When “Anti-Populism” Makes the Far Right Mainstream

The French media has started lumping far-right leader Marine Le Pen with a host of other “populists,” left and right. But calling Le Pen just another populist helps her detoxify her party — and mainstreams the racist right.

France's far-right party Front National (FN) president, Marine Le Pen, and former adviser in the Donald Trump administration, Steve Bannon, give a joint press conference during the Front National annual congress on March 10, 2018 at the Grand Palais in Lille, north of France. (Sylvain Lefevre / Getty Images)

When the far-right Front National (FN) changed its name to Rassemblement National (National Rally, or RN) in June 2018, media commentary tended to follow a familiar pattern — taking party leader Marine Le Pen’s words at face value. The Associated Press interpreted the change as an indication of the party’s desire to “appeal to a broader range of voters.” It drew a similar, if rather odd, conclusion about the party’s modified logo: the organization’s “traditional flames” had been put “inside a partially closed circle to signal a new openness.”

A more skeptical eye might have discerned a rather closed kind of openness here, while a more informed one may have noted that the “traditional flames” were originally the emblem of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, a neofascist organization of die-hard Mussolini loyalists. More curious commentators did note the parallel between the new, voter-friendly name and the wartime collaborationist organization, the Rassemblement National Populaire, led by the rather less-than-voter-friendly Marcel Déat, cofounder of the French division of the Waffen-SS, whose soldiers fought in Nazi uniform to defend Hitler’s regime on the Eastern Front.

Two political narratives dominate media representations of the RN and the threat it poses to democracy. The first views the party’s supposed “dédiabolisation,” or “detoxification,” as some kind of watershed for the extreme right, evidenced by the public stance Le Pen has taken toward her father’s Holocaust negationism and antisemitism. The second, discussed below, sees President Emmanuel Macron as some kind of bulwark against the ambient threat of “populism.”

Meet the New Boss…

The expulsion of Le Pen senior from the organization he built has been much remarked upon. Less noted is the fact that his very public feud with his daughter did not prevent him from bankrolling her 2017 election campaign to the tune of six million euros. Detoxification has, in reality, always been part of the FN/RN’s makeup. Indeed, the organization only came into existence as a vehicle for far-right activists to reach a wider audience. For many journalists and academics, however, detoxification operates as little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Rassemblement National is more moderate because it says so.

This stems from a problem pointed out by Annie Collovald over a decade ago: viewing parties like the RN through the prism of “populism,” focusing on proclaimed values and ideas rather than an analysis of strategy and organizational practice, tends to create a blind spot. Episodes like the expulsion of Le Pen senior, or cosmetic changes to its name, simply slot into a predetermined narrative: the ascendancy of a modern, “populist” party that cannot be assimilated with France’s fascist past.

One drawback of this approach is that the political affiliations Marine Le Pen has chosen to cultivate cannot fully be explained. Both she and her niece, Marion Maréchal, have ties to Philippe Vardon, former leader of the violent, Islamophobic, white nationalist Bloc Identitaire. Le Pen, like Steve Bannon, is an admirer of Jean Raspail’s “visionary” novel Le Camp des Saints, which tells the story of a million immigrants who settle on the Côte d’Azur. Raspail described his work as a warning about “racial incompatibility,” in which “a million microbes” slowly devour a body from the inside. It is not hard to join the dots between such ideas and Renaud Camus’s notion of the “Great Replacement,” the inspiration for the 2019 Christchurch massacre.

Marine Le Pen also retains close ties to former members of the violent far-right student organization, the GUD (Groupe Union Droite); men like Axel Loustau, former treasurer of her front organization, Jeanne, and RN councilor in the Hauts-de-Seine region; and Frédéric Chatillon, former leader of the GUD and a close friend and colleague of Le Pen’s since her student days. Chatillon, remembered by one former GUD member for his “sick hatred of the Jews,” used to organize an annual dinner celebrating the birthday of Hitler (“Uncle” to members of the GUD), once marking his arrival by theatrically kissing a portrait of the Führer. He also held “striped pajama” parties meant to mock Jewish death camp deportees. Other highlights on his CV include a visit to Syria, where an army officer presented him with an Arabic translation of Mein Kampf, and a meeting with the Belgian fascist Léon Degrelle, who told Chatillon that “If I’d had a son, I’d have liked him to be like you.”

Such associations should prompt serious questions about the credibility of the RN’s “detoxification.” This process led to the expulsion of Le Pen senior — whose formative political allies included former Vichy militiamen and collaborationists, ex–Waffen-SS officers, and veterans of the terrorist defiance of Algerian independence — but not of his daughter’s coterie of associates, whose outlook is shaped by the very same legacy.

In 2009, her friends Chatillon and Loustau swapped Facebook messages lamenting Hitler’s death — an exchange somewhat at odds with claims that Le Pen and her circle are making the party less toxic. As Britney Spears would say, guys like this should wear a warning. The prominent role played by such individuals is an indication that the Rassemblement National’s “new openness” is similar to the Front National’s old openness, still influenced by the “revolutionary nationalist” currents that founded the party, and which are intent on adapting France’s fascist heritage to modern conditions.

On the March…Toward What?

Today, core aspects of this heritage, in particular authoritarianism and racist scapegoating, are being legitimized by the mainstream. This brings us to the second political narrative that skews efforts to understand the Rassemblement National. It is a narrative that depicts the party as one among various “populist” threats to President Macron’s defense of liberal values and the European Union. As one tremulous commentator lamented, unless “sober-minded people” are prepared to help rebuild faith in Macron, then democracy itself will be put at risk. In the immediate aftermath of his election, one of Macron’s advisers went as far as to suggest that he could become an inspiration to the whole world by “winning the war on populism.”

The vague generality of this term means that any individual or party that invokes “the people” or criticizes “elites” tends to be labeled populist, ranging from Marine Le Pen to Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the “yellow vest” protesters. Le Pen’s “populism,” for example, has been associated with ultra-conservativism, socialism, and communism. Nuance and difference between tendencies are effaced by the blanket label. The corollary of this is that the accentuation of authoritarianism in liberal governance tends to go unnoticed.

For all the hyperbole that greeted his election, Macron has simply placed himself on the same trajectory as his immediate predecessors, trapped, as Ugo Palheta notes, in a position of “domination without hegemony,” and therefore increasingly reliant on authoritarian methods.

Statistics on the “yellow vest” protests, for example, indicate a significant rise in state violence. The first six months of the demonstrations, from November 2018, were met with the biggest show of police repression since May 1968. Over twelve thousand people were arrested, including a record 1,500 on a single day and thousands of “pre-crime” arrests. Two thousand were convicted. Around thirteen thousand baton rounds were fired and nearly 2,500 protesters wounded. Of these, twenty-five lost an eye to rubber bullets or tear-gas canisters, with many victims and witnesses claiming that officers were deliberately aiming at faces. Five people have lost a hand to exploding tear-gas grenades.

This repressive trajectory was already well-established under Macron’s predecessor François Hollande, notably with the imposition of a state of emergency in 2015. In the absence of sustained, widespread public identification with government action, repression, scapegoating, and racism have become important tools for state actors. One key means of asserting the authority of the state has been the deployment of Republican secularism, or “laïcité,” as a means of stigmatizing and disciplining France’s Muslim population.

A preoccupation of the Republican left for most of the twentieth century, laïcité began to be embraced by the Right starting in the late 1980s. After Jacques Chirac won the 2002 presidential election, seeing off Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round, the Right concluded that it could marshal laïcité for its own ends and use it to capitalize on the mobilization that had swept Chirac to victory.

The Left was to prove incapable of countering this development. This was largely due to its fidelity to Republican ideology, a historic weakness underpinning the long-standing failure to build a socialist current with genuine independence from the state. But it was also due to a more basic shortcoming: the inability to defend a stigmatized minority group and to recognize that, in a country where a party with fascist roots was polling at 20 percent, confronting racism was a greater priority than the defense of the secular values and regulations that successive governments were wielding against France’s Muslim population.

A decade and a half later, the results of this failure are there for all to see. Bans have been imposed on the hijab in schools and the niqab in public space. Islamophobia has become a prominent, respectable, and almost permanent feature of public life in France.

In September 2019, Marion Maréchal, along with various other far-right figures like the mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard, organized a “Convention of the Right.” The ultra-reactionary journalist Éric Zemmour, twice convicted of incitement to racial hatred, made a speech in which he called upon his audience to fight the “army of occupation” whose uniform was the djellaba. Denounced by Le Monde newspaper as a speech “of fascist inspiration,” it was broadcasted live on the LCI channel, a subsidiary of France’s main TV station TF1.

Throughout the autumn of 2019, political debate turned once again to the question of what Muslim women should wear and when. TV stations convened panel discussions to ask whether Muslim mothers who wore the hijab should be allowed to accompany their children on school trips. Personalities from the influential “new reactionary” current of Islamophobes, like Zemmour, were in high demand. Asked what it meant to be French, Zemmour remarked that when General Bugeaud had arrived in Algeria he had started “massacring Muslims and some Jews.” “So, today I’m on the side of General Bugeaud,” he went on, “that’s what it is to be French.”

And so it continued. A journalist on the LCI channel compared the banning of the hijab to banning SS uniforms. The assistant director of Le Figaro newspaper, Yves Thréard, launched into a long diatribe against the hijab and the state of a nation where “alcohol was banned across entire neighborhoods.” Islamophobia, he insisted, did not exist: “Me, I hate the Muslim religion, and I’ve got a right to say it.” At the end of October 2019, the French Senate approved a measure proposing to ban the wearing of the hijab on school trips. It was in this climate that an eighty-four-year-old former FN member tried to set fire to a mosque in Bayonne, shooting two worshippers who tried to stop him.

Macron the Enabler

Macron’s role in ramping up these tensions has been a far cry from that of liberal innocent or anti-populist warrior. Throughout a year marked by the turbulence of the “yellow vest” protests that sent his poll ratings plummeting, he has sought to divert attention toward the inconvenience posed by having a Muslim population in France. He has recently begun evoking the dubious notion of “cultural insecurity,” propagated by the secular activist Laurent Bouvet, founding member of the faux-progressive Printemps Républicain. This notion contends that France’s white majority feels uneasy about minorities making themselves visible. Minorities should therefore comply with the demands of the majority. Laïcité has become the most effective means of permitting the state to exert this kind of discipline.

During a high-profile, televised address to the nation devoted to the “yellow vest” protests, whose preoccupations had primarily focused on inequality, the cost of living, and unemployment, Macron lamented the way that secularism had been called into question, threatened by “ways of life that create barriers.” In the autumn of 2019, as the climate of Islamophobia spiraled, he chose to give a lengthy interview to the hard-right weekly, Valeurs Actuelles. Although he was careful to distance himself from the notion of “anti-white racism” and from calls to ban the wearing of the hijab in public space or on school trips, the mere fact that the president’s face was on the cover of a magazine convicted of provoking discrimination against Muslims and hatred or violence toward Roma people sent its own message, as did his vow to “take charge” of the three issues that dominated the interview: immigration, Islam, and integration.

In the March 2020 municipal elections, the far right will hope to build on its 2014 performance, when it won control of ten towns. The notion that the Rassemblement National is coming in from the cold, or cleaning up its act, appears not simply fanciful, but dangerous. In an environment where openly racist rhetoric is being given an unprecedented platform and where Islamophobia has, under the guise of “France’s secular traditions,” become an important component of everyday statecraft, the FN/RN does indeed appear more mainstream. But its quest for “respectability” is no more of a new departure than the Rassemblement National label itself, which was actually first used by the FN as early as the 1986 parliamentary elections. The quest for respectability, as Alexandre Dézé underlines, has always coexisted with the FN/RN’s commitment to a doctrine that pulls in the opposite direction.

The illusion of “moderation” today is simply an effect of the radicalization of a mainstream political establishment that has been far more willing to embrace racism and authoritarianism than defend the values of democracy and tolerance that it purports to uphold. Until now, the Islamophobic trajectory of mainstream politics has encountered little opposition. On November 10, however, a sizeable march was organized in Paris to protest against the rise in anti-Muslim prejudice. Although the initiative was met with the usual equivocations and denunciations, there was meaningful support for the mobilization from across the left, making it the first anti-Islamophobia march to unite Muslim associations and the Left, and perhaps a harbinger of change that has been a very long time coming.