Since 2011, when Marine Le Pen became the leader of the Front National, the presence of antisemitism (but not of racism) has decreased in its official public declarations. Marine Le Pen has tried several times to make an official visit to Israel; she has contacted the leaders of the American Jewish community, made appeals to Jewish voters, and so on.
But evidence about what the activists and the local cadres of the FN say in internal meetings shows that antisemitism and even Holocaust denial are still current in the National Front. Moreover, all the polls confirm that the FN is the party that attracts the most antisemitic and racist voters. Only, it is now forbidden to express anti-Jewish sentiments on Facebook, on FN websites, in public meetings or at press conferences. Antisemitism is thriving in the FN, only it is reserved for the internal discussions of the party.
In the short term, if a mass fascist party appears in France, a large part of its militants and sympathisers will most certainly come from the ranks of the Front National. For the time being, Marine Le Pen is trying to make the same kind of political mutation as Gianfranco Fini made when he transformed the Italian neo-fascist MSI into Alleanza Nazionale, but we cannot see the FN or even the RBM [the Rassemblement Bleu Marine, a broader “front” organisation] transforming into a classic centre-right party in the short term. Even if many neo-fascist groups criticise the National Front as too moderate, as “Zionist”, or as “pro-American”, those neo-fascist groups still have many friends and allies within the National Front.
The FN does not control any trade union at the national level or even any significant fraction in a trade union, even if it has trade unionists in its ranks, which it prefers to organise in external networks rather than as fractions within the unions, probably for lack of effective organisers... It plays no role in strikes or struggles for better living conditions in low-income suburbs. It is not in a position — for the moment — to control entire areas of the territory such as Social Democratic or Communist Parties have done in their history, or as the Nazis did in the 1930s before taking power.
We must of course be concerned about its growing electoral and ideological influence (for example, its electoral results have encouraged the “Republican” right to adopt part of its programme on immigration, “insecurity” and Islam; the Socialist Party government even took up one of its measures, selective revocation of nationality, after the attacks of 13 November 2015 [and then dropped it]).
In 1972, the FN had about 2,000 supporters, but ten years later (1982 and 1983) fewer than 250. Its influence began to increase in 1984 thanks to the national television channels and the “socialist” president Mitterrand, who cynically hoping that the FN would undermine the mainstream right helped Jean-Marie Le Pen after the leader of the National Front had complained that national radio and TV were “boycotting” him.
The FN reached 20,000 cardholders in 1989 and 42,000 in 1998, just before the split between Mégret and Le Pen. Subsequently, the number dropped again (12,800 in 2000) and began to rise only ten years later, in 2010 (20,000). Since then, the progression has been impressive and permanent: 51,551 cards paid in July 2015, ten thousand more than in 1998.
The FN is still small compared to the Nazis before they took power — 1.5 million in the Nazi party, 425,000 in the paramilitary SA — or even Mussolini’s movement — 300,000 when he formed his party out of his paramilitary gangs at the end of 1921. The electoral fortunes of the FN do not coincide exactly with its ups and downs in terms of numbers. This is linked to the special relationship between the voters, the party and its leader (Jean-Marie Le Pen, and now his daughter Marine Le Pen).
The National Front has always achieved better results in the presidential elections, which correspond more to its authoritarian nature, to voters who wish to rally round a beloved leader... Marine Le Pen operates in the same way as her father: she publicises her own name much more than that of the FN and has created an ad hoc structure, the Rassemblement Bleu Marine. The RBM is simultaneously a money-machine; a structure to draw in forces broader than the FN and allow members of neo-fascist groups to make themselves respectable through participation in elections; and an ultra-personalised promotional enterprise.
This attitude stems from both the neo-fascist values of Le Pen (father and daughter) and the French presidential system. Most FN voters, especially in working-class neighbourhoods, claim they are not racist. They say they have Arab or African friends (which is sometimes true) but explicitly express their hatred of the Roma and Romanians. They explain their vote for the FN as a simple “protest vote”. They think that Marine Le Pen is very different from his racist and antisemitic father, or they sometimes invoke a “democratic” argument: “After all, they deserve to have their chance and to prove what they can do”. The Front National cadres have an even more absurd argument: “We are neither racist nor antisemitic. But it is normal to discriminate... in a restaurant, when you choose a dish, you discriminate against the dishes you do not order”.
Jean-Marie Le Pen never made racist propaganda in the Nazi sense of the word... he made racist remarks in order to attract the attention of the media, to keep the support of his fascist supporters inside and outside of the FN, and embarrass the members of his party who wanted to make alliances with the “respectable” right. The... multiple facets of this sinister character, perhaps derive from extreme right-wing politicians like Roger Holeindre who fought in France’s colonial wars and learned to “appreciate” (in a very paternalistic way obviously) the Arab, Asian and African auxiliaries of the armed forces.
The Front National has always tried to present itself as the best friend of the harkis [the Algerians who sided with France in the war of independence between 1954 and 1962, and fled to France after 1962], especially before each election, even if the majority of them vote more for the right than for the extreme right. Jean-Marie Le Pen always defended a radical “assimilationist” line, not the expulsion of anyone who has not been Franco-French for centuries. In other words, Le Pen tolerates the “good” immigrants and descendants of immigrants who work hard and are great patriots (chauvinists like him), but he does not want “too much” on French soil (“ I love foreigners ... when they are at home”, he said).
Everybody knows that Nicolas Sarkozy [mainstream right-wing president 2007-12], when he was Minister of the Interior, declared, in an immigrant neighbourhood where a young man had been killed by a stray bullet, that the district would be “cleaned up with a power-hose”. But few people know that Jean-Marie Le Pen gave a very short press conference (thirty minutes, Le Pen is not reckless) in an immigrant neighbourhood in 2007 and said: “If some want to power-hose or exclude you, we want to help you get out of these suburban ghettos where the French politicians have parked you. You are branches of the tree of France ... “ This statement followed his 2006 speech in Valmy where he proclaimed himself a “republican” and addressed the “French of foreign origin”.
So, if the National Front is not a Nazi party within the meaning of the German NSDAP, it is a racist and antisemitic party. It is an extreme right-wing party because it is built entirely around a leader who has all the powers within the party. It has a nationalist-racist ideology. It defends Christian values, like all the reactionary currents In France since 1789. Its social demagogy, if it no longer explicitly targets Jews, takes up the theme of the struggle of the “small” against the “big”, the “people” against the “elites” (the System, UMPS, the EU, IMF, World Bank, etc.), a theme common to the whole far-right.
Since its inception, the FN has included a number of currents: from neoliberals to traditionalist Catholics to nationalist revolutionaries. Jean-Marie Le Pen always tried to hold together all the sensibilities, in part by engaging in “social” demagogy: he liked to proclaim “Socially I am of the left, economically of the right and, nationally, I am of France”.
His daughter does not innovate in this matter, even if she has decided to give up — for the moment — the antisemitic rhetoric of her father. The balance between so-called “neo-liberal” proposals (openly favourable to private capitalism) and those that seem to defend the maintenance of the welfare state is very unstable. Two fundamental elements remain. It wants to reserve social benefits and services for French people only, or for “ethnic French” (an expression whose meaning varies). And it wants to establish a “strong state” against the poor (the “lazy”), “foreigners”, “Muslims” and the “paper French” (recently naturalised). It defends public services only to advocate a profoundly inegalitarian and xenophobic nation state.
• Abridged from “The Front National and its social demagogy”, in Ni patrie ni frontières no. 54-55.