People & Power

The Dark Side of France

People and Power examines the impact of the far-right on the French presidential elections.

Last month more than seven and a half million French voters propelled the National Front’s Marine Le Pen through to the final, second round of this year’s presidential election on May 7.

Though recent opinion polls have consistently been against her getting past the centrist Emmanuel Macron to the Elysee Palace, the very fact that an openly xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-European Union politician is on the final ballot speaks to a great and troubling fracture in French society.

So how and why have so many people been persuaded to back her?

Though she has now, temporarily, stepped down as leader of her party, her affiliations are in no doubt.

The conundrum remains: how has someone who for years has been so identified with far-right chauvinism and exclusion managed to give her party an acceptable face and get within touching distance of the presidency?

French producers Charles Emptaz and Claire Billet, who usually spend their professional lives covering foreign stories far from home, were as puzzled by these questions as we were, so several weeks ago we sent them behind-the-scenes on the campaign trail to investigate.


By Charles Emptaz and Claire Billet

Never, in the post-World War II history of France, has a far-right party gained so much support. The National Front (FN) has been steadily rising in the polls over the past 15 years. Though it is still widely shunned by the political establishment, this jingoistic far-right party now runs 11 towns and has 20 MPs in the European Parliament.

That’s why this year’s French presidential election is making history. It reveals the successes of Marine Le Pen’s strategy: For five years as head of the National Front she has somehow managed to widen her appeal by “detoxifying” a party that under her father and former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was regularly accused of being fascist.

It has happened at a time when France’s voters have rejected the two big political forces – the Socialists and various Republican-led centre-right coalitions – which have dominated French politics since the 1950s; a model that has now been abandoned as voters become more disgruntled and polarised.

Far-right supporters attend a presidential campaign rally by National Front leader Marine Le Pen at the Zenith Metropole [J Mitchell/Getty Images]

The singular unpopularity of President Francois Hollande – held in such low public esteem that even he thought it wise not to seek a second term – allied to the divisions and contradictions within his Socialist party, and a Republican candidate in the crosshairs of judicial inquiry, all began opening up the way for Marine Le Pen to take on her most likely rival, the centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron.

The opinion polls say she has no chance to win the presidency, but remember this is the era of political shocks, of Brexit and Donald Trump, and voter abstentions and disgust with the status quo – and nothing, therefore, is certain.

To us, as we’ve been making this film, it seemed like the French are at crossroads.

For the past decade, we have travelled the world to cover conflict zones and forgotten wars for mostly French TV broadcasters. We have only observed the growing influence of the far-right in our country from afar. To us, the National Front has always been the essence of the nostalgia felt by a small minority of people.

The French until now have been widely opposed to goals and beliefs they have seen as a redolent of oppression – anti-Semitism, anti-Islam, ultra-nationalism, chauvinism etc. So we were very taken aback when we returned to France and realised we had arrived at a moment in history when the National Front could actually rise to power in France.

As French citizens – let alone journalists – we knew we had to try and understand this new reality. What had we lost sight of?

More than 7.6 million people were to choose the National Front in the first-round of the presidential election, the traditional parties were humiliated.

Had our country, which gave birth to the Enlightenment and human rights, suddenly become deeply intolerant? Why were voters shifting to the far-right? What was Marine Le Pen’s strategy all about? Was it possible that she could actually win? As simple as these questions may seem, we knew there were other complex things going on here and we were eager to tease out the answers in our film.

Unemployment, easy solutions and loud slogans

When one looks at a map of France showing the areas of highest unemployment, it is remarkably similar to the one showing support for the National Front. At the last legislative elections, the party came first in the North, East and around the Mediterranean Sea. So that became our route map into the geography of the far right.

Hayange in north-eastern France was our first destination. The town is emblematic of shifting support from left-wing to extreme right-wing politicians – one of the features of this election.

Half the population used to work in the metal industry and this was once a place where backing for trade unions and socialism was deeply embedded. But when Indian-born British steel billionaire Lakshmi Mittal had the Hayange-Florange plants closed down, unemployed workers and their families began gravitating towards the National Front.

The plant closures created a predictable furore, but nevertheless we wanted to understand, what could Fabien Engelmann, a National Front mayor whom many believe to be rather too close to white supremacists, have ever promised to win their electoral support?

It turned out that to fight unemployment the National Front had offered solutions almost like miracles: protectionism, closing the French borders, leaving the EU, minimising immigration – none of which was likely to make the slightest difference to the voters’ plight but fed into a strong sense of grievance.

It was a pattern we began to see in other parts of France: globalisation’s victims turning to a party that offered easy solutions and loud slogans, whereas more mainstream parties had to follow more realistic platforms.

A growing fear of the unknown, intolerance, and lack of education

Often, as we travelled south down the country to areas where the National Front’s strength was growing, we heard words and phrases like “misery, debts, cost of living, forsaken places, governmental deficiency, useless elites, corrupt politicians …”

And over and again we heard more unacceptable expressions such as “privileged immigrants, the link between migration and terrorism, the link between insecurity and immigration”. All together we witnessed a growing fear of the unknown, intolerance and a lack of education for which we needed sociological explanations.

So we spoke to political scientists and experts, we spoke to prospective National Front candidates in the forthcoming legislative elections that will follow the presidential poll in June, and the slick, if slightly sinister, party Svengalis who hovered behind the scenes policing those candidates’ more unacceptable utterances to journalists.

We spoke to some of those puzzled and disturbed by being on the receiving end of National Front opprobrium and we attended rallies where Marine Le Pen galvanised supporters by appealing to their nationalist tendencies and darker instincts, their fears of terrorism and “uncontrolled” immigration.

It became more than a little depressing.

As you will see from our film, not every one was economically marginalised or preternaturally racist or intolerant; many seemed to be ordinary people, fed up with the old order and perfectly able to articulate their anxiety about what a changing world meant for them and their country. But, speaking personally, it was sad to see how many of them were now buying into views that not that long ago would never have been heard outside the fringes of politics.

How that will all be reflected in the final vote remains, at time of writing, to be determined. And certainly many French people will rally around Marine Le Pen’s opponent – whatever their politics – in an effort to make sure her hands are kept away from the levers of power. But the legacy of this election and its disturbing undertones may last a lot longer than the result.