FRANCE – RN surges to huge new election records: Le Pen, fascism and the working class

By Tash Shifrin | 24 May 2022

A poster for Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascist RN has been given a small moustache to make her politics clearer. Pic credit: Jo Quinney via twitter

The update at the top of this article covers the results of the French parliamentary elections on 19 June 2022. The main article – click to jump down – is a wider analysis, looking at what is driving the fascists’ election surge, their mobilisation in the streets and how they are targeting the working class. An additional piece looks at the RN’s roots and why it remains a fascist party.

Final results of France’s parliamentary elections (les législatives)

Ensemble (Macron’s party) 245 seats
NUPES (leftwing coalition) 131 seats
Rassemblement National (fascists) 89 seats
Les Républicains (centre right) 61 seats
Others elected include 22 left candidates, One fascist and a far right candidate, 10 centre-right, 10 regionalists and others.

Updated: 20 June 2022

The fascist Rassemblement National has won massive and unprecedented gains in the French parliamentary elections on Sunday 19 June, with its number of seats rocketing to 89 from just eight in 2017.

This extremely worrying result comes just a couple of months after RN leader Marine Le Pen scored 41.5% of the vote in the presidential poll – an alarmingly close result that puts the presidency well within the fascists sights for the next election.

These elections have been a disaster for newly re-installed president Emmanuel Macron, with his parliamentary majority gone as his Ensemble party plunged from 350 seats last time to 245.

His regime of austerity has provoked huge bitterness and anger – and voters have made him feel it. These election results lay bare the sharp polarisation of politics in France – the president’s party has lost seats to both the left and fascist right.

The new NUPES leftwing alliance led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon has become the second largest group in the assembly.

Mélenchon has won more than twice as many seats as the parties of the left alliance did in total previously, up from 59 seats to 131. This is an excellent result compared with last time around, showing that where voters angry at Macron had the opportunity to express this by voting left, many did so.

But the anger against Macron has polarised to the fascist far right as well as the left.

Antifascists will be rightly horrified to see the result for the Marine Le Pen’s fascist RN party (formerly known as the Front National) with 89 seats in the 577 seat national assembly – a more than tenfold increase on the eight seats it secured in 2022.

It has broken out of its old heartlands in the deindustrialised north and the Mediterranean south of France, winning seats around the country.

Map of the RN’s seats in the National Assembly. Pic credit: franceinfo

The RN’s 89 seats takes it well over twice the fascists’ previous record in France. In 1986, Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen secured 35 seats in the assembly for the old FN. After that the electoral system was changed, making it far harder for smaller parties such as the FN.

Now Le Pen junior has shown that the fascists have the strength on the ground to win a mass of parliamentary seats. The numbers put the party well over the threshold for forming an official parliamentary group and getting the €50m funds and other benefits that will come with the new status.

The RN came through last week’s first round elections securing candidates in 208 second-round runoff votes, up from 120 in 2017. In 61 of those, it went head to head against the leftwing NUPES alliance, with 106 contests against Macron supporters and 25 against Les Républicains.

According to Ipsos researchers, the fascist party won 57% of its “duels” against the Macronists and – particularly worryingly – 56% of the head to head contests against Mélenchon’s NUPES.

Our main article below looks at how the left and the fascists are battling each other for working class votes.

It also discusses the very worrying phenomenon of voters who chose Mélenchon in the first round of the presidential elections transferring without a qualm to the fascists in the second round, with the aim to “stop Macron”.

Pollsters Harris found this phenomenon was repeated in the parliamentary election with nearly a quarter of left voters switching to the RN where the fascists faced off against Macron’s Ensemble in the second round (see chart).

The RN’s success in the parliamentary elections reinforces the need for antifascists and the left to understand and counter the dangerous threat of Le Pen, the RN and the wider fascist milieu in France.

France: Le Pen, fascism and the working class – with analysis and charts

Original article posted: 24 May 2022

France emerged from its presidential elections in April with Marine Le Pen’s fascist Rassemblement National scoring a record high vote and now plunges straight into the campaign for the parliamentary elections in June.

It is a timely moment to look at the RN’s election results and where the Le Pen’s rocketing vote has come from – but also, importantly, at how the fascists have been building and organising outside the electoral sphere.

It is important to restate the Le Pen and the RN (formerly the Front National) are fascists, despite the modernisation drive aimed at detoxifying their image – this is detailed in a separate piece at the end of this article. We will also look at the impact of maverick far right candidate Eric Zemmour.


The disaster of a fascist president in France is not yet here, but it is close. For antifascists, the presidential elections produced an appalling result on a historic scale. No previous fascist candidate has achieved a vote the size of Marine Le Pen’s in a major European country since WWII.

While Le Pen did not win, she took 41.5% of the vote. That’s close enough for every fascist and racist in France to be able to see the big prize within their grasp in five years’ time.

And who occupies the seat of power in the meantime? Emmanuel Macron, the widely hated neoliberal whose economic “reforms” and assaults on the working class have fuelled the bitterness on which Le Pen feeds.

The man whose introduction of state racist measures – mainly targeting Muslims – has helped legitimise and normalise the vile racism of Le Pen’s own RN party. It’s a toxic cocktail.


Electoral politics has changed shape in France in recent years – as with much of Europe, but perhaps more markedly. The presidential race showed that the old centre left and centre right parties that used to take turns in power with boring regularity are effectively dead – at least as far as the presidential race is concerned.

They may do better in the parliamentary elections, where voting patterns and the electoral system of constituencies are likely to help them.

Between them, the centre left Parti Socialiste and centre right Les Républicains took a total of just 6.57% of the first round vote – that’s less than the 7.07% won “TV-friendly fascist” Zemmour who provided Le Pen with a more nakedly racist electoral rival.

Both those mainstream parties had spent years alternating their stints in in power, taking their voting bases for granted and grinding down the mass of ordinary people whenever they were in the hotseat. As recently 2007 and 2012, the two parties took more than half of the entire first round vote between them.

Whoever you voted for, one of these guys always won – until, eventually, the voters couldn’t stand it any more and deserted both in droves. Macron’s first term came on the back of this collapse. Now the situation looks even more dire for the once secure mainstream centre parties.

Instead, Macron has swept up the centre ground himself, while the huge groundswell of anger and discontent with Macron’s attacks and austerity have polarised to both the right and left.

The left

This meant that while Macron was narrowly ahead in the first round with 27.85%, Le Pen’s 23.15% was nearly matched by leftwinger Jean-Luc Mélenchon – a figure well to the left of the old PS – with 21.95%. Another few percentage points were gained by fringe leftwing candidates, and 4.63% by Green candidate Yannick Jadot.

Mélenchon’s vote was up from 7 million votes and 19.58% of the poll in the last presidential election in 2017.

Despite the grim second round contest between the neoliberal Macron and the fascist Le Pen, it is important to remember that more than 7.7 million people gave their vote to Mélenchon and expressed a clear leftwing preference in the round where they had the opportunity to do so.

Mélenchon is now seeking alliances with other left parties and the greens in an attempt to ensure more left candidates make it through to the second round of the parliamentary poll.

There were also many people who refused to vote for either Macron or Le Pen in the second round. The abstention rate was particularly high at 28.01% and another 8.6% of the electorate went to the polling booths but posted blank or spoiled ballots.

Le Pen’s numbers

Le Pen’s votes have gone up and up in each of the presidential elections she has contested. There have also been some strong results for the RN in parliamentary and local elections too – but it is in the presidential races that Le Pen has proven herself as Europe’s most electorally successful fascist.

>> 2017 parliamentary elections – fascists triple their seats
>> 2017 presidential elections – record vote for Le Pen
>> 2014 Local elections – 14 fascist mayors as FN surge continues
>> 2014 European elections – who voted for the Front National

Even in 2012, her first year as leader of the FN after succeeding her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s first round vote was stronger than his electoral high point – a 16.86% vote that qualified him for the second round in 2002.

He managed to lift his second round vote only slightly, to 17.79% in the second round and was roundly beaten by centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac.

The success of Marine Le Pen’s modernising strategy to clean up the party’s image and lay a smooth, shiny veneer over the top to conceal its fascist politics and so “de-demonise” can be seen clearly in two respects.

First, in the raw electoral gains Le Pen has made (see table below). The second gain for the FN and now RN is that the party’s clean-up has gone so well that the fascist leader is now accepted publicly as a legitimate candidate, whose increasing vote and proximity to victory is barely raining eyebrows.

When Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose old nazi instincts and Holocaust denial were regularly on show, made it to the second round in 2002, it sent shockwaves across France and the rest of Europe.

The RN was and remains a fascist party, but its glossy new wrapping has sucessfully hidden its true nature, and the rise of Le Pen junior has not rung the same alarm bells.

When we look at Marine Le Pen’s presidential election results the trajectory is very clear. These nationwide figures mean that in many of France’s départements, Le Pen has come in first with an even higher proportion of the vote.

Year First round % First round total Second round % Second round total
2012 17.90 6,421,426
2017 21.30 7,678,491 33.90 10,638,475
2022 23.15 8,133,828 41.46 13,297,760

It’s worth bearing in mind that this is not the end of the far right and fascist vote. Éric Zemmour took 7.07% in the first round while far right fringe candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan added another 2.06%. It’s reasonable to assume that Le Pen’s first round vote would have been even higher had she had the field to herself.

Le Pen beat Macron to first place in two of France’s 13 metropolitan regions – the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azure (PACA) region covering the historic southern base of the FN since Jean Marie Le Pen’s days, and Hauts de France in the deindustrialised run-down north of the country that Le Pen junior has long targeted.

In the département of Aisne, in Hauts de France, Le Pen took 59.91% of the vote, with 57.51% in nearby Pas de Calais. In Var, in the PACA region, Le Pen won 55.10%, with 52% in Vaucluse. In those and a string of other départements, Le Pen was already the frontrunner after the first round.

2022 presidential election second round votes – Le Pen in grey

Noticeably, Le Pen’s vote was stronger in the small towns of rural France, declining with distance from the big urban centres. In these rural areas – sometimes dubbed “La France Profonde” or deep France – Le Pen tapped into the feeling that these supposedly typically “French” areas have been neglected in favour of Paris and the big cities.

Modernised fascism

Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the fascist nature of the old Front National, now rebranded as the milder sounding RN.

It is a fascist party, with a direct line running from wartime Nazi collaborationists and Waffen SS veterans straight through to the outwardly slick, modern, electable face of Marine Le Pen.

But the facts worth restating here – see the section below for a detailed account – because this is actually the crucial point about Le Pen and the RN.

It is why they are a real threat of a kind qualitatively different to Macron, a conservative who attacks the workers but does not seek to smash their entire organisation or repress civil society, a racist who is vicious but not genocidal.

Macron is a politician in the vein of Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel. They are ruling class warriors, we organise and fight against them, but they do not pose a fundamental threat to our very existence.

It is precisely the fascism of Le Pen that is the problem – and the issue that mainstream opinion is entirely ignoring.

Working class votes

The old FN started its electoral endeavours from a very narrow base in the 1970s and 1980s. 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 very much in line with this, and it also had a base among the so-called “pieds noirs”, the French settlers who colonised Algeria and then returned to France in large numbers after Algerian independence.

Ideologically, the party drew heavily on the ideas of the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) and its shift in emphasis from “biological” racism towards that of “identity”.

By the 1990s, however, the FN’s 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.

In these elections we can see that Le Pen’s voters are more working class and poorer than Macron’s supporters.

A breakdown of the second round vote by pollsters Ipsos according to profession (see chart) shows Le Pen was the choice of 57% of white collar workers and 67% of manual workers. Macron’s vote was much stronger among executives, intermediate professions and retired people.

The polling also shows a different measure that could also be seen as a proxy for class – what it calls “status”. (see chart). This again shows Le Pen as more popular among wage earners than in the population as a whole, while Macron was less popular among this group than he was across all voters. Le Pen scored highest – 64% – among unemployed voters.

This shows how anger and bitterness against Macron’s attacks on working class living standards can push people to either the far right or the left. The scale of Le Pen’s penetration into the working class – the natural enemy of fascism – is a grave cause for concern.

In the increasingly polarised political environment, Le Pen and her fascist party are competing with Mélenchon’s leftwing France Insoumise (Rebellious France) for working class voters. And she did alarmingly well.

A breakdown of the first round vote, where we can compare the votes for Mélenchon and Le Pen, shows that the fascist candidate was the choice of 36% of both white collar and blue collar workers, while only 25% of white collar and 23% of blue collar workers chose Melenchon.

On the “status” measure, Le Pen was preferred by 28% of wage earners, compared with 24% for Melenchon, although the leftwinger was more popular among unemployed workers.

One feature of the class voting pattern is perhaps surprising at first glance: Le Pen scores much lower (18%) among the self-employed, the nearest measure to the classical petit bourgeoisie of small business people than Mélenchon (25%) or Macron (26%).

But if we take into account the 10% of self employed who preferred Zemmour – well above the 7% of all voters who chose him – and the 4% of self-employed who opted for the far right Dupont-Aignan, almost double his popularity among voters as a whole, we can see the classical pattern reasserting itself more clearly. In total, 32% of the self employed chose these candidates.

With Le Pen focusing on cost of living issues to appeal to working class voters, the more clearly pro-business Zemmour appears to have scooped up a chunk of the traditional petit bourgeois vote.

Ipsos polling also found that both Mélenchon and Le Pen scored highest among those with the smallest monthly incomes, while Macron was favoured by the richer groups.


We can also see there is a tension and a dynamism in the situation. The polarisation of French politics means discontent can boost the left, but also the far right. And people can switch between the two alarmingly quickly.

Mélenchon called on his first round voters not to give a single vote to Le Pen – and most either abstained or “held their noses” to reluctantly vote for Macron.

But Ipsos estimated that around 17% of Mélenchon’s first round voters switched directly to the fascist Le Pen in the second round.

Across the whole of the electorate, the 17% switch identified by Ipsos is significant. It means around 1.3 million people – about 10% of Le Pen’s second round vote – defected to her from the left.

Bizarrely, in the five départements making up France’s “overseas territories” – colonies that have been formally integrated into the French state – Le Pen won the second round vote by very large margins. Her victory in four of these (Guadeloupe, Guyane, Réunion and Martinique) appears to have been the result of a large scale transfer from Mélenchon’s voters after the leftwinger topped the poll by substantial margins in the first round.

It’s disturbing but also unclear why Mélenchon’s “no votes for Le Pen” message failed so spectacularly in these Caribbean and Indian Ocean territories.

But it is a worrying sign across France that a section of workers who are angry at Macron and have expressed that in a vote for a socialist cannot see the problem in handing their votes to a fascist just two weeks later.

There are clearly many in France who do not understand that Le Pen is a fascist, or who don’t understand how much more dangerous fascism is than Macron’s neoliberalism.

It shows the extent to which Le Pen has succeeded in her de-demonisation strategy. And it highlights serious weaknesses in the antifascist movement and the left in France.

Le Pen’s appeal

Le Pen’s appeal to voters was based on two main planks: racism and the cost of living crisis.

It is important to restate that although Le Pen seeks to feed off discontent with Macron’s austerity measures, racism is a core part of her party’s appeal. It is impossible to vote for Le Pen without deciding at the very least that her racism – directed primarily against immigrants and Muslims – is in some way acceptable.

Top of her manifesto pledges was a promise to “stop uncontrolled immigration” via a referendum and to “Systematically expel illegal immigrants, delinquents and foreign criminals”. Social welfare benefits would be reserved for “French people”, who would also have a “national priority of access to social housing and employment”.

Le Pen promised to “Preserve the French people from migratory submersion”, characterising immigrants and those from immigrant backgrounds as drowning the “French people”. She also pledged to “Eradicate Islamist ideologies and all their networks from national territory”.

And Le Pen was happy to tap into the narrative that some existential clash of civilisations is at hand, introducing her manifesto with a letter that declares:

A few years ago, it was customary to discuss “societal choices” before each election; in the state of our country, this stage is now over and we must now speak of a choice of civilisation.

There’s not much between this and Zemmour’s argument that France is the battleground in a “war between two civilisations”.

This is also an idea that has gained a significant level of penetration inside French society. Only a year ago, a group of mainly retired military figures signed an open letter claiming that France risked “civil war” due to the supposed “perils” of “Islamism” and “anti-racism”.

It suggested that failure by the state to crack down against these so-called threats would require “the intervention of our comrades on active duty in a perilous mission of protection of our civilisational values”.

While the direct threat of a military coup is negligible – only 18 of the letter’s signatories were serving soldiers, and only four officers – the letter gained widespread support across the population, with polls showing 58% of the public supported its sentiments.

Such ideas should be beyond the pale – but in today’s France, they are not.

The second element of Le Pen’s election campaign was a pronounced tack to the left on economic issues. She spent much of the election campaign hammering home points about the cost of living crisis, rising fuel prices and poverty.

After five years of Macron’s neoliberal regime, these bread and butter messages cut with wide sections of French society, including millions of working class voters.

Le Pen’s success in tapping into the widespread hatred of Macron – and in making her party into an “acceptable” alternative – was so pronounced that while in previous elections, public discussion was framed around the question of how to “stop Le Pen”, this time large sections of the electorate were instead seeking first and foremost to “stop Macron”.

That “anyone but Macron” sentiment is what drove a chunk of Melenchon’s first round voters to defect to the fascist Le Pen in the second round.

Outside parliament

It is important to note that the normalisation of Le Pen, her party and other fascist individuals and groups has not only been reflected at the ballot box, but on the streets as well.

Fascists in France now feel confident to mobilise large numbers, either under their own banners or as part of wider campaigns.

In these election campaigns, Le Pen herself adopted a strategy of touring smaller towns outside the big cities – exactly the areas where her vote was strongest. But while once such a fascist walkabout might have been heavily contested, this campaign saw Le Pen mobbed by admirers. This shows just how successfully Le Pen has managed to detoxify her image.

Zemmour opted for big rallies, drawing on his TV popularity – and these drew thousands. There were 6,000 in Lille in the north of France, 8,000 in Toulon on the south coast, 2,500 in Agen in south-west France and an estimated 50,000 rallying at the Trocadero in Paris under the Eiffel Tower – and many more across France.

It was good to see student occupations and other protests of anger and disgust at the election results between the first and second rounds of voting.

But the fascists mobilised too. At the small-scale end, this included a physical attack by fascist student groups on those occupying the Paris Institute of Political Studies (known as Sciences Po).

There was another much larger mobilisation too. Florian Philippot, a former FN vice president who quit the party to set up his own splinter, Les Patriots, held a “Stop Macron” rally, also in Paris – see below.

Again, this was huge – news reports put the figure at 50,000, while Philippot claimed 100,000 – and despite not being formally organised by Le Pen’s party, it was clearly aimed at reinforcing and driving up her vote. In a disgusting adaptation of the “Never again” slogan used by antifascists about the Holocaust, Philippot led the crowd chanting, “Macron – plus jamais (never again)”.

This is not the first time Philippot has pulled large numbers to the Trocadero. His ability to mobilise such numbers comes from his campaigning during the Covid-19 pandemic through the antivaxx movement.

The phenomenon of fascists finding a place for themselves inside or – as in the case of Philippot – in a leading role in popular mass movements is another very dangerous indicator of how their presence has been normalised in France.

And it shows how protest movements, even anti-austerity movements, can be pulled to the far right as well as to the left.

We took a wider look at the international antivaxx movement here. In France Macron’s imposition of a pass sanitaire (health pass) – a proof of vaccination requirement for jobs in the health and care sectors, and admission to public venues including cafes – was met with big and widespread protests.

There were many huge demonstrations against the pass, and these included the massive rallies called by Philippot at the Trocadero under the Eiffel Tower.

Florian Philippot at his rally against the Pass Sanitaire, July 2021

Those attending the rallies against the pass sanitaire will have come from a variety of political backgrounds, left and right, but as we noted at the time, it was a shocking – and very worrying – sight to see Philippot, a leading figure in French fascism for more than 10 years, on the platform addressing such a huge crowd.

The election allowed Philippot to use his mobilising power more directly to boost Le Pen’s vote.

Fascists have also played a role inside the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) anti-austerity movement. While in many areas, antifascists kicked fascists off the regular protests, in other areas fascists were allowed to take part without hindrance – and to spread their ideas and build their influence.

The fact that fascists have been able to embed themselves in mass movements with very mixed political compositions gives them a wider audience for their own politics, normalises the idea that they are legitimate potential leaders of anti-establishment struggle and gives them a level of protection.

In the run-up to the second round presidential vote, some of the Gilet Jaunes Facebook pages became debating forums where disagreements over whether to vote “to stop Le Pen” or “to stop Macron” broke into the open. This shows the danger of relying purely on “the struggle” to turn people away from Le Pen.


Far right TV pundit and writer Éric Zemmour and the movement coalescing around him should be seen as an integral part of the fascist milieu. Zemmour himself – unlike Le Pen – does not have a background in fascist organisation although he has been close in the past to both Jean-Marie Le Pen and his one-time rival Bruno Megret.

He is more like the YouTube stars of the US and international alt-right scene, but with the even larger and more “respectable” platform of mainstream TV to popularise his vicious racism and theories such as the Great Replacement – the idea that white people are in danger of being “replaced” by non-white and/or Muslim “immigrants”. Zemmour warns of a “civil war” as Muslims supposedly become a majority in France.

When Zemmour announced his candidacy he shot upwards in the opinion polls for some months before the election, when he was seen as a rival who could overtake Le Pen. The pair regularly scored almost a third of the vote between them, with the balance between the two shifting back and forth.

In the end, despite hurriedly forming a party “Reconquête!” – a reference to the victory of Christian rulers over the Muslim Arab “Moors” in Spain – and attracting a number of high profile defections from the RN, Zemmour took only slightly over 7% of the first round vote.

But although there is no love lost between Le Pen and Zemmour, and he could be seen as “taking” part of her vote, arguably the TV maverick has helped Le Pen enormously.

While previously, Le Pen has had to occasionally step out of her slick, respectable pose to throw a bone to her more hardline supporters, the presence of Zemmour has allowed her to externalise this process.

His candidacy meant she could project herself as an entirely acceptable mainstream candidate – “not like Zemmour” – while his more extreme open political positions continued to push the envelope, encouraging and gaining an audience for harder political positions without Le Pen having to step into the murk. Zemmour pulled the framework of public debate further to the right.

Zemmour has pulled Le Pen’s niece and harder line potential rival Marion Maréchal (formerly Maréchal-Le Pen) into his new party, alongside a series of other high profile RN figures including MEPs Gilbert Collard, Jérôme Rivière and Nicolas Bay. Damien Rieu, formerly a leading figure in the hardcore fascist Géneration Identitaire group who worked in the office of Le Pen’s brother in law and close adviser Philippe Olivier MEP, is another who switched to Zemmour’s camp.

Those who see the RN as somehow milder, less fascist or less dangerous than Zemmour’s outfit are mistaken. The difference between them is so little that Zemmour’s top supporters were in the RN only yesterday. They are the same people with the same views that were considered just fine as senior RN representatives.

Under both Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen we have seen occasional splits and regroupments inside and outside the party. Such splits can be damaging – but they are not necessarily so.

And characters such as Olivier illustrate how regroupment can pull old enemies back together – an FN member since 1979, he left the party with Jean-Marie’s rival Bruno Mégret in a major split in 1998 before hooking up again with Marine Le Pen just a few years later.

It is not clear what future Reconquête has. Zemmour has appealed to Le Pen for some form of tie-up for the parliamentary elections in June, in a reversal of the situation just a few years ago in 2018 when Le Pen reportedly approached Zemmour to join the RN’s electoral list.

But whatever the future configurations of fascism in France, the presence of Zemmour and his nascent organisation is increasing the public tolerance of harder fascist and white supremacist ideas.

The danger

Now in France, the RN is preparing with even greater confidence for the parliamentary elections in June.

The eventual prize of the presidency – probably an easier target than a parliamentary majority because of the electoral system – is now a realistic target for 2027.

Le Pen, despite her pre-election suggestion that she might quit the race, is now likely to stay. And outside the electoral sphere, on the streets where classical fascism seeks to show its strength, today’s fascists are ready to mobilise and fight for a leading role in the struggles to come against Macron.

And next door in Italy, the fascist Fratelli di Italia – the direct descendants of Mussolini’s fascist party – are topping the polls ahead of next year’s elections. Gains for the fascists there will give all of Europe’s far right another massive boost.

For antifascists and the left in France the situation could scarcely be more urgent.

A mass scale antifascist campaign to label Le Pen a fascist and to make clear why fascism is more dangerous than Macron’s neoliberalism is needed more desperately than ever.

And as Macron’s grim second term begins, it is not enough to say, “Neither Macron nor Le Pen,” without differentiating between the two. It is not enough to rail against “the elites” – a poorly defined term that the fascists use too but with overtones of antisemitic dogwhistling. It is not enough to be purely anti-Macron, or purely anti-austerity.

Unless the politics of the fascists are challenged, unless the racism is challenged – and especially the Islamophobia, to which sections of the French left have made grim concessions – the danger is that the undimmed anger against Macron can go towards the fascists and not the left.

Those political arguments, about racism, about fascism, about the class nature of capitalist society are not just for election time. They are for every protest, every strike, every explosion of bitterness and anger.

Because we have just seen Europe’s most successful electoral fascist party reach a new historic high point. And we can see them mobilising in the streets as well.

The polarisation of politics in France is set to continue, with a continuing squeeze on the cost of living likely to exacerbate the bitterness against Macron.

That means the race is on between the two poles of attraction, the radical left and the far right – not only at election time, but outside parliament as well. At the moment, the fascists and the far right are ahead in the race. The need to peg them back is acute and urgent.

Roots of the RN

Today’s RN, formerly the FN, is a fascist party, with a direct line running from wartime Nazi collaborationists and Waffen SS veterans straight through to the outwardly slick, modern, electable face of Marine Le Pen.

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.

FN predecessor organisation, Ordre Nouveau, in conference. Pic credit: Jacques Cuinières / Roger-Viollet

Launching the FN in 1972

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 strategy of modernisation 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 and spread its ideology 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. 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 this strategy 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.

Marine Le Pen’s “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, this strategy 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 and now the RN are their vehicles.

These hardcore elements surface again and again, with the ideological soldiers whop make up the “national revolutionary” wing of French fascism most recently represented by Generation Identitaire, the advocates of an all-white Europe and extremely effective promoters of the “Great Replacement” theory – the idea that white people are being “replaced” by non-white and/or Muslim “immigrants”, with a conspiracist version blaming “the Jews” for this supposed process.

Macron recently banned GI – but many of its cadres remain discreetly embedded inside the RN while others are coalescing around the figure of Zemmour.

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 party, tapping into popular racism against black people and those of North African heritage, 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.

Second stage

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.

This switch has been legitimised by the mainstream parties and notably by Macron with his Islamophobic rhetoric and measures culminating in this year’s “anti-separatism law”.

Le Pen junior eventually expelled her more outspoken father. But Marine Le Pen does not denounce her father’s politics – only their inconvenient expression.

Every now and again, she too has let her mask slip, just enough to reassure the hardcore elements of her support, dropping in occasional signals, such as her 2015 pledge “to eradicate bacterial immigration” .

In the run-up to the 2017 poll, when she denied French police and civil servants had been 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.

Core fascist cadres from the old days remain in the FN – and are still prominent. Figures from the Jean-Marie Le Pen era such as Bruno Gollnisch and Jean-François Jalkh – both notorious for comments denying the realities of the Holocaust – remain in leadership positions.

Frédéric Chatillon and Axel Loustau of the old GUD streetfighters are particularly close longstanding allies of Marine Le Pen. Both were implicated in an FN campaign funding scandal during the 2017 election that resulted in a slew of convictions for key members of Le Pen’s team. Chatillon even got a jail sentence.

You might think Le Pen would finally ditch the pair, but earlier this year the newspaper Liberation exposed their role as key figures behind a company running Le Pen’s presidential social media campaign.

Frédéric Chatillon, fist raised, leads the GUD in 1991.

The integration of the hardcore ideological fascists and activist cadres of the Génération Identitaire has brought another layer of longstanding nazis into the fold.

A number of elected RN officials have plucked their backroom staff and advisors from the ranks of GI, while other longstanding identitaire figures, such as Philippe Vardon, have had more public roles and been elected on RN platforms.

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.

In the streets

The clean-up project means the RN has prioritised elections and sought to obscure its streetfighting origins – the second part of fascism’s traditional twin track method of building.

But it has discreetly maintained a street side to its operations. Until 2016 the party staged an annual march in the centre of Paris, drawing several thousand onto the streets.

The RN also maintains a substantial paramilitary “security” force, the Département Protection et Sécurité (DPS), made up of several hundred uniformed heavies, many with military or mercenary backgrounds.

Le Pen has also maintained on-off relations with other more battle-oriented strands of the fascist milieu, such as Serge Ayoub, head of the nazi grouplet Jeunesses Nationalistes Révolutionnaires (JNR) which was banned in 2013.

The Identitaires’ move into the RN is also significant here. They 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.

None of this amounts to paramilitary activity on anything like the scale that we see for example in Hungary. The RN and wider French fascism do not have the mass movement of streetfighters typical of the classical fascist parties of Hitler and Mussolini.

That is partly a weakness of the RN and also a reflection of different historical times – the crisis of capitalism is not so acute and the workers’ movement not as strong as in the 1920s and 1930s when fascists in Italy and Germany could demonstrate to the ruling classes their ability to physically smash workers organisation. But Le Pen’s party has never fully abandoned its physical side.

And, as we discuss in the main part of this article, fascists in France are now able to organise rallies of several thousands and are gaining street protesting experience as part of – or even leading – much wider mass movements.

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