This article originally appeared on VICE United Kingdom.
After far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen placed second in France’s 2002 presidential elections, the country's left-wingers lost their shit.
Two million people took to the streets to voice their outrage at the success of Le Pen’s Front National (FN) party, angry that a Holocaust-denier who once described Nazi gas chambers as a “mere [historical] detail” could pick up more than 17 percent of the national vote.
But that was over a decade ago, and things have clearly changed since then. Sunday’s local elections saw the FN — now fronted by Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine — claim their biggest ever victory, with 12 members being elected mayor in their respective towns, four times more than their previous record in 1995.
Front National (FN) president Marine Le Pen gave a press briefing at the party’s headquarters in Nanterre following the results of the second round of municipal elections on March 30.
The midterm poll also saw record-high abstention, with one in four people not bothering to vote at all, and a disaster for President Francois Hollande’s Parti Socialiste (PS), which lost control of 155 towns.
And don’t expect to see the same kind of reaction that greeted the FN after their 2002 election results.
Votes for the party have risen by 7.5 percent since 2008, so it's obviously tightening its grip on French society — and its slick PR campaign and voters’ consistent loyalty has somehow led to the party becoming the public face of French nationalism.
According to Jean-Yves Camus, an expert in far-right French politics, another decisive influence in the election results has been the general rejection of the political class over the past year or so. "The main political parties in France have been involved in several scandals over these past few months,” he told me.
“So they are discredited in the eyes of the population.... A recent poll showed that only 8 percent of French people trust political parties.”
A year ago, Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac was forced from his position after repeatedly lying about a secret offshore bank account; the government is under pressure for failing to deal with rising unemployment; its fiscal reforms haven’t gone down well, as demonstrated during the wave of “bonnets rouges” protests; and President Hollande’s approval rating is currently sitting at a meager 23 percent.
So you can see where the resentment and trust issues stem from.
Far-right parties have also capitalized on the recent radicalization of those who previously held slightly more moderate right-leaning views. For example, several FN bigwigs joined protesters during the anti-same-sex marriage demonstrations at the end of last year. And, more recently, the Jour de Colère (the "Day of Anger", which one of our writers attended after dropping acid) on the 26th of January drew around 17,000 “ultra-droite” (ultra-right) protesters, who were there to shout about everything from Hollande, unemployment, the media and taxes, to abortion rights, same-sex marriage, general homosexuality, Jewish people and Satan.
President of the National Front Marine Le Pen said on April 1 that Manuel Valls, nominated to the French prime ministry by President Francois Hollande, was a dangerous man with little respect for civil liberties who had “attacked freedom of expression”.
"We're witnessing the formation of a reactionary right, similar to the Tea Party in the US," says Alexis Corbière, national secretary of the democratic socialist Parti de Gauche (The Left Party). "There’s a certain degree of porosity with the FN, even though they don’t follow all their movements."
Jean-Yves Camus believes that the FN’s relative lack of success in the past has also done them some favors. “Since the Front National has never properly been in power, they’ve got a clean sheet on that level,” he says. “It’s neither positive or negative, just blank.”
So where the PS can no longer be trusted, the FN and other far-right parties are currently unknown quantities. This holds particularly true in places like Hénin-Beaumont, a former mining town in northern France with a high-unemployment rate. Last year, the former PS mayor there was sentenced to four years in prison for embezzling public funds and accepting bribes.
"Right or left, it’s always the same thing — nothing ever changes," explains Jean-Paul, a 63-year-old from Hénin-Beaumont. He used to vote for left-wing parties, but this year he backed Steeve Briois, the newly-elected FN mayor.
"Briois has been at Hénin for the past 19 years — we always see him around," says Jean-Paul. I ask him how he feels about voting for a party whose members are regularly accused of racism. “There’s no racism here,” he replies. “That’s all talk to try and exclude us from the political debate. People try to discredit the Front National, but the reality is that it’s a party like any other. In my estate, you know, there are some foreigners. They’re there and I speak to them. They’re part of the scenery now."
I wasn’t convinced. I have vivid memories of watching Jean-Marie Le Pen’s anti-Semitic TV rants when I was a kid, and more recently he accused Roma people of being “naturally” inclined to thieve. Le Pen has been condemned for his racist and violent outbursts plenty of times before, so now that his daughter Marine Le Pen has taken over leadership of the party (with Jean-Marie remaining its honorary president), a lot of effort has been put in to spin the FN’s image. Ms Le Pen has even vowed to sue those who label the FN as an “extreme-right” party.
"We are not extremists," says Nicolas Bay, FN's campaign manager. “What defines us is patriotism. We are here to defend the vital interests of France and its people." That, and cutting immigration from about 180,000 to 10,000 migrants per year, outlawing protests that support undocumented migrants, instituting a “national priority” policy and reinstating the death penalty.
Candidates from French far-right parties don’t win local elections very often, but when they do they've occasionally ended up doing some pretty stupid stuff. For example, in 1997, the Mouvement National Républicain (MNR) – a party formed by former FN members – won control of Vitrolles, a town in the south of the country.
The first thing the newly elected mayor did was to dramatically slash public spending on welfare and culture, equip the town’s police force with nice new ranger shoes and introduce a special 5,000 franc allowance for babies born to at least one parent of French (or EU) nationality – a measure that was then ruled illegal.
Next up, any street name that sounded too lefty was changed to something a bit more palatable to the average MNR supporter; Nelson Mandela Square was renamed, for instance, and Salvador Allende Street – named after the Chilean Marxist – became “Mother Theresa Street.” An avenue was even dedicated to
Jean-Pierre Stirbois, an influential figure in Front National history.
"The FN is a reactionary force of hard right ideology that believes we need to reduce public and welfare spending,” explains Corbière. “In today’s context of rising unemployment, this is going to be disastrous for the cities it took over [in the recent local elections].”
Camus, however, thinks the electoral success might signal more longevity for the FN. “Here, we have a political machine in the making,” he says. “The British far-right is outlandish in comparison; the BNP won a few council seats, sometimes with very good scores. They got three MEPs elected, but it remains a very unprofessional party. From the moment you have a number of cities falling into the hands of the FN, the training of a new militant elite that could become elected representatives will develop.”
What he’s saying is that, basically, this success could lead to a new generation of FN executives who hope to lay down permanent roots, making the party an entrenched part of French politics, rather than a periphery player.
Next up are May’s European elections, where the FN will be hoping to capitalize on this past weekend’s results, riding on the wave of fear and subsequent nationalism that always swells in times of crisis.