Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for the National Front in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, delivers a speech after results in the second-round regional elections in Henin-Beaumont, France, December 13, 2015.
Yves Herman / Reuters

Marine Le Pen, the energetic leader of France’s anti-immigrant and anti-EU Front National (FN), has quickly become one of Europe’s most influential and visible leaders. After a strong showing in the 2014 European Union elections in France and in the first round of regional elections earlier this month, Le Pen's party looked set to take office accross much of France. Yet as voters went to the polls on Sunday, opposition to FN rule galvanized. In the end, the party failed to win even one regional presidency.

But despite FN’s electoral losses, its ideology is gaining popularity across the country. The influx of migrants and refugees, growing fear of radical Islam, lackluster economic growth, and lingering unemployment have called into question national identity, multiculturalism, and the efficacy and purpose of the European Union—not just in France, but region-wide. In turn, ultra-nationalist parties such as the FN have become more powerful, with worrying repercussions.

As one of the European Union’s most powerful actors, France is perhaps one of the most striking examples of what happens when xenophobia mixes with the challenges of traditional politics. French citizens feel increasingly excluded from government decisions because, as FN would put it, policies are “imposed” by the European Union, socialists have “abandoned” the working class, and the distance between rulers and the electorate has widened. The party’s supporters fear that their nation is in decline because the influence of globalization on national values, economic turmoil, and Germany’s unchallenged influence on Europe, and are grappling with the growing threat of Islamist extremism, exemplified by the November terrorist attacks in Paris. In turn, many have lost faith in standard political parties. Compared to previous regional elections, Socialists and their coalition have lost 6 percent of their vote share, and the center-right about 4 percent.  

And here, Le Pen has seized an opportunity, laying the blame for France’s parties at the feet of conventional politicians, while offering hypothetical protection for native citizens and domestic industries. In many ways, this may be summarized with a flagship concept such as “national preference” (French citizens come first) and the slogan La France d’abord! Most importantly, FN promises to regain lost national pride by reducing immigration, closing state borders, imposing national protectionism in the economic sector, and abandoning many transnational agreements and governing bodies.

If France is unique in its obsession with national history, exceptionalism, and grandeur, the right-leaning nationalist phenomenon that embodies this obsession is by no means limited to French politics. Since Jean-Marie Le Pen’s first successes with FN in the 1980s, many other movements have tried to adopt similar discourses, and found inspiration in Le Pen’s words. Today, these far-right-wing groups proliferate at party and non-party level throughout Europe. 

A EUROPEAN PHENOMENON

The rise of nationalist parties in Europe has made the continent's center-right nervous. Many rightist parties have responded to the challenge by adopting more conservative and protectionist platforms. Hungary, Poland, and the United Kingdom, for example, have taken tougher stances on refugees and EU politics, and have amplified their rhetoric on national values and customs. British Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, has offered a referendum on EU membership, while continuously trying to propose tougher rules for EU citizens seeking to move to and work within the UK. This represents a strong challenge to an important pillar of European integration—free travel enjoyed by Europeans.

A supporter walks on a placard to support Marion Marechal-Le Pen, French National Front political party member and candidate for National Front in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (PACA) region.
A supporter walks on a placard to support Marion Marechal-Le Pen, French National Front political party member and candidate for National Front in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (PACA) region, after results in the second-round regional elections in Marseille, France, December 13, 2015.
Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters
The European center-left, meanwhile, has responded by dismissing the nationalist parties rather than by standing against their policies and platforms outright, when not adopting policies that partially legitimize the far-right. France’s present socialist government has not, for example, showed a lot of sympathy toward migrants and refugees arriving from Italy and the others staying in Calais. This is nothing new, especially in France: For example, French socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius argued in 1984 that the FN posed, on immigration, “good questions,” to which it merely gave the “wrong answers.”

In fact, on some issues, parties across the French political spectrum have been more aligned than not. Immigration is one example, though Le Pen shows the most radical approach. One very recent FN leaflet went straight to the point: “Stop à la submersion migratoire”— Stop the migration submersion. 

Meanwhile, the center-right Les Républicains party, led by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has touted online surveys that demonstrate support for limiting France’s social benefits programs for immigrants. At the same, Sarkozy has opposed visa-free travel within Schengen Zone because he believes that refugees coming through Greece will target France for its social provisions. On September 16, he even suggested that migrants be given a “temporary” non-political refugee status that would require them to return home when the conflicts in their origin states end.

These sentiments have even been echoed by some French left-wing intellectuals. The economist Jacques Sapir, for example, denied that FN is “xenophobic.” Further, he has called for a unified “national front of liberation” against the euro—a coalition of French political parties from across the political spectrum that oppose France’s neoliberal agenda both domestically and internationally. 

Others are even more outspoken in defending the far-right. The philosopher and self-declared libertarian socialist Michel Onfray openly criticizes Islam, and has suggested that the FN is not responsible for the turmoil in European politics. Rather, Onfray blames the European Union for undermining French sovereignty, and the traditional right and left for political strife.

Supporters paste a poster of Marine Le Pen, France's National Front leader, on a wall before a political rally for local elections in Frejus March 18, 2014.
Supporters paste a poster of Marine Le Pen, France's National Front leader, on a wall before a political rally for local elections in Frejus March 18, 2014.
Eric Gaillard / Reuters

TURN RIGHT 

Across Europe, social democracy has become synonymous with overspending in the public sector and on welfare. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ dreams of a post-austerity Greece have been dismissed as impossible, and British Labour Party head Jeremy Corbyn has widely been lampooned since his appointment as unelectable due to his anti-austerity political platform.

In turn, Europe will instead see more nationalistic and right-leaning policies in the years ahead. Throughout France and elsewhere, calls for reduced immigration seem realistic, along with attempts to limit the free movement of people, benefits reductions to EU migrants, the promotion of national sovereignty. And in terms of economic and political integration, as previously suggested, the United Kingdom soon faces a referendum on staying in the European Union. A poll commissioned by The Independent in late-November showed a majority of UK voters supporting an EU exit, even though the director of the Bank of England suggests that the country has benefitted from its membership.

In all this, France finds itself at the forefront of this nationalist Europe; in fact, the FN has been something of a vanguard since the 1980s. Despite an evident softening of some FN politicians and their talking points, the party platform is no less radical and ultra-nationalist than it was in the past. For example, it is against the loss of French language purity, for a renegotiation of the European Convention on Human Rights, and rejects the Schengen Agreement and the principle of free movement in order to wrest control of its own borders. Last but not least, the party also calls for dismantling of the euro, as it sees the currency as a “symbol of federalist European politics.”

These European far-right parties, which have benefited from the rising inequality, high unemployment, low electoral turnout, and increasing popular stances of nationalism, in fact, prescribe an anti-global, and anti-EU agenda. These policies may seem appealing during troubling times, even if it means that states are less equipped to tackle problems. Others from more moderate and left-wing parties have also accepted these solutions. But those who have backed these nationalist parties’ agendas have implicitly helped building a “Fortress Europe” that is doomed to fail. If a true progressive alternative does not emerge, then France and other European nations must brace themselves for years of success of far-right political policies.

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  • ANDREA MAMMONE is a historian of Modern Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy
  • More By Andrea Mammone