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French Elections For Members

Ask the experts: How far-right is France's Rassemblement National?

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
Ask the experts: How far-right is France's Rassemblement National?
A protester holds a mask featuring a mix of the faces of France's Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter and party leader Marine Le Pen - but has the party actually changed since Marine took over and renamed it Rassemblement National? Photo by Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP

From a fringe movement of extremists to the dominant force within French politics, Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National has had quite a journey - but has its core ideology really changed? And is it still fair to call it a far right party?

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Co-founded by a former member of the SS and led for decades by a man who described the Holocaust as "a detail of history", few people would dispute that France's Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) began life as an extremist far-right party.

These days its focus is on winning elections, senior members condemn overt racism and its leader is a smartly-suited young Frenchman with Italian and Algerian roots - but has the party really changed at all?

Rassemblement National's 2024 policies

One of the reasons that it can be hard to pin down what the party stands for is the vagueness of its policies - its manifesto is short on detail and party leaders frequently change their minds or contradict themselves when journalists ask them to define their exact plans for France. 

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In their manifesto, lines about putting street harassers on the sex offenders' register and recognising endometriosis as a chronic health condition appear beside targets to drastically cut immigration, limit welfare payments to foreigners and introduce a 'national priority', which would favour of French citizens when it comes to jobs, housing and benefits, ignoring EU rules on the matter.

Mujtaba Rahman, Managing Director for Europe at Eurasia Group, told The Local that to understand the RN, you must "look at the totality of things that they are committed to".

READ MORE: 'Double border' and 'national priority': French immigration under far right

"You have to look at what they said in 2022, in their EU programme and now in this slightly revised programme (for the 2024 parliamentary elections). The totality of commitments that they are talking about would put them in on a collision course with Emmanuel Macron, the EU, the financial markets and the French Constitution.

"It is very naïve to believe that simply because they want to pursue power they would jettison all of the fundamental elements of their electoral programme."

According to Rim-Sarah Alouane, a human rights researcher, French legal scholar and PhD candidate at the University of Toulouse, "[Rassemblement National] is still on the extreme right of the political spectrum."

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"The RN has gone through a facelift. They look more social - tackling issues that have traditionally been tackled by the left and mainstream parties.

"But the soul is still rotten. It is still a xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-woman party, except you have to read between the lines now."

According to Professor Emile Chabal, a Reader in history at the University of Edinburgh and author of the book France, "The party's DNA is still there, but it is less audible. There is still a core interest in immigration.

"When all else fails RN can always say something about immigration or foreigners, but now they are asked about more topics, so they have less time to talk about immigration.

"They've more or less coalesced into a protectionist, nationalist, anti-immigration party that is trying to be respectable within the standard parameters of French politics, but they are building on the rich tradition of the French far-right that goes back even to the revolution."

From Front National to Rassemblement National

What was then Front National began under the leadership of Marine Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former street brawler, who notably called the Nazi gas chambers a "detail of history".

Chabal said: "The Front National began in 1972 as a motley group of activists trying to form a new political movement, and it involved people nostalgic for Pétain [the head of the Nazi collaborationist regime in France during WWII], French Algeria, former sympathisers with the Nazi regime, and to some extent ultra-right Catholics, though they did not have a very prominent role."

In those days it was largely an activist group rather than a serious political party, but it gradually moved into the party political sphere and its first big milestone was in the 2002 presidential election when - to the shock of the country - Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the election, before being sounded defeated by Jacques Chirac.

But for many, the pivotal moment was in 2012 when Jean-Marie's daughter Marine took over the leadership, and shortly afterwards renamed the party Rassemblement National (national rally).

"She is a career politician and she is interested in the conquest of power. She thinks about how to make the party work as an electoral force," Chabal noted.

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Her strategy was known as 'dédiabolisation' or detoxifying the image of the party - for example through censuring party candidates who make openly racist statements. She also publicly broke with her father over his anti-Semitic remarks, which she judged an impediment to the party's electoral success. 

In both 2017 and 2022, Le Pen made her way into the second round of the French presidential elections - both times being defeated by Emmanuel Macron. 

The RN within French politics

But has the party really changed? Or only changed its presentation and image?

Marta Lorimer, lecturer in politics at Cardiff university and researcher of the far right, told The Local: "There are some ways that the RN has changed since 1972. It has moderated in some areas. For example, it no longer defends the death penalty and has become a little more accepting of homosexuality.

"But in terms of its proper ideological core, its position on French identity, that has not changed. Those have been consistent over time. There has been a moderation in how the party communicates, but not in the nature of its ideas."

Chabal said: "There are three broad tendencies of the far-right in France.

"The first strand is ultra-right conservative Catholicism, which has a very long pedigree going back to French revolution.

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"Key tenets include very conservative positions on society and culture, as well as very critical aggressive position toward other religious minorities, such as Muslims and Jews. This tendency had its moment in the sun in 2013 during the anti-gay marriage protests (Manif pour tous).

"It's noteworthy that the Front National as a party, under Marine Le Pen, did not take part. Individual activists may have, but not the party as a whole. Social issues are almost entirely absent in Le Pen's policy focus."

"Then there is the second tendency which you might call 'the civilisational far right' - this view sees France, and the west, as declining, but declining because of Arabs, Muslims or the Left. Éric Zemmour has been the vehicle for that. 

"The RN represents a third trend in the far right, something you might call 'protectionist and nationalist'.

"All three strands of the far right share a dislike of foreigners and other religions, but they express that in different ways. In terms of the RN, they are all about protecting French workers.

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"That is partly a result of people who vote for the party - the main demographic is people aged 25-40 who live outside of or close to the main cities, who usually have families, who might own a car, who are in employment, but in poorly paid jobs. They resent people who don't work and they resent immigrants who they see as being on benefits.

READ ALSO Who are Rassemblement National's 10 million voters?

"They are looking for social protection, and they are looking for the state to do more... to bring back their local GP practice, to develop the roads, to increase pensions that sort of thing, and they are hostile to environmental policies, because they see those as being very expensive."

In comparison to Europe

Within Europe, the far right has become a strong force in several countries - so how does RN compare to movements in countries like Italy, Poland, Germany and the UK?

Marta Lorimer, said that when compared to other European far-right parties, "RN shares an ideological core with them in that it is a party that is nativist, authoritarian (in certain respects), and populist as well."

"Its economic policy is more on a state-focused bent when compared to other more 'liberal' (in an economic sense) oriented parties."

Chabal echoed Lorimer's analysis: "In France, what is unusual is how the RN is anchored with working people.

"In Poland, the far right is ultra conservative Catholic. The emphasis is on values and issues like reproductive rights. In Italy, Meloni's party is a bit like Le Pen in terms of trying to appear acceptable, but they have more clearly liberal economic policies," he said.

As for similarity with the RN and the far-right in the UK, Chabal said "some people who voted for Brexit did so in the hopes that this would help the UK to build and protect its own workers, but if you look at a figure like Nigel Farage, he is more like Zemmour than Le Pen."

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Meanwhile, Rahman said that the Rassemblement National's place on the political spectrum can be visible simply based on where it sits in the EU parliament. 

"The RN group (Identity and Democracy) sits further to the right than Meloni's ECR party - Meloni's party is willing to work with Von der Leyen on bits of her agenda. They are willing to be constructive and support elements of Von der Leyen's mandate.

"But the group where Le Pen sits and where her party may sit - because there is an ongoing discussion about the formation of the new political group that would sit further to the political right - their goal is not to be constructive. Their goal is to hollow out the European Union, to work against the institutions. 

"This isn't a more palatable version of Meloni. It is an ideology that stands in opposition to everything the European Union represents," Rahman said.

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Comments (1)

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Peter 2024/07/05 09:49
Unsurprising that there's so little on the economy in this article and a ton on identity politics/minorities.

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