The Front National: Populism in Europe

The Front National will attain unprecedented support in the French departmental elections less than a month from today. Although the party, led by Marine Le Pen, received 17.9% and 24.86% of votes in recent presidential and European elections respectively, it has not yet replicated such results in local elections. In one survey the Front National is ahead of both the Parti socialiste and the Union pour un mouvement populaire at 30%. The Front National is no longer simply a protest party at major elections; an increasing number of French voters trust the party to govern.

France is suffering from the consequences of the financial crisis, in addition to its own pre-existing issues. Francois Hollande has failed to keep his promise to inverse the unemployment curve and the economy is seized up from a mass of bureaucracy and red tape.  Yet despite the electorate’s rejection of Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential elections and Hollande having approval ratings only envied by the captain of a sinking ship, there is a strong chance French voters will choose once again between Hollande and Sarkozy in 2017.

Le Pen has exploited Hollande’s foundering attempts to reinvigorate the economy, which have been burdened by the European Commission’s demand that France reduce its deficit. After empty rhetoric of change, physical measures such as closing the border are attractive to a pessimistic electorate. She offers the people of France a narrative with tangible solutions to the country’s problems. Sarkozy on the contrary recently admitted he has yet to develop new creative policies.

Conditions in France are therefore ideal for the Front National’s growth. High levels of immigration and economic inequality are aggravating factors that result in a boost in support for the far-right. The party has been able to appeal to the victims (or at least perceived victims) of globalisation and ultra-liberalism. Defending those, often small business owners and unskilled workers, who find their income and social position precarious from the alleged attacks and inaction of the elite parties is the means by which the party has built an electorate.

Any controversy involving the party is nonchalantly brushed off as conspiracy. The Front National plays on the victimisation of the party at the hands of the elite parties and media, responding with adversarial tactics. For example, the party was banned from the Republican march after the Charlie Hebdo attacks by parties on the left. This “political manoeuvre” allowed the Front National to draw attention to their exclusion from and distance to the rest of the political establishment as opposed to the focus falling on the reasons for their exclusion.

Of course the Front National flits across the fine line where nationalism borders upon xenophobia. The party advocates a strong national identity with the rights of French nationals prioritised over immigrants. However Marine Le Pen rejects the far-right label, favouring the term “national-populist” instead. Le Pen declares that she is neither left nor right and places herself to the left of Barack Obama. Analyst Christian Saint-Étienne describes the economic policy of the Front National as a form of Marxist-Peronism, a notable change from the more liberal economic ideas of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The most notorious of the party’s policies are the withdrawal from the Euro and breaking free from the European Union. France would then have its own market and currency. Whilst reducing taxes for small business may be popular it is not sustainable. Additionally, increasing regulations on cross border trade will destroy France’s export industry including many of its most successful enterprises. Such policies will lead to widespread unemployment, particularly affecting the popular class, according to Saint-Étienne.

Far-right populist parties across Europe have many distinct qualities but they have one key common attribute. Stéphane François from the University of Valenciennes explains that “these parties play on the accumulation of fears. The financial crisis and economic stagnation create a favourable context for these parties to increase their power.” Rather than attacking the rights and wrongs of a party, the effective solution to sapping the strength of right-wing populism lies in removing the reasons for fear and a return to economic stability.

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