Posters from Jean-Marie Le Pen's 2002 presidential campaign and Marine Le Pen's in 2012

A History of the National Front

How did a small, marginalised party end up the potential winner of today's French presidential election?

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07 May 2017, 4:32pm

Posters from Jean-Marie Le Pen's 2002 presidential campaign and Marine Le Pen's in 2012

Once a small Neo-fascist group that was created to centralise French nationalist forces in the 1970s, the National Front has since evolved into a party that counts 84,000 members and one Presidential candidate. How did a small, marginalised party – which only managed to gain 0.52% of the public's trust the first time they entered a general election in 1973 – end up the potential winner of today's French presidential election? We decided to take a look at the last 50 years of the far-right party's history.

The Origins of the National Front

If we are to believe the website of the National Front (find a cached version here), it was Jean-Marie Le Pen who founded the party in 1972. But that's is not exactly the case. In reality, Le Pen was the first president of the National Front for French Unity (Front National pour l'Unité Française – the official party name at the time), but he was not the one who created it.

The origins of the NF can be traced back to a myriad of small far-right groups, and in particular Ordre Nouveau. That movement was founded in 1969 and its principles were stated clearly by one of its leaders, François Brigneau (a former militiaman) a few years after that – during a rally in 1971: "We must create a revolutionary party," he said. "White like our race, red like our blood and green like our hopes." This was a direct reference to the Italian Social Movement (MSI), which was a fascist party created by supporters of former dictator Benito Mussolini in 1946, and which by the 1960s had become the fourth most popular party in Italy.

In his book Le Front National: à la onquête du pouvoir? political scientist Alexandre Dézé states that the aim of Ordre Nouveau was to bring together all the different French right-wing movements and "consolidate the unity of French nationalism." In June 1972, the party decided to stand in the 1973 general elections, within a more global framework – and so, on October 5, 1972 the Front National was formed. Ordre Nouveau was looking for a more respectable figurehead. After Dominique Venner and Jacques Susini both declined the job offer, Le Pen who at the moment was known for his involvement in the Algerian War (and later accused of leading a campaign of torture during his time as a lieutenant) was named the party's president.

The 1970s

In the hope of attracting businessmen and craftsmen in the general election of 1973, Jean-Marie Le Pen ran a very liberal and anti-taxation campaign. Among other measures the FN proposed, they demanded a presidential regime complimented by an assembly elected by a proportional vote and they also urged for a strict immigration policy. The campaign failed miserably: in the end, the NF only appealed to 0.52 percent of the voters.

Le Pen tried his luck again in the presidential elections of 1974, and this time got 0.75 percent of the vote. According to historian Valérie Igounet, this campaign caused a surge in membership and therefore guaranteed Le Pen a leading role in the far-right scene. However, the electoral disappointments did not stop coming. With a score of 0.33 percent in the first round of the general elections in March 1978, when FN focused its campaign on "the dangers of immigration", and a candidature in the presidential elections of 1981 that failed due to insufficient sponsorship, the party began to stagnate, counting less than 300 members by the end of the decade.

A Small Taste of Success

The FN had to wait until 1982 to experience its first taste of success. During that year's local elections, they got 13.3 percent of the vote in Grade-Synthe, 12.16 percent in Dreux-Ouest and 19.6 percent in Dreux-Est – all communes in northern France. However, their first real win came in 1984, when the NF managed to get three members elected into the European Parliament.

According to Pascal Perrineau, these elections marked "the National Front's true entry onto the political scene," something that of course shocked many. As the political scientist explains in his book, La France au Front (Fayard, 2014) "with 11 percent of the ballots cast, Jean-Marie Le Pen's success is interpreted as an 'onset of fever', characteristic of nationalistic movements common to French political history (Bonapartism, Boulangism, Poujadism)."

Historian Nicolas Lebourg puts this success down to a "right-leaning electorate faced with a left government – 21 percent of voters that chose Jacques Chirac in 1981, voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1984, against just the 3 percent of those that voted for communist Georges Marchais in 1981." Two years later, the NF won 35 seats in the National Assembly.

François Mitterrand

As stated by Franz-Olivier Giesbert in his book La fin d'une époque, many analysts believed that the NF's success in the 1986 general elections could be put down to structural reasons. François Mitterrand had implemented proportional voting which created more parliamentary seats (the number of MPs rose from 491 to 577). Furthermore, Mitterrand was accused of bowing down to Le Pen who, boasting a certain number of voters, had expressed outrage over the fact that he hadn't been invited to any of the TV debates. Following that, the then French President wrote to the heads of television channels asking to remedy the issue, in the name of democracy and pluralism.

As expected, both the right-wing and communist parties decried socialist Mitterrand for facilitating the NF's visibility as a political tactic in order to prevent the right from gaining a comfortable majority in Palais Bourbon.

But to Nicolas Lebourg, this theory seems farfetched. "Mitterrand certainly played a part [in helping NF] but this is more of a conspiracy theory," he said in an interview to VICE France. The historian, who specialises in the history of the National Front, also reminded us that "the proportional representation system was part of the left's platform since 1972. This was not some measure that Mitterrand pulled out of his hat when the NF reared its ugly head. Furthermore, a presidential telephone call and an appearance on François-Henri de Virieu's television show L'Heure de Vérité is not enough to sway millions of voters."

M. Lebourg believes that limiting the scope of NF's rhetoric to "dangerous thinking" allowed the right and the extreme left to blame it all on Mitterrand. With this, the right finds credibility in the Gaullist myth of a French nation that never supported the extreme right, that the FN only exists because of rogue politicians who perverted the course of the nation; whereas the extreme left can maintain that the working classes are pure and the FN is a product of the deceitful behaviour of corrupt politicians. According to Lebourg, the popularity of this myth shows a certain collective immaturity.

What makes the NF attractive then? According to Pascal Perrineau, the NF's success during the 1980s is connected to the socio-economic shifts of the times." In his book, La France au Front, he states that Le Pen's success is a result "of the trend of protest politics, sweeping right-wing voters who were perplexed by their defeat in 1981, and of the fact that large French cities were already dealing with growing financial insecurity and immigration."

An Organised Political Movement

From the mid 1980s until the end of the 1990s, the National Front transformed from a traditional party with little political or ideological coherence to an organised political movement. At the same time, Le Pen became ever more provocative. In 1987, he went so far as to publicly state that the gas chambers used by the Nazis were "merely a minor detail in the history of the Second World War." Some specialists agree that this statement severely harmed the NF's reputation. "That statement sealed the end of the era, during which Jean-Marie Le Pen had been regarded as a potential President of the Republic," writes Valérie Igounet in her book, Le Front national: de 1972 à nos jours.

However, Igounet view was not reflected in the ballot boxes. In the presidential elections of 1988, Jean-Marie Le Pen won 14.38 percent of the vote in the first round which, according to Nicolas Lebourg, was a score that led him "to question whether this 14 percent was despite or due to the 'minor detail' affair". Jean-Marie Le Pen was even in the lead in Marseille, ahead of François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.

Even if the NF lost in the general elections of the same year, their foothold was still strong in the local elections of 1989. Besides gaining respectable scores in urban areas, such as Perpignan, Dreux, Mulhouse or Roubaix, the NF had its first mayor elected in a town of more than 10,000 inhabitants – Charles de Chambrun of Saint-Gilles, le Gard, in the south of France. For the next five years, the party was constantly gaining ground, seemingly halting bipartisanship and re-defining the electoral game.

In the Presidential elections of 1995, Jean-Marie Le Pen won 15 percent of the vote, meaning 4.3 million voters. In the same year, the NF got into the second round of the general elections in 124 areas which was a historic score for the party.

The 2000s

In the end of the 1990s, a war broke between Jean-Marie Le Pen (who was judged by a fraction of his own party for being too divisive and provocative) and Bruno Mégret, NF's number two (who appeared to be more mainstream and inclined to form alliances with other right-wing parties.) Eventually, Mégret split from the party. He was followed by the majority of the elected members and some Frontist executives (140 regional councillors, 60 regional secretaries and 50 members of the central committee). Mégret founded the National Republican Movement, who won 3.28 percent of the vote in the European elections of 1999 (compared to 5.69 percent for the NF). "The-far right was torn apart and the National Front was on its knees," according to Lebourg.

However, although the NF led a rather weak campaign, they were still able to push for a real power grab in the presidential elections of 2002. To everyone's surprise, they managed to get more votes than the socialist candidate and Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, and qualify for the second round, with 16.86 percent of the vote, up against Jacques Chirac. Even if Jean-Marie Le Pen wasn't voted president, this score changed everything. Nicolas Lebourg puts that success down to September 11th, which had a great impact on security issues: "Le Pen's name came up in various conversations concerning national security and opposition to the existing order," he writes.

However, the period that followed didn't reflect the surprising result of 2002. The 2007 presidential elections were a real setback for Le Pen, who came in at fourth place with 10.44 percent of the vote. The result of the general elections was even worse – the party only got 4.3 percent of the vote and the only candidate who qualified for the second round in her region, Marine Le Pen, was defeated. The party experienced the same defeat in the local elections of 2008, which cause more party members to split. At a time when it seemed likely that the NF would be wiped off the political landscape, this division led to the most radical transformation of the party in the last 40 years: Marine Le Pen replaced her father as president of the party.

Marine Le Pen's de-Demonisation of the National Front

It was a 22,000 member-strong party that elected Marine Le Pen as their president on 16th January 2011. Jean-Marie's daughter won 67.65 percent of the vote against Bruno Gollnisch. This led to a strategic turnaround whose aim was the "de-demonisation" of the party, a move away from the racist and anti-semitic rhetoric of the previous leader. Overly radical members were excluded, the speeches were softened and a stronger focus was placed on social issues rather than immigration. In August 2015, Jean-Marie Le Pen, honorary president of the party by now, was expelled.

Nicolas Lebourg believes that "for the far right, there is no such thing as a economic dogma." Jean-Marie Le Pen's economic stances always lacked clarity. For instance, in 2006, he condemned "the death of the public service, the incarnation of the national egalité and fraternité," blaming the liberalism of the EU. Four years later, he declared that "socially, I am left-wing, economically I am right-wing and nationally, I am French."

His daughter's rhetoric is more coherent. Since she got hold of the presidency of the NF, she has sung the praises of social and national protectionism and supported a strategic, redistributive and interventionist state. She vilifies globalisation and hopes to introduce an economic patriotism that would favour French businesses.

Is the National Front About to Have Real Power?

There is no question that French voters see Marine Le Pen as more appropriate presidential figure compared to her father. However, "she has also been called sectarian and a danger to democracy by the majority of those surveyed," Nicolas Lebourg points out. "But one should not take the oversimplified media representations of public figures too seriously."

In spite of her "sectarian" nature, Marine Le Pen uses some arguments that resonate with [France's] most vulnerable citizens; primarily, her views against globalisation. "The more vulnerable a person is, the poorer and less educated they tend to be, and in all these cases, the more they tend to vote for the NF," argues the historian. "This does not mean these citizens are less intelligent, but they are less integrated into the global economy, which means they aren't interested in protecting it."

"The NF mashes together globalisation and terrorism. In the face of that enemy, the state becomes a protective stronghold," continues Lebourg, laying out Marine Le Pen's antagonistic strategy. "NF's goal is not the re-distribution of wealth but ensuring that benefit of the lowest profiteers, and that immigrants stay at the bottom of the food chain. They are not after a socialist reform but a new social hierarchy."

So is the NF really "on the threshold of power," as then PM Manuel Valls claimed in 2014? Some commentators, like journalist Eric Dupin, would like to believe it is nothing more than a farfetched idea conjured up by the media to scare the public.

Still, Marine Le Pen has made it to the second presidential round with Emmanuel Macron. Can we continue to consider the NF a terrifying fantasy? In much the same way Jean-Marie Le Pen focused on national security during the 2002 presidential election that followed September 11, Marine Le Pen has bet most of her political platform on the fight against the Islamist threat. Has the NF won the battle of ideas? "Just the opposite," replies Lebourg. "A need for authority and security is felt everywhere in France. So the most authoritarian party is the party that will profit from that insecurity." It remains to be seen if French insecurity can also win Le Pen the most powerful seat in the game.