Marine Le Pen’s Front National is a fascist organisation – and it threatens to make a breakthrough in the French presidential elections on Sunday. We look at its roots and development, who votes for it and why, and the elements of its fascist organisation that it seeks to hide.
On Sunday 24 April France will go to the polls in the most uncertain of presidential elections. The long, slow political suicide of president François Hollande is nearly over. Hollande has killed his career by an attachment to austerity politics that devastated working class voters who turned to his centre left Parti Socialiste for protection against the ravages of the economic crisis.
Last time anyone bothered to count, Hollande’s personal opinion poll ratings stood – if standing is the word for something so close to the floor – at just 4%. The contagion has spread to the PS as a whole, which was running far behind in fifth place in polls in the run-up to the presidential vote.
The mainstream centre of French politics as a whole – and its pro-austerity, neo-liberal agenda – is stricken. France, as with countries across Europe is seeing a polarisation to the far right and to the left, as voters desert the mainstream centre. Just ahead of Sunday’s vote, the polls show four candidates – none of them exactly traditional and all trying to distance themselves from the old establishment – vying for the top two spots that will see them through to the second round in May.
One of those – the focus of this article – is Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascist Front National. The latest polls have shown her only marginally behind Emmanuel Macron, standing on a centrist platform. Just four percentage points separate the top four candidates.
Macron, for all his centrism and his commitment to pro-business neoliberalism, is another symptom of the political crisis in France – his popularity is based on his image as a man from outside the political bubble, an independent outside the main parties.
Even Francois Fillon, the candidate of the traditional conservative centre right party, Les Républicains, is an unexpected name – a hardliner who secured the nomination against predictions as primary voters rejected the usual suspects, damning the likes of Nicolas Sarkozy to at least temporary oblivion.
The polarisation to the left is shown in the sudden, huge and very welcome surge of support for leftwing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the only candidate to challenge the establishment consensus with socialist, anti-austerity policies. He has hoovered up support from the disgraced and abandoned PS. Everyone on the left should be cheered by the mobilisations of many tens of thousands at Mélenchon’s rallies.
Amid a generally grim picture, the wave of support for Mélenchon offers the possibility of a leftwing candidate making it through to the second round. And – win or lose at the polls – if Mélenchon can consolidate his support and turn it towards activism, the huge numbers at the mega-rallies show the potential for a mass grassroots movement that could challenge not only the ravages of austerity, but the dangerous rise of fascism in France.
Let’s make no mistake: the FN is a fascist party, with a direct line running from wartime collaborationists and Waffen SS veterans straight through to the outwardly slick, modern, electable face of Marine Le Pen.
And these elections will mark another step forward for the FN – whatever the end result. As it stands, Le Pen will actually be disappointed if she doesn’t succeed in reaching the second round – and antifascists across Europe will heave a sigh of relief. But this shows just how far the party has come.
The FN has made it to round two only once before, in 2002, when Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen took 17% in the first vote and increased this by just 0.8% in the second. Le Pen junior is projected to add to her vote substantially if she can clear the first hurdle. For the first time, the fascists could have a serious second round contender notching up to 40% or so. And, although it still looks unlikely, we can’t yet entirely exclude the possibility of her winning a run-off race.
Le Pen is set to score substantially more than the 17.9% of the vote she took in the 2012 presidential race whether she goes through or not. She has spent much of past two years making the running, leading from the top position in the polls.
This presidential race will consolidate the FN’s position as a supposedly legitimate political party, and a potential winner, in the future if not now.
The FN will go into the parliamentary elections in June, where the voting system makes seats particularly hard to win for candidates outside the mainstream, in a stronger position to make gains than at any time since the 1980s when the party had 35 MPs. And the FN will have succeeded in garnering millions of votes, extending its popular base and further implanting its poisonous politics.
Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s vote, the need to tackle the rise of fascism in France will be more urgent than ever. And French fascism has long provided a theoretical and tactical framework that has inspired and influenced fascists across Europe – the FN’s successes raise the threat level everywhere.
Roots of the FN
The FN was founded in 1972 as the Front national pour unité français (National Front for French Unity), led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a veteran of the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS), the brutal paramilitary far right organisation opposed to Algerian independence from France.
It brought together existing fascist organisations Ordre Nouveau (New Order) – pictured at a conference with its White Power celtic cross symbols – Occident (“West”) and the Groupe Union Défense (GUD). These were a succession of openly fascist and white supremacist streetfighting groups.
The FN’s founding political bureau included ON leader Alain Robert, pioneering Holocaust denier François Duprat, Waffen SS veteran Pierre Bousquet, and François Brigneau, a former member of the Milice – the militia formed by the Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis in WW2.
The launch was a new project for French fascism: to bring together its various nazi grouplets and create out of them an organisation that could, by hiding its real politics, be made to look respectable – and electable, keeping the bootboys and the swastikas out of sight.
This “Eurofascist” strategy drew heavily on the ideas of the Nouvelle Droite (New Right), an important intellectual trend in French fascism. The Nouvelle Droite theory has two key elements that are linked: a shift from the rhetoric of biological racism towards that of “identity”, and an emphasis on seeking to gain influence among wide sections of the population. The Nouvelle Droite have sought to build a strongly ideological intellectual current to lead and drive forward fascism and the wider far right.
Since WW2 and the Holocaust, Hitler-style biological racism and imagery have not been a recipe for widespread popularity – hence the need for a more acceptable face. But the rhetoric of “identity” is a different storyline with the same end: you can urge the creation of an Aryan, all-white Europe on old-style genetic grounds, or you can define a mythical European “identity” with roots supposedly going back hundreds of years – and conveniently exclude non-white, non-Christian people that way instead. Same nazis, different dress code.
The FN’s successful implementation of the Eurofascist plan has come in two waves – under Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1980s and 1990s, and under Marine from 2012 onwards.
Both waves set up an example in France for fascists across Europe to adopt. The shift from thuggish boots to candidates’ suits in the British National Party, for example, was prompted by the gains of Le Pen senior.
Today we can see fascist organisations from the Sweden Democrats to Hungary’s Jobbik taking inspiration from the rise of Marine Le Pen, whose “de-demonisation” strategy represents a refinement of her father’s plan, with a more sophisticated clean-up operation to create a convincing, shiny veneer to hide the truth.
Importantly, Eurofascism does not mean a dissolution of the core fascist organisation or the ideologically motivated cadre at its heart. The SS and Vichy veterans, the Holocaust deniers, the violent thugs of the ON and GUD with their White Power flags did not disappear: the FN is their vehicle.
Jean-Marie Le Pen worked hard to distance the FN from the streetfighting image of its founding groups and to present it as a legitimate, democratic electoral party, focused on tapping popular racism against black people and those of North African heritage in France, and feeding off economic hardship and discontent.
His regular grossly antisemitic remarks and Holocaust denial served two purposes: first, to reassure his core, fascist internal constituency who, as with post-war fascists everywhere, see these as touchstone issues, and second – from time to time, as the FN consolidates its position – to push the envelope of public racism outwards, pulling softer supporters towards the harder ideological centre.
Marine Le Pen and the section of FN leaders around her have taken things further, turning away from the public antisemitism that they saw as a barrier to the organisation’s progress towards today’s more popular forms of racism: against Muslims, Roma people and immigrants – a strategy legitimised by the mainstream parties’ tactic of competing in the racist rhetoric stakes.
Le Pen junior has finally expelled her more outspoken father, whose crude quips were not welcome in public. But Marine Le Pen does not denounce her father’s politics – only their inconvenient expression.
A harder edge is maintained by Marion Marechal-Le Pen, Marine’s niece, who is building her own power base in the south of France and is seen within the FN as more closely aligned with her grandfather’s views.
Yet every election turns up FN candidates who can’t keep their true politics sufficiently under wraps. Last month, Marechal-Le Pen’s ally, Benoit Loeuillet, one of many members of the fascist activist group Génération Identitaire who have poured back into the FN, was suspended as the head of the FN in Nice after saying, “There weren’t mass deaths like people say” during the Holocaust.
During the 2014 local elections Séverine Amelot, an FN candidate in Nevers, central France, posted pictures of herself in a room decked out with a large Nazi flag on Facebook.
Marine Le Pen hurriedly suspends these types when they become embarrassing. But she will also send out harder signals from time to time, for similar reasons to her father.
It is not a coincidence that just before the FN hit its last electoral highpoint in the 2015 regional elections she slid the mask to one side for a moment, pledging to “to eradicate bacterial immigration” .
Her claim ahead of this election that immigration was pushing France to the brink of “civil war” was no accident either. Nor was her recent dip into the waters of Holocaust denial, when she denied French police and civil servants were involved in the round-up and deportation of French Jews to the Nazis’ death camps. “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv.” The Vel d’Hiv was the cycling arena where more than 13,000 Jews were held before deportation, mainly to Auschwitz in 1942.
The core fascist cadres from the old days remain in the FN – and are still prominent. Frédéric Chatillon and Axel Loustau of the old GUD streetfighters are particularly close longstanding allies of Marine Le Pen, for example. Both are implicated in an FN campaign funding scandal involving a complex set of front companies.
And the integration of the hardcore ideological fascists and activist cadres of the Génération Identitaire brings another layer of longstanding nazis into the fold – we will look at the Identitaires and their role inside and outside the FN later in our election coverage on Dream Deferred.
The FN’s maintenance of a core fascist ideology and organised cadre is one element that marks it apart from far right racist populist parties, such as UKIP in Britain or the FPÖ in Austria, which rest on the typically “thin ideology” of populism – although much of the outward and public political rhetoric of far right and fascist parties across Europe is similar.
Two wings of classical fascism
The FN follows the classic fascist strategy of Mussolini and Hitler of having both an electoral and a paramilitary, streetfighting wing – although it presents itself as a purely electoral party. Again, this separates it from the far right populist parties that have no agenda outside the ballot box and the norms of democracy.
Before we look at the FN’s paramilitary organisation and links, it is worth a recap of how the party has built its electoral support, who votes for it and why. It might seem glaringly obvious that the FN has a serious electoral operation – we are about to see its latest frightening results.
But while there have been some welcome recent demonstrations by antifascists in France, publicly denouncing and opposing the FN as fascists, there has been no systematic, nationwide attempt to counter the party on the doorstep and drive down its vote – as antifascists did with the BNP in Britain. Such a campaign could still begin to push the FN back.
The FN is Europe’s most electorally successful fascist party – whatever happens on Sunday. It took a record 6.8 million votes (27.1%) in the second round of elections to France’s regional governments in December 2015. It topped the poll in the first round as France’s most popular political party.
But it started from a very narrow base. Fascism traditionally appeals to the “petit bourgeoisie” – the middle class of shopkeepers, small business people, self-employed traders and the like. The FN’s early base was no different.
In The Resurgence of the Radical Right in France: From Boulangisme to the Front, Gabriel Goodliffe explains how the party first began its electoral rise in the 1980s, when it ” gleaned growing support from notably middle class and lower middle class voters alarmed by the economic and social policies” of the PS government of the time. In the 1984 European elections the FN took 21% of the “shopkeeper and artisanal” vote, with 15% of white collar workers, 12% of professionals and just 8% of blue collar industrial workers.
But by the 1990s, its voting base became increasingly working class, drawing votes from those who felt betrayed by the failure of the left to fight to defend jobs and living standards, especially in the devastated former industrial areas of the country.
The table shows how the FN’s voting base shifted towards working class people, including the unemployed, in European, presidential and parliamentary elections under Jean-Marie Le Pen’s leadership.
In the 2012 parliamentary elections, when the FN’s latest surge forward began under Marine Le Pen, it took 13.6% of the vote overall, gaining its first two MPs since the 1980s, with a third seat won by splinter group Ligue du Sud. By the 2014 European Parliament elections, the FN’s vote had already rocked to 24.86%.
The party also controls 14 local mairies (town halls), which it is using as test beds for the future. In Béziers, in the south of France, for example, mayor Robert Méynard is setting up a uniformed militia of former soldiers and police to patrol the streets.
The FN has maintained a continuing base in its heartland areas of the Mediterranean south of France since the 1980s, but has now expanded its reach massively, especially in the ravaged industrial areas of the north. Our maps below show the areas where the FN gains the most votes today – and its 1980s strongholds.
Our analysis of who voted for the FN in the 2014 European elections shows that the FN’s drive to pick up votes and influence among the working class has continued.
The FN’s vote – in stark contrast to that of UKIP oin Britain – is strongest among younger voters. It took the votes of 30% of those aged under 35, 27% of those aged 35 to 59, and 21% (noticeably less than its average 24.86% vote) among the over 60s.
The success of Marine Le Pen’s quest to de-demonise the FN and hide its fascist politics is shown by the fact that by 2014 it was by far the most popular party among working class voters. It took 43% of the votes of blue collar workers and 38% of routine white collar workers’ votes.
Among those in professional occupations, the FN still came in first on 20%. The FN took a much greater vote among unemployed people – with 37% choosing the fascist party – than among all those on a wage, of whom 27% chose the FN, and among self-employed people, where 20% voted FN.
The FN is feeding off economic misery and anger against austerity. It is gaining votes primarily from poor working class voters, especially in areas of high unemployment where people feel most battered by austerity – and most betrayed by Hollande’s PS.
It is attracting these voters through racist and anti-immigrant scapegoating. An Ifop poll on election day in 2014 found that economic issues topped the list of concerns expressed by all voters.
But immigration was the big issue for FN voters – 88% cited it as the determining factor for their choice of party. No other party’s voters put immigration in first, second or third place as a determining factor.
In second place for the FN’s voters came “insecurity” – often a coded reference to “fear” of immigrants and ethnic minorities or of crime, for which racists seek to blame people from ethnic minorities.
The FN’s millions of voters are not themselves fascists – they are not voting for the party’s well hidden nazi ideology. But they are mobilised at the polls through Islamophobia, anti-Roma and anti-immigrant racism. The fact that mainstream politicians and, disgracefully, sections of the left have echoed Islamophobic sentiments in particular, has only legitimised the FN’s appeal.
The importance of Mélenchon’s campaign is that it offers a positive anti-austerity alternative to working class voters, instead of the FN’s relentless racist scapegoating.
On the streets
Fascism’s paramilitary manifestations encompasses a range of forms, from individual armed terrorists like Anders Behring Breivik, to streetfighting gangs, “honour guards” and “security” organisations through to substantial paramilitary forces.
In several parts of Europe we are also seeing the rise of looser “street movements” that can pull in previously unorganised demonstrators to create a show of force and intimidate minority groups.
The FN’s Eurofascist project means it has prioritised elections and sought to obscure its streetfighting origins.
But it has discreetly maintained a street side to its operations. The party has staged an annual march in the centre of Paris, a show of strength drawing several thousand onto the streets – until just last year, when the parade was replaced by a more limited 2,000-strong “patriotic banquet”.
The FN also has a substantial paramilitary “security” force, the Département Protection et Sécurité (DPS), made up of several hundred uniformed heavies, many with military or mercenary backgrounds. As the photographs show, they are well equipped with paramilitary style armour.
The DPS, long notorious for its violent attacks, is not a fringe element. Marine Le Pen ditched its former leader Eric Staelens – seen as too close to her dad. But an internal organisation chart from 2015 shows that new chief Marc Leauté reports directly to Marine Le Pen.
Le Pen has also employed a second “security” outfit, ostensibly a private company called Vendome Security. But the firm is not a random one – it is headed by Marine’s old mate Axel Loustau, the former GUD member at the heart of the FN’s election finances scandal.
The FN has also kept up links with streetfighting nazi groups outside its own organisation, usually quietly. But in 2010 Marine Le Pen sat down for dinner with Serge Ayoub, head of the nazi grouplet Jeunesses Nationalistes Révolutionnaires (JNR), which was banned after the murder of young antifascist Clément Méric in 2013.
And Mélenchon, who stood against Le Pen in the parliamentary seat of Hénin-Beaumont in 2012, has said:
I personally witness that Serge Ayoub was present in the markets of Hénin-Beaumont, in a constituency where his movement did not have a candidate and he was there, in support of Mme. Le Pen.
And the miscellaneous nazi grouplets, skinhead streetfighting gangs and open white power organisations that still show themselves on the street in France all draw encouragement from every success of the FN at the polls.
The Identitaires’ move into the FN is also significant here. They have built their organisation through anti-Muslim street protests and other provocative actions – staging a blockade of Calais against refugees, occupying a mosque and so on. They now bring a hardened cadre of street activists into the FN.
None of this amounts to paramilitary activity on anything like the scale that, for example Jobbik, in Hungary, can muster. But the FN has never abandoned its physical side – and it has the building blocks in place for the future.
The FN is testing the waters in all sorts of ways. In 2015, two local FN councillors in St Nazaire, north east France joined members of the CGT dockers’ union in standing against a group of environmentalists who were trying to protect local wetlands from a planned expansion of the port. The environmental campaigners were forced to leave, but more worrying is the ability of the FN to wriggle its way into the action, and to spread its propaganda among the organised workers of the shipyards.
On Sunday, the FN will set a new marker in its electoral ascendancy. But it is not only its outward face we have to watch. The party is changing internally as it takes strides forward. At exactly the moment that it shows its softer-than-ever public image to the world, there are signs that the fascist party is hardening up.