PARIS – In some Western capitals there has been an air of inevitability about the eventual capture of the presidency of one of the world's richest and most powerful countries by the far-right.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally (previously known as the National Front), has been steadily making electoral gains since she replaced her Holocaust-denying father as the party’s leader in 2011. In 2014 her party won elections to the European Parliament in France, and came in first place in the 2015 regional elections with more than 25 per cent of the vote. In 2017’s presidential election, Le Pen won 21.3 percent of the vote, forcing a second round, in which she won almost one in three votes.
Ahead of next year’s presidential election however, support for the far-right in France appears to be stalling: in regional elections marred by low turnout, Le Pen and her party did much worse than expected and failed to win a single region. Instead, it is the centre-right that is gaining momentum and becoming more likely to pose the biggest challenge to French Presidential Emmanuel Macron.
But as the so-called traditional centre-right parties move to emulate and even advance the far-right’s most virulent policies on immigration, security, and society, it raises the question of what defeating the far-right in France would actually look like.
In the north of France, regional president Xavier Bertrand has emerged as a clear third option in April 2022’s presidential elections. The former insurance salesman with a blue-collar background and a law-and-order message sits just a few percentage points below Le Pen and Macron in the polls and has been steadily building momentum over the summer with campaign stops across France. If he were to advance to the second round of France’s two-part election, head-to-head polling has him beating either candidate.
Bertrand’s supporters paint him as a breath of fresh air, a down-to-earth politician from an economically struggling region who is close to the people.
“There’s no big speeches, there’s just a real strategic vision and concrete results,” said Julien Martinez, a 32-year-old representative from Oyonnax, who is part of Bertrand’s campaign team, run through a think-tank called La Manufacture.
“Xavier Bertrand is someone who knows how to put himself in the shoes of everyday citizens,” said Frédérique Macarez, the current mayor of Saint-Quentin, where Bertrand served for one term.
But others worry that he – and his party, the Republicans – has drifted increasingly close to the far-right, especially on security and immigration.
“On those subjects, it’s the far-right that writes the rules of the game,” said Pierre Roques, the coordinator of Utopia 56, a migrants rights organisation in Calais. “All of the other parties that want to access power have to position themselves in relation to the far-right.”
Roques noted that as president of the region that includes Calais, Bertrand has called for Frontex, a European border police force, to monitor raft crossings in the English channel and had recently dismantled a 500-person migrant camp.
In a wide-ranging interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, Bertrand presented a dystopian picture of France, and vowed to crack down on what he called “migratory laxism” in the wake of knife attacks in a Nice church in 2020 and at a police station near Paris called Rambouillet the following year.
“It must be recognised after the terrorist attacks in Nice and Rambouillet that uncontrolled immigration acts as a breeding ground for terrorism,” Bertrand said. “I propose to abolish all visa allocation and all development aid for all countries that refuse to take back their convicted nationals.”
It’s a message that seems to resonate with voters in the north of France, who elected Bertrand by a resounding margin in the June regional elections. Bertrand fared even better against the far-right in 2021 than he had in the previous regional elections held five years before.
The mayor of Calais and Vice President of the region who is close to Bertrand, Natacha Bouchart, easily beat out the National Rally in the Pas-de-Calais regional elections, also held in June – not because she was softer on immigration, but the opposite, Roques said.
“Her politics are so far to the right that she’s eating up the space of the National Rally,” he said.
On a national level, Bertrand has called for immigration quotas and a referendum on “laicité,” a French concept akin to the separation of church and state. He has proposed lowering the penal age to 15 years old and says that as president he will “take control of Islamic radicalism.”
Bertrand’s spokesperson Jean Paul Mulot said that not all countries would be concerned by an immigration ban, but only those – such as Albania – that refuse to repatriate felons convicted of serious crimes. He told VICE World News that sending Frontex to the English channel was aimed at fighting back against an uptick in human trafficking, and said that European institutions needed to play a more active role in controlling migratory flows.
“Our approach [on migration and security] has nothing to do with that of the National Front,” Mulot said. “You have to be generous, but you can’t be naive either.”
Bertrand’s rabble-rousing nonetheless has seemed to hit a vein. Valeurs Actuelles, a newspaper known for its hard-core conservatism, wrote that Bertrand was “setting the bar” on the right.
French experts on radicalisation say that this type of rhetoric has become par for the course on what was considered the French traditional right.
“If you take a purely programmatic view, the traditional right’s inflection toward the far-right has been going on for quite some time,” said Emilien Houard-Vial, a doctoral student and professor at Sciences Po who studies the French right. “The right has adopted themes and proposals destined to seduce far-right voters since the mid-80s.”
He noted that when it comes to actual policies, the National Rally is still significantly more extreme than traditional conservative parties. On immigration, for example, the National Rally has pushed for a blanket ban, while the traditional right has called for strict quotas and the repatriation of criminals.
According to Bénédicte Laumond, a researcher at Sciences Po who studies the evolution of far-right rhetoric in France and Germany, it’s not so much the far-right that has softened its line, but the traditional right that has adapted to it.
“One big takeaway by historians is that often democracies erode, or even collapse, not necessarily by the actions of the most radical parties – the extremes like the National Rally in France – but by the action or inaction of the mainstream parties,” she said. “What’s shocking for me is not that the National Rally and the Republicans have gotten closer. It’s that the Republicans have gotten closer to the National Rally.”
Even candidates seen as squarely centrist, such as Michel Barnier, a potential candidate for the Republicans known for having helped negotiate Brexit, have proposed drastic measures. Barnier went as far as to suggest a three to five-year moratorium on immigration.
Macron’s own party, La République en Marche, has also shifted to a harder line on security in response to the rightward shift of traditional parties, Laumond said.
“When you listen to the speeches of [current Interior Minister] Gerald Darmanin you might wonder whether this is a minister from a liberal party or a far-right party,” she said.
According to Houard-Vial, Bertrand represents the “centre” of the French right – and is widely considered more moderate than candidates like Laurent Wauquiez, the former president of the Republican Party. Bertrand has made it clear that he will not enter into any type of coalition with the National Rally.
“Unlike the National Rally, we don’t feed on the unhappiness of people,” Martinez, from Oyonnax, said. “We have a positive vision of things.”
“For the National Rally, the alpha and the omega is the immigrant,” he added. “Our alpha and omega is bringing people together.”
Bertrand has instead trumpeted his own brand of “social Gaullism,” a mix of traditional conservatism that nonetheless focuses on extending social services to the poor – a concept named after former French president Charles De Gaulle.
In speeches and tours across the country, Bertrand highlights his non-elite education at the University of Reims and his support for the grassroots anti-government Yellow Vests protests.
Like De Gaulle, who himself came from Lille in the Hauts de France region, Bertrand has made a point of showing support for factory employees, train operators and other blue collar workers.
“Above all, the message he wants to transmit is his attachment, his faithfulness to the heritage of Charles De Gaulle,” said Frédérique Neau-Dufour, a De Gaulle scholar and author of his wife’s biography. “One can observe that as regional president, he has taken certain measures that are close to this mission of serving the most down-trodden [such as, for example, a fee waiver for France’s notoriously expensive driving test].”
Some members of Bertrand’s own party have in fact criticised Bertrand for having social policies too close to those of centrist president Macron – which could explain his recent embrace of some of the virulent culture war rhetoric that has been operationalised by the French right, according to Houard-Vial.
Bertrand – who is close to Darmanin, Macron’s hard-right interior minister – has fought back against this “soft” image, seeking to separate himself from Macron on questions of security.
Ultimately, Bertrand’s success in the regional elections, Houard-Vial said, may not transfer over to the presidential elections scheduled for next April. Those elections were marked by a high level of absenteeism – especially from far-right voters, who are traditionally less likely to vote in regional elections.
“[The Republicans] won because their base [came out to vote], and not because they co-opted the far-right’s strategy,” he said.
Jean-Yves Camus, the director of a think-tank at the Fondation Jean Jaures that studies radicalisation, warned that while Bertrand will need to some degree to “surround himself with people further to the right than himself in order to steal some votes from Marine Le Pen,” aping far-right rhetoric is not, and has never been, a successful campaign strategy for the traditional right.
“If you try to take down the National Rally by imitating their way of speaking and aligning your policies with theirs, it will never work,” he said.