliament.

However, in 1988 the reversion to a first-past-the-post with a run-off method of electing candidates posed severely weakened the Front’s representation in the legislative process. Despite winning 9.7% of the vote, and equalling its 1986 figure, many Front candidates lost in the run-offs or second ballot, and eventually only one candidate made it to parliament.11

Since 1988, the Front has struggled to secure seats in parliament despite increasing its share of the vote. Nevertheless, the Front has enjoyed unprecedented levels of support by the French public, and can be seen in the endorsement of Le Pen as presidential candidate; 15% in 1995, compared to .8% in 1974.

Bases of FN Support

Voters for FN of the past consisted mainly of ultra-nationalists, but its appeal has been gradually changing.12 Though voters are still predominantly male, they now cut across all classes and encompasses non-practicing Catholics, unemployed, the young, farmers, workers and even urban professionals.13

A large base of support for the Front, nearly 30%, comes from disenchanted young men with little education.14 In terms of social class, the NF seems to have cut across all different class groups. The upper class living in the “chic districts of Paris” voted for NF in 1984 largely as a reaction to the leftist government. Former leftists and members of the working class voted for NF in 1995 as they see the Front as protecting their interests better than left-wing parties. The working class vote constituted 30% of the 1995 presidential votes for Le Pen and made the FN the largest party for the working class.15

The Front’s electoral geography shows that its support comes from “east of a line running from Le Havre to Montpellier” where they have consistently captured 20-30% of the vote. The votes consist mostly from densely immigrant-populated areas from the South, textile and mining regions in the East, and industrial towns of the North.16

Representation and the FN

This section focuses on the ability of the FN to represent and embody the thoughts and feelings of the common man, in other words, its aptitude in representing the people in the government.17 This is examined through legislations and issues raised and proposed by the FN as well as through opinion polls conducted on FN voters.

The greatest political achievement of the Front would be in its ability to bring light to the immigrant issue. For a relatively small political party which have consistently won less than 20% of votes and realistically speaking have little hope of getting its own legislation passed through parliament, they have been rather effective in voicing out issues and raising proposals towards immigrants. This has allowed the immigrant issue to move from being an obscure extreme-right policy to one that has to be contended in the political mainstream.

This is illustrated in the influence the FN has had on conventional politicians who have begun to spout anti-immigrant rhetoric a la Jacques Chirac during the 1995 Presidential campaign. At a rally at a Loire Valley town, Chirac spoke against immigrants, saying that they are of a “national concern” and linked them to the “breakdown in law and order”.18

It seems that the Front has been effective in presenting the party’s anti-immigrant stance to the political elite. But how does its anti-immigrant platform hold up in view of FN supporter’s interests? Is there a match between the party and its voter’s priorities?

In an opinion poll conducted by Perrineau in 1988, the immigrant issue scored 71% among FN leaders as the major issue of concern compared to just 59% of its supporters. However, the immigrant issue was still the first-ranking issue of concern to its supporters.19 This shows that despite the Front’s elites “overstating” of the immigrant problem, its supporters have been generally agreeing with this issue. Furthermore, public opinion surveys done in 1993 and 1996 have also shown that 1/3 of the public agrees with issues raised by the FN, and 51% support some of FN’s agenda.20

The Front has also been exceptionally successful in its mobility of representation from being a fringe-right party to a mainstream or traditional right party.21 The Observer notes that the FN has been moving towards the centre in a bid to capture more votes from the police, workers, homeless and even teachers, not simply the racists or the neo-fascists.22 This presents a tricky problem for the FN leaders; how do they manoeuvre from its extreme-right platform to a more voter-friendly and popular one without alienating its core supporters?

The answer lies in the ingenuity of Le Pen and its leaders. They have cast wide their agendas towards that of unemployment and civil unrest; increasing levels of violence and crime, and linked these issues towards its main anti-immigrant agenda.23 During elections, the Front have managed to consistently retain their core supporters who make up 1/3 of their votes, as well as capturing peripheral voters who constitute the remaining 2/3 of FN voters. The peripheral comprises of protest voters who express discontent with the current government and the “malaise” voters who feel they have been marginalized and trapped.24

Accusations that the Front are racist and with a dogmatic agenda to rid France of Jews and Muslims have been rather inflated and overblown out of proportion. Despite the Front’s openly anti-immigrant stance, the motivations of its elites have always been based on the primacy of French national identity and culture which they feel has been undermined.25 This traditionalist way of thought has manifested itself in the Front’s tough anti-immigrant ideological strand. In as much is said, the Front’s actions which includes the shooting of a 17-year old Muslim immigrant during the 1995 campaign hardly does any good for its image and in assuaging its detractors.26

The Front has also been successful in maintaining its political relevance in keeping up with voters preferences over the period of study. The issue of unemployment, in a survey of voter’s priorities has jumped from being third in a list of priorities in 1988 to being the top issue for FN voters in 1995. This is in contrast to the immigrant issue being displaced in terms of priority from first in 1988 to second place in 1995.27 This reflects the change in voter sentiments with unemployment overshadowing anti-immigration as the top issue for concern.

This change in voting preference has been closely mirrored by that of the Front’s shift in emphasis towards unemployment as a major issue. Fieschi states that during the 1995 presidential campaign there has been a demarked change in Le Pen’s “racist rhetoric” and adoption of a more “subdued mainstream manner”.28 The author also notes that Le Pen concentrated on unemployment as the main issue, rather than immigration which was the hallmark of his 1988 campaign. This was pertinent in his campaign flyers that tackled the centrality of unemployment and the economy as his running platform-the immigrant issue was only mentioned once.29

Communication and the FN

The Front excels in this aspect largely due to its effectual propaganda machine, an impressive speaker in Le Pen, and the development of parallel organizations that help to communicate its message.

The Front has been able to characterise themselves as the “anti-party” party-“outsiders” who denounces the corrupt and morally bankrupt mainstream parties.30 The Front has 19 newsletters at regional levels that cater to regional issues yet at the same time emphasizing national issues. The titles of many of these newsletters are ‘nationalistic’ in its orientation.31 Words like “Islamisation” and “resistance” are used frequently to educate and inspire nationalism in its readers.32 Slogans used during campaigns focus on issues like “priority, preference and defence” along with the mention of national symbols like “The People, The Land and Joan of Arc”, all in a bid to awaken nationalist passions in its voters.33

The Front’s most apparent attempt at educating the public came in the form of a “glossy paperback book” of more than 400 pages that was given out during the 1993 elections. This contained three hundred measures to restore French pride of which the Front’s detailed immigration policy was presented.34 Its effectiveness in airing the immigrant issue has led the French public to place a greater importance on it, 22% in 1988 to 31% in 1993.35

Le Pen has also helped to communicate the Front’s policies rather effectively. He is an excellent speaker with great personal charisma.36 His love of “grand gesture” and use of rhetoric, as well as his posturing as an “outsider” against the crooked government has aided his bid to gain votes and stand for presidential election.37 He finished 4th place in the 1995 presidential election with 15% of national votes-his best ever showing.

The Front has set up various associated organizations that are not politically motivated, but part of its larger goals to widen its appeal and make its agenda known. These organizations do not require membership in NF for admission and includes worker unions, soup kitchens, and even a law circle. An example of this is in the Modern and Free Enterprise (EML) set up in 1985, an organization that aims to spread greater trade within France. Its target group were professionals and businessman whom the Front hope would eventually be able to elicit support from.38 The spread of the Front has been wide and varied and its many organizations claim to be able to reach across all classes.

Mobilization and the NF

The Front does seem to be extremely successful as witnessed in its ability to draw new voters and at the same time keep its base of supporters. Schain notes that 19% of the voters in 1984 were new voters or had previously abstained from voting. Supporters of the Front has also been exceedingly loyal; from 1984-1986, the Front retained 65% votes from its previous election, 81% in 1986-1988, and 89% in 1988-1993.39 Voter loyalty has increased over the years and constitutes the highest loyalty rate among all political parties.

The Front’s ability to mobilize supporters stems from its effective use of communication as mentioned above. The use and spread of its affiliated organizations for example in police unions allow for FN to extend its political base and network for increased mobilization.40

The Front’s capacity to engage young and working class voters who would have gone to the left-wing parties have also been a major factor in its mobilization. The Front has risen to be the number two party in terms of votes in old-communist bastions.41

Lastly, there has been a marked increased in numbers of members within the NF ranks. The Front has witnessed a sevenfold increase in its memberships since 1985 when memberships for all other political parties have declined.42 This comes at a time in Europe when political apathy and disinterest in politics have become the public norm and when contrasted to the popularity of the NF, certainly beggars belief.

Conclusion

The Front has defied all political odds since its inception as a small far-right party with unpopular racist tenets. However, its ability in representation in enlarging the issue of immigration to attract more voters and at the same time keeping its core support group satisfied has been its greatest success-one that has translated to greater electoral gains.

The use of propaganda: books, flyers, campaigns coupled with Le Pen’s oratorical ability and setting up of associated organizations has allowed the Front’s agenda to be adequately addressed and made known to its supporters and the public. Hence, the Front has been effective in communicating its ideas and policies to the public.

Finally, the Front has been effectual in mobilizing its supporters who are considered to be the most loyal in France. In addition, NF has been able to increase its membership and gain voters who previously abstained or were from other parties.

This paper thus argues that the NF has been successful in being able to represent, communicate and mobilize its supporters in the French political system. A potential problem for the Front is that as it moves towards the mainstream, it risks alienating some of its more radical and extreme bases of support. This can be seen in the departure of one of Le Pen’s deputies, Stirbois in 1999. The challenge for the NF would thus be to maintain its right-wing roots and ideologies and yet maintain popular appeal in order that they may become a greater force in the French political spectrum.