What is behind the rise of the far right in France?

Mainstreaming of far-right politics in France is due to ‘declinist’ attitude acceptance of hardline views analysts say.

A couple looks at official posters of the French far-right party Rassemblement National presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and French far-right party Reconquete presidential candidate Eric Zemmour in Montaigu, western France, on April 2, 2022 [Loic Venance/AFP]

Paris, France – Edwige Diaz bristles at the words “far right” when used to describe French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.

Diaz, who is Le Pen’s campaign spokesperson and regional and municipal councillor of the southwest region of Gironde, said “far right” is a pejorative term that does not reflect who or what the Rassemblement National (RN) party stands for.

“We strongly disapprove of this word,” she told Al Jazeera.

“We define each other as localists, or nationalists.”

While the RN party campaigns on topics central to the far right such as identity, security, and immigration, Diaz said Le Pen has a whole agenda, particularly in relation to the economy, that is closer to what left-wing parties in France once offered.

“It’s not the left against the right anymore,” Diaz explains.

“It’s the localists against the globalists.”

Running in a presidential election for her third time, Le Pen seems to have learned from the mistakes of her past candidacies and has embraced a makeover that has seen her tone down her hardline rhetoric on immigration.

“What Marine Le Pen is doing is smoothing over her political image, where she presents herself as very practical and does not highlight her most extreme ideas,” said Gilles Ivaldi, a researcher at CEVIPOF (Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po).

Ivaldi describes Le Pen’s approach as the “normalisation of the far right”.

“This strategy aims at making the RN more credible, and more socially respectable,” he said, adding that Le Pen is aware that the economy is of concern to most.

“That’s where she has headed her agenda towards.”

Though still identified by most French voters as being far right, Le Pen has a political image that has improved and that has allowed her to gain ground with voters who previously disagreed with her politics, Ivaldi believes.

Tipping the right wing over

The emergence of another far-right candidate on France’s political scene – Eric Zemmour, with his provocative and disruptive campaign – has boosted Le Pen’s new standing as a “practical” politician.

Convicted of hate speech and known for his vitriol against immigrants and Islam, Zemmour leads a party – Reconquete or “Reconquest” – that is named after the historic period known as “Reconquista” when Christian forces drove Muslim rulers out from the Iberian peninsula.

Zemmour has succeeded in not only winning some of Le Pen’s voter base over to his own party; he has also taken supporters from the mainstream centre-right that had traditionally been with the party Les Republicains.

“Thanks to Zemmour, [Le Pen] appears to be much more moderate,” Ivaldi said.

“People now equate far right with just Zemmour, which is a big mistake as Le Pen is without a doubt still from the far right,” he said.

For Jean-Yves Camus, a journalist and political analyst, the merging of the right wing into the far right is one of the biggest developments of the election.

Zemmour hosting a rally last month at the Trocadero square – a symbolic place for Les Republicains – was no coincidence, Camus explained.

“His call to important figures from Les Republicains such as Eric Ciotti, Nadine Morano, [and] François Xavier Bellamy is a discreet invitation to join his campaign,” Camus said.

If Zemmour continues to poll higher than Les Republicains candidate Valerie Pecresse, he will be in a position of strength to negotiate his main goal – the reconfiguration of France’s right-wing parties, Camus added.

More common ground than divisions

Le Pen and Zemmour’s combined poll ratings – 24 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively – amount to an unprecedented more than 30 percent for the far right in France.

Both Camus and Ivaldi attribute the main elements behind the far-right surge to “pessimistic” and “declinist” attitudes in France.

“French people feel like their country has changed and lost its power,” Camus said, adding that the November 2015 attacks on French soil by the ISIL (ISIS) group had played a large part in such feelings.

“Part of the population believe in the war against Islam, and view the Muslim community here as the enemy from within,” Camus said.

Zemmour has capitalised on such sentiments, and he shares the view that Muslims in France are not able to culturally assimilate.

The RN party – known up until 2018 as the National Front (FN) – has been around for some 40 years, and its views have spread from a fringe movement to mainstream French society. The far right are also more united than the various left parties.

“Many parties, especially on the right wing, take as their own some of the FN’s favourite themes,” Ivaldi said.

“Zemmour pictures a France from the 1950s, a mono-ethnic and Christian France, and has a reactionary agenda on women’s and LGBTQ rights,” he said.

Le Pen has modernised her party and defines herself as a candidate who promotes and defends women’s rights, he added.

The main points that Zemmour and Le Pen agree upon are primarily the necessity for France to re-establish its full sovereignty from the European Union; limiting or ending immigration; and the belief that Islam is incompatible with the French Republic.

Campaign spokesperson Diaz is adamant that Le Pen has succeeded in not only distancing but also differentiating herself from her far-right challenger.

“We don’t play on the same field,” she said.

“Zemmour based his candidacy on testimonies and opinions, but he doesn’t know how to apply them,” she continues, pointing out that Zemmour has not explained how he will restrict immigration.

Le Pen, on the other hand, has written draft referendum legislation “that will be submitted to the people once she gets elected, with tangible measures”.

“Her campaign has been impeccable,” Diaz adds. “She is extremely prepared.”

Source: Al Jazeera