France’s Front National, which began life as a vehicle for the traditional politics of Europe’s extreme Right, has now become a bona fide modern party with a serious chance to increase its strength at the national level after general elections next year. The success of the Brexiteers in the U.K. has only emboldened the FN. Here, leading French political thinker Jean-Yves Camus lays out the path ahead for the FN and what that means for his nation and for the rest of Europe.
Octavian Report: What are the Front National’s electoral prospects at the moment? Do you see Le Pen winning the presidency?
Jean-Yves Camus: In order to properly understand the FN’s prospects, it is first of all necessary to understand what the party really is. To put it bluntly, this is not the French equivalent to the Tea Party movement, much less to the right wing of the GOP. It’s not Donald Trump either, even though the FN supports him simply because Trump stands against the “Establishment.” The FN wants more state intervention in the economy, more power for the Federal Police, less devolution of powers to regional and local authorities, less control of the Presidency by the legislature, and the abolition of our Supreme Court. Not to mention leaving NATO and standing against almost everything American. Moreover, most FN proposals on immigration are beyond the pale even when compared to Trump’s, such as repatriating documented immigrants who stay on the dole for more than one year, or stopping non-European legal immigration (even that of non-Muslims).
This means that many voters may agree with several FN proposals but think that others are too harsh or cannot be implemented. Others feel in tune with the party’s philosophy but wish that its ideas could be implemented by a more mainstream party, such as Les Républicains. Already in 2006, Marine Le Pen, in her book A contra-flots, urged voters not to listen to the claims of the conservative Right that it could achieve the same results she could on immigration, law and order, or national identity. The reason, she wrote, is that the “system” is corrupt and cannot be changed from inside. As a result, in the 2014 regional elections, the FN tallied an all-time nationwide high of 28 percent but on the second ballot lost to the conservative Right by a large margin, 54 percent to 46 percent, in the two regions the party seemed able to win: Northern France and the Riviera.
At this time, the situation in France seems ripe for an FN victory in 2017, but in fact even though Marine Le Pen may accede to the second ballot, she’ll lose against the Conservative candidate, whomever it may be. Her only hope is that she would stand against the Socialist candidate on the second ballot, and that the majority of the mainstream Conservatives would vote for her out of contempt and even hatred for the Left. On paper, this is feasible, but there is one big problem: it would be a miracle if Hollande proves able to contest the second ballot with a 14 percent approval rating.
OR: How do you see the FN performing as a parliamentary party?
Camus: Quite poorly but, really, the FN cannot be blamed for this: with only two seats in the Assembly and two in the Senate (which is not elected by citizens), they are doing what they can. Without proportional representation, the party cannot have an impact on legislative work. And both the Left and Right refuse to introduce proportional representation, out of fear that FN would get a huge parliamentary faction. Though it should be noted that in 1986, we had proportional representation and the FN won 35 seats — and its impact in the Assembly was minimal. The reason is that passing legislation, in a semi-Presidential system, requires that either the Cabinet agrees to the proposed bill or that it receives bi-partisan support against the Cabinet. The FN’s representatives were totally isolated, so every bill they introduced did not even pass parliamentary commissions. This is still the case in France, as it is in the European Parliament.
OR: What do you think a Le Pen victory plus a strong parliamentary performance would actually imply for French policy?
Camus: Nobody knows. The party has never been in power, even in a coalition. It runs a dozen small-sized cities, but that does not help much in understanding what the FN would do if it wins the presidency. The only clue we have is that winning the presidency is useless unless one month later you also win a parliamentary majority. If Le Pen becomes President and the Parliament passes into the hands of the Conservatives and the Socialists, we’re heading towards a major crisis. If Le Pen wins the presidency and a majority, the Constitutional Court will most probably stand in her way, as many FN proposals are against the 1958 Constitution (to say nothing of the E.U. legislation they would violate). Le Pen would need to have a two-thirds majority in Parliament in order to change the constitution. Or she’d have to pass her legislation through popular referendum. As for the kind of regime FN would try to build, I am humble enough to say I do not know for sure. The Left says it would be a dictatorship. It might also be an illiberal democracy such as Viktor Orban’s in Hungary. That is my guess.
OR: If Sarkozy or Juppé wins election in 2017, will the UMP/Républicains be forced to move rightwards?
Camus: They have already done so, but to no avail. First of all, French voters want new faces. Seventy-two percent of them do not want Hollande or Sarkozy to seek a new term. Juppé polls above the two others because he is seen as a “wise old man” belonging to the moderate Right, because he will likely only seek one term because of his age (he’s 71), and because he has not been around since 2004. The problem for UMP/LR is that in 2007, Sarkozy secured a huge victory over Le Pen, Sr., by using a very rightist rhetoric, and after coming into power failed to deliver what the most right-leaning voters wanted of him: there was no return of the death penalty, no Frexit, no stopping of legal immigration. This trick will not work again. Anyway, the dilemma for Sarkozy is that he needs the center-Right in order to win, and he also needs the most rightist segment of his electorate. He was able to make a synthesis in 2007 but now, with terrorism and Islam on the agenda, that is much more difficult.
OR: What might it mean for the economy?
Camus: If Le Pen stands firm on Frexit, that is, leaving both the E.U. and the euro, I tend to think the economy will not collapse overnight. The markets have largely recovered after the losses following the “Leave” vote in the U.K. But the reason for that is that Theresa May is flexible on the conditions of association between her country and the E.U. Le Pen is much more ideological: if she is ready to negotiate with Brussels, the economy will not sink; if she says “We are out, full stop,” that will mean immediate recession. Also, the U.S. needs to remember the FN is not only about leaving the common currency. It will not ratify TAFTA, will want to leave the major international organizations, and will reject any kind of free-market economy that is not exclusively “national” (I still need an explanation as to how a free-market economy can ban foreign investment and reject free trade!). The anti-American bias within FN is still very strong.
OR: Who, other than Marine Le Pen, are the major players within the party, and what are their roles?
Camus: Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen has been swiftly removed from his position as honorary chairman; he is now 88 and the younger generation of militants thinks it is wise that their party refrain from focusing on the Second World War and the Jews, as he did. The most influential newcomer to the party leadership, Florian Philippot, is also the most powerful. This high civil servant, who is still only in his mid-30’s, is the man behind the FN’s policy of more state intervention in the economy and its “Neither Left nor Right” orientation. Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, is the rising star who wants the FN to firmly assert itself as a party of the Right. She stands for less welfare, less state intervention, and presents herself as a firm believer in the Catholic faith, opposing abortion and same-sex marriage — two issues her aunt and Philippot have more or less avoided. Marion entered Parliament when she was 23 (in 2012), and her bet is that even if the Conservatives come back in 2017, they will not deliver on the issues which matter to the core of the FN vote. So they will be defeated in 2022, and then, but not in 2017, the time of the FN will come. Either alone or in coalition with the Conservatives, but with real hardline Conservatives, not Sarkozy and Juppé. My friend Bruno Larebière, who is a very good analyst of the Right, thinks there is room for another kind of Right, which he calls “the out-of-the system Right.” That is a family stretching from Marion to former Minister Philippe de Villiers to the columnist Eric Zemmour to the Mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard, who was elected with the support of the FN.
OR: Where might any of these figures end up in a Le Pen government?
Camus: That is hard to say, as there is no FN shadow cabinet. The portfolios of Prime Minister, Minister of the Interior, Minister of the Economy, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Defense, and Minister of Justice are those the party will want to control. Philippot and Marion will get a portfolio. Euro MPs Bernard Monot or Jean-Bernard Sulzer might be well suited for Economy. Key figures in the party leadership, such as lawyers Wallerand de Saint-Just and Gilbert Collard and Senator David Rachline, will be present. Although he supports Le Pen, Sr., Euro MP Bruno Gollnisch is not out yet: he is a man of experience, an academic and lawyer with a wide knowledge of foreign affairs and legal matters. But these are just guesses.
OR: If you had to cite a single factor explaining why the FN is enjoying a resurgence, what would it be?
Camus: The average voter would say: “We have tried the Left and the Conservatives and they failed. May be the FN is not entirely fit for the job, but why don’t we try? If not better, they can’t be worse.”
OR: If that’s too reductive, what complex of forces is driving them forward?
Camus: Populism for sure, but populism is a very far-reaching concept. One should speak rather of representative democracy becoming weak and direct democracy appearing as an alternative. Also, the FN gives simple answers to issues that are becoming so complex that the citizens feel stripped of their right and capability to change the situation. With Le Pen, they feel that their future can be shaped by ideological, not technical, choices.
OR: How would further terror attacks affect the party’s electoral prospects?
Camus: The real problem is: will the election take place in a period of calm, or will another attack take place during the campaign? Right now, Marine Le Pen is the candidate whom the French think is the most fit to fight terrorism. Sarkozy comes second. So the more tense the situation becomes, the more easily the FN accedes to the second ballot. That does not mean victory, though. When it comes to making the final choice, many potential FN voters will ask themselves: “Do I really want this lady to have the nuclear codes?”
OR: How can France solve its issues with immigration and assimilation, especially of its Muslim citizens?
Camus: The major problem here is that we have an official policy of assimilation but in everyday life, you can see that there are minorities and that they want to retain a link to their culture, language, and religion — even those members of the community who genuinely want to be part of French society. France has become pluri-ethnic, but while in the U.S., you can be Italian-American or Arab-American, the French still cling to the belief that being French means forgetting everything about your roots. So we need to change that, simply because it does not work. When it comes to the Muslims, we need a clear deal with them. First, the colonial era is over and you are as much entitled to becoming French as anybody else. Second, there is no room here for those who want to impose their culture and/or religion upon other people.
OR: Can briefly you lay out the origins and history of the FN?
Camus: The FN began in 1972 as a party of the traditional extreme Right, and Le Pen’s genius is that he was able to bind together all the sub-cultures of that fringe — which usually fought each other so much that they stayed on the fringe. Le Pen also understood that immigration and national identity would become hot issues at a time when other parties only spoke about growth, purchasing power, and industry. When the continuous growth of the 1960’s and 70’s stopped — and it had already slowed down severely after the first oil crisis — those issues were dealt with by the FN only. Already in 1988, Le Pen had polled 15 percent in the Presidential election. He could have chosen to bargain with the conservative Right and get a few ministerial jobs in exchange for a coalition. But there is a very sharp historical divide in France between the extreme Right and the Conservatives: it has to do with the Dreyfus Affair, the 1930’s, Vichy, the “épuration” of Collaborationists, and the Algerian War. Le Pen did not betray the heritage of his ideological family. He succeeded in building a strong party, but the FN remained on the fringe because Le Pen did not want to reform the party and his rantings about the Holocaust, the Jews, and the Nazi occupation were unacceptable even to those Conservatives who shared his views on immigration.
OR: The party has undergone a very public sanitization under Marine Le Pen — is this genuine? Camouflage? Or a mixture of real reform and cosmetic changes?
Camus: It is genuine when it comes to anti-Semitism and World War II, although people with a neo-Fascist past are still active within Marine Le Pen’s inner circle of advisors. The public discourse has changed and even on immigration, compulsory repatriation is no longer on the agenda. It is not camouflage: sanitization is a political necessity and I believe that neither Marine nor the top leadership are closet Fascists or white supremacists. They certainly believe that European culture should be passed on to new generations, that foreigners cannot become French citizens overnight just because they have an ID card, and that it takes generations to fully become French — but this is not because they believe in the superiority of any “race.” They rather believe that each and every different cultural and ethnic group should live in its own territory without mixing with others. That is cultural differentialism. It is important to understand that Fascism was a moment in the history of the extreme Right, but it did not set up a permanent identity between the extreme Right and Fascism. The extreme Right is able to adapt its goals and means to a new era.
OR: Can you give your thoughts on Marine Le Pen’s relationship with her father, both personally and politically?
Camus: I have a habit of not commenting on personal matters, because I am not intimate with them and only those who are can say. However, the aforementioned book Marine wrote says that she admires him, loves him, but also thinks that as a father, he’s been too distant, not because he does not love his daughters but because he is totally immersed in politics and does not understand the everyday lives and worries of children. Le Pen, Sr., is tough: he had a hard life as a youngster, he was on his own at a young age — and believe me, because my family comes from Brittany too, being a fisherman’s son, and later an orphan, in the 1940’s meant growing up in a very tough environment. Not only because of the war: the region was poor, life at sea was dangerous, there were still illiterate people and those who, like my grandparents, learned French at school while Briton was spoken at home. Marine is also tough. From her book, you understand that she had a hard time growing up as a “normal” youngster, because her family name often meant being subjected to discrimination or at least, prejudice. That is not a love-hate relationship. That is politics coming first, feelings coming second.
OR: One of the notable features of the “new” FN is its abandonment of anti-Semitism in favor of anti-Muslim positions. Is that merely a tactic, or does it reflect a real change in the party’s thinking?
Camus: I am Jewish and I have harshly criticized the FN for tolerating, and even promoting, ideas that flirted with anti-Semitism, including the belief that Jews are not entirely French, that they are pulling the strings of the so-called New World Order. The FN even tolerated Holocaust deniers. So I am not one of those Jewish right-wingers who think that because the Left is anti-Israel and too lenient on Islamic terrorism (this is not true of all Social Democrats, anyway) the FN has become acceptable. I think Le Pen is not a bulwark against anti-Semitism, whether it is Muslim or extreme-Right anti-Semitism. The party would only worsen the relations between Muslims and Jews. On the other hand, it is true that the party is not promoting hatred of Jews. It favors the two-state solution in Israel/Palestine and wants Israel to have the right to exist within secure borders. But, as an observant Jew, I cannot imagine that other Jews would vote for a party which wants to ban ritual slaughter (both halal and kosher) and wants to forbid wearing the hijab and the yarmulke on the streets. We’ve had the right to eat kosher meat and wear traditional religious garb in public for two centuries now. We are no less French for doing so. There is no way the Jews should compromise on those issues. The FN also wants to abolish laws against racism, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust denial. Although I have come to the conclusion that those laws are not the ultimate answer to prejudices, I see the FN proposal as politically dangerous. Were a UMP government to repeal this legislation, I would not think the same, because it would not come from the extreme Right. That is a matter of trust.
OR: What would an FN victory mean for France’s relationship with Israel?
Camus: Well, it would be difficult for the Israeli governement to be more opposed to France than it is now! Netanyahu will certainly call for mass aliyah, but he already does — and that is the essence of Zionism, anyway. There is a widespread feeling in the Israeli right wing that France (and Europe as a whole) are becoming “Islamized” and nothing good can come out of an alliance with them. That is plain stupid, but it is nonetheless the case. The real issue is that a segment of the Jewish community is disillusioned with the Conservatives because they believe the Right is too soft on Islam. So they might consider voting for FN, or the Flemish Vlaams Belang, or the Austrian FPÖ. From that milieu only Geert Wilders is genuinely pro-Israel and without a hint of anti-Semitism, because he has no roots in the extreme Right. But he uses this in order to promote an agenda of hatred against Islam, and that is not acceptable.
OR: What would it mean for French Jews?
Camus: More aliyah. But I cannot accustom myself to the idea that someone would make aliyah just because the extreme Right comes to power. I shall not do that. One of the FN slogans is: “This is our home country.” This is my home country, too, and they’ll not drive me out.
OR: Would a political victory revivify the attitudes of the “old” FN?
Camus: Not if they are smart enough! But one can fear that a victory would give the hardliners within the party, and the closet Fascists who remain (and they are present), a feeling of being all-powerful. That would bring the risk that they would abuse the fundamental rights of their opponents. However, there are counter-powers such as the judiciary, civil society, and the high administration. The high administration holds considerable powers in France, which is a centralized country. Do not forget that at the time of Vichy, the high civil servants gave a ready hand to the discriminatory legislation of Pétain and the collaborators, but the Resistance also drew many of its leaders from civil service.
OR: Do you think that the Left and center-Left in France might benefit from an FN victory in that it could, in theory, force them to get serious both about overcoming internal disputes and also about addressing the very real problems that fuel FN success?
Camus: I hope so, but that would be too late. The possibility of an FN victory has been used far too often by the mainstream parties as an excuse for not addressing core problems. Those being: how do we redistribute less wealth to a growing number of poor people? How do we ensure that industrial growth comes back and that we do not only create jobs in the internet industry and other sectors where only a small segment of the workforce can earn a living? How do we retain our national sovereignty and do not yield to whatever the non-elected European Commission decides? What does it mean to be French in the epoch of globalization?
OR: One interesting feature of the Hollande administration has been its shift towards military interventionism — would that continue if Le Pen wins?
Camus: No. The FN stands against military intervention in the Middle East, even against ISIS, because it believes France’s national interest is not that of “the West,” much less that of the U.S. They admire Putin’s Russia to the point where they would certainly betray any of our allies who fell out with Moscow.
OR: Do you think than an FN victory could lead to a so-called Frexit?
Camus: If the FN do not immediately ask for Frexit after they come to power, that would be an absolute betrayal of the very core value they stand for. But the FN electorate is more split on this issue than is assumed: about one half of it does not think we should drop the euro. For them, voting FN is about immigration and identity.
OR: Is there a winning strategy for the Socialists here? If so, what is it?
Camus: The only winning strategy would have been to stand by the promise to bring back jobs and growth, even limited growth. Another possibility is to hope the French will reject Sarkozy and a fragmented Right will not be on the second ballot. This is possible if Sarkozy wins the primary election. But let’s consider the case of Hollande defeating Le Pen on the second ballot: he will be so weak a President that he will not have any legitimacy. Another possibility is that Hollande will not seek another term. Then, Manuel Valls would be a credible contender against the FN — the only one who has enough charisma and ability as a statesman. I think that a 2017 loss is almost a foregone conclusion for the Socialists. They are at the end of a historical cycle, and it may be that it’s time for them to re-start from the ground up, building a new party, with new people and a clear choice between the Blairite Left and social democracy.
Jean-Yves Camus is Research Fellow at France’s Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques (IRIS) and Director of the Observatoire des Radicalites Politiques (ORAP). His book Les droites extremes en Europe (co-authored with Nicolas Lebourg) will be published by Harvard University Press in 2017.