The strategic renovation of eurosceptic populism: the case of the Front National


by Stefano Matonte

trainee research fellow at Egmont Institute

Following a 4 May disciplinary hearing, Jean Marie Le Pen was suspended by the National Front (FN), the party he co-founded, and now faces being stripped of his role as honorary president. His position will be discussed by FN members in an extraordinary assembly to be held during the next three months. If they agree on a definitive change of the party’s rules, the suspension will be turned into an expulsion. Jean Marie Le Pen seems truly offended; he did not spare his daughter Marine any insult, and even threatened her with a lawsuit. Then he used his right to free speech as a shield.

By distancing the old, gruff, agitator father from his political and natural families, Marine Le Pen intends to purge once and for all the right-wing excesses that characterized her party, hoping to replace them with softer nationalistic trends, more palatable to voters.

Another chapter in the LE Pen family saga has been written, and it will once more provide positive publicity in the run-up to December regional elections. This is the most recent and probably final step in the FN clean-up strategy. It all started several weeks ago, when the collaborationist Vichy government, considered a painful wound to French national identity and a political taboo, was evoked by Jean-Marie Le Pen in his statement to the right-wing newspaper Rivarol on 25 March. “Pretending that Marshal Pétain was responsible for the persecution of Jews during the war is an outrageous thought,” he said, reviving an anachronistic battle beloved by the extreme right. Marine Le Pen’s answer was prompt and brutal: “Jean-Marie Le Pen seems to have entered a spiral between a scorched-earth policy and political suicide,” she said, moving to sideline her father from the party he founded.

Immediately, more high exponents of the FN echoed their leader. Florian Philippot, the strategic director of Marine Le Pen’s electoral campaign and main architect of the party’s image renovation, tweeted: “The political rupture with Jean-Marie Le Pen is now complete and final. Under the leadership of Marine Le Pen decisions will be taken soon.”. A break between old and young is taking place, a complete and final rupture between the previous nostalgic and reactionary approach, and the new democratic and more institutionalised FN of Marine Le Pen. All this is happening at the very best moment for her.

The FN gained an exceptional result in terms of numbers of votes at the elections in March, but despite this, the party did not win any departments, and found it incredibly hard to replicate its performance at the second ballot. What scares Marine Le Pen the most is not the Socialist Party, battered by Hollande’s unpopularity; nor Sarkozy, considered and the foremost political enemy, but instead the process of demonization undergone by her party for the last three decades. Strengthened by growing popular support, she finally considers it possible to overcome the two-round system which has always relegated the FN to the political outskirts, and face her number one challenge: the cordon sanitaire that has contained the FN’s ambitions both politically and psychologically.

Economic crises and bad management of the single currency have led to widespread discontent among many Europeans; the expectations of enhanced benefits and wealth from the common market have been betrayed, leaving a large number of producers squeezed between EU directives and the inability to compete on the global market. These are some of the reasons why the popular support for the Community began to wane, and the answer from EU has been, once again, inappropriate.

The integration process continued far from the public arena, with stealth decision-making made possible by a reinforcement of the European institutions at the expense of the national; in recent years we observed a process of rapid, almost unprecedented furthering of integration in an increasingly eurosceptic political environment. This evolution generated the perception among EU citizens that the European political elite had become more and more distant and indifferent to its people’s needs, and has left unheard the call for a popular sovereignty and national preference. This stance has created a useful stronghold for the populist parties. The FN masterfully interpreted the discontent of those who have been penalized by the neo-liberal formula, and has channeled it into a political fight between a nationalistic and protectionist economy , which the Fn proposes, and the dangerous globalization supposedly promoted by Brussels.

The weakness of the EU have set the stage for the rises of populism and transformed  what were previously considered unelectable parties into a desirable alternative to liberal formations.

We are witnessing a massive cosmetic renewal operation among all the populist components in Europe, even if they are not necessarily of the extreme-right. The formula is always pretty similar: reconstruction of the party around the figure of a new (young) charismatic leader; the publicising of a modern and democratic style through the media; and a split with every element from the parties’ past that could limit any growth in popularity. That’s how Bart de Wever dragged the nationalist New Flemish Alliance away from its xenophobic roots. And that’s how Matteo Salvini, the young new leader of the Italian populist group Lega Nord, abandoned without a second thought the separatist tendencies that have characterized his party from the beginning, and followed the dream of filling the electoral void left by the fall of Berlusconi. The example of the post-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) is very telling in this respect: in 1994 the then leader Gianfranco Fini was the architect of the “Fiuggi turn over”, with which he completely renovated the party by getting rid of the extremists and adopting more liberal and democratic policies. This allowed him to achieve a previously unimaginable role in a government coalition. It is important to remember that MSI was the main inspiration for FN, which borrowed the logo and several political propositions from the Italian movement, paving the way for a de-diabolisation process. The FN was relaunched as a creature symbiotic with its leader, and after numerous appearances on French TV channels, Marine Le Pen rightly considered 2015 the perfect moment to make a definitive turning-point.

And this is indeed perfect timing for what can be rightly considered a political strategy.

The March 2015 departmental elections marked the end of the bipolar balance in French politics, and the entrance of FN as the third actor on the scene. The assimilation of the party into the person of Marine Le Pen has limited the PR damage; and the declarations of Jean-Marie Le Pen were reduced to a family quarrel, in which the FN played the role of an outraged victim. When Marie Le Pen took a strong stance against her father she broadcast her willingness to fight against everything, including her own family, for the safety of the party and its goals.


Besides, 2017 also marks the limit of the two extra years the European Council granted France to bring its government deficit below 3%, and it is therefore reasonable to expect that French citizens will be more worried about potential cuts in public spending than the nostalgic longings of a political fossil. And once again the role of protector of French people’s rights will be played by the FN, which will find it easy to blame the EU for demanding expensive measures from the French workers to further integrate their country into something the workers are not so sure they want anymore.

The demolition of cordon sanitaire that has, in any case, become progressively more fragile, is also visible in other European countries, and has allowed populist (and very often eurosceptic) parties to gain political territory, and ultimately aspire to the highest offices. But it is a reversal of votes dictated by a broader popular dissatisfaction, rather by a collective mood swing. This means that some concrete actions taken by the EU institutions and the progressive parties could reverse the process, if they admit their political mistakes.

The populists’ gains are also due to a movement of votes from both right and left wings, both of which are incapable of providing voters adequate answers. If the old right and left want to regain their popularity, they must reorganize their strategies. The European progressives have not taken yet the full measure of the fact that eurosceptics are not far-right anti-democrats anymore, but are instead establishing a new political phenomenon that plunders the liberal political achievements of the past, and demands more democracy. Sarkozy once again leader of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) should abandon the policy of shifting to the right: threats of further restrictions on immigration and repeal of the gay marriage law are actions that reveal the weakness of the republican right-wing. Instead it would e more productive to insist on the reliability of the centre right: he must shake off the corruption scandals from the past and address the immigration emergency at EU level.

On the other hand, the left should return its focus to its traditional constituencies. In order to win back working class’ and lower middle class’ voters, it must address topics like regulation, redistribution and social justice. The progressive left also has to diminish its disproportionate response to intolerance and xenophobia, as it has obscured the true nature of votes for the populists, which are more a political cry for help than an expression of an obsession with foreigners.

The progressive parties must take a stance on the populist’ agenda and stop ignoring the confrontation with eurosceptics, instead facing them as credible political interlocutors.

The cordon sanitaire began to creak several years ago and it can be counter-productive to trust it as a safe defence against the rise of populism; it is better to confront the anti-EU parties even on the most heretical issues than to avoid them. The political elite would present a better picture of itself: not removed from the people, but determined to achieve the best for the common good, even if it involves painful decisions.

The EU could also reinvigorate a mainly local, contact form of democracy, transforming in this sense the integration process from bureaucratic, legalistic and unresponsive to a more popular and participatory democracy. This would prove that far-right arguments about lack of democracy are unfounded.

In order to achieve this, Brussels must involve European citizens in it projects: this is the only way to build a durable and stable EU.

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