France’s Far Right Is Setting the Agenda Because the Mainstream Allows It To

Ahead of the 2022 election, French media are presenting an inevitable duel between incumbent Emmanuel Macron and the "populist" Marine Le Pen. Yet for decades we've seen how this liberal framing fuels far-right talking points — echoing Le Pen's false claim to stand for those "left behind" against the status quo.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right party Rassemblement National, answers journalists' questions in Avesnes-sur-Helpe on April 9, 2021. (FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AFP via Getty Images)

A year ahead of France’s 2022 presidential election, countless articles have been written about the threat posed by the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National. With no particular attention paid to the French system or the current context, we are often told that she is the main contender to the presidency and the embattled Emmanuel Macron’s only real opponent. As always, opinion polls are mustered to frpush the message that this is what the people want. That it is not yet clear who the candidates will actually be — and whether a unified left-wing alternative could arise — does not seem to bother anyone with access to public discourse. The dice have already been rolled, and they seem loaded anyway.

This “populist hype” is not limited to the French setting. It’s common to see the media circus get excited ahead of any election if the far right is predicted to perform well, and move on quickly if it doesn’t, ignoring meanwhile anything that would be of value to our democratic debate. Who here remembers anything from the 2017 presidential election beyond the second round, setting Macron against Le Pen? Why care that radical left Jean-Luc Mélenchon was within reach of Le Pen, and that if Socialist Benoît Hamon had stepped down, even a small share of his 2.2 million votes would have been enough for Mélenchon to reach the second round instead, leaving Le Pen stranded?

This is nothing new; the exact same thing happened when Marine Le Pen’s father reached the second round in 2002. Back then, we were told this was an “earthquake” and the Republic was in danger, even though Le Pen’s share of the vote had been stagnating since 1988. It was only thanks to how incredibly unpopular the main governing parties in France had become — leading to record levels of abstention — that the far-right leader got through to the second round. Yet all that was discussed was that fascism was at the gates and the only way to prevent it was to vote for the same old despised status quo. From then on, the cure to the far right was to tap into its discourse and program — if you can’t beat them, join them, right? No one seemed to care that nine out of ten French voters had never voted for the Front National or that the vast majority considered it a threat to democracy.

Therefore, to understand the mainstreaming of the far right and how Marine Le Pen can find herself in such a favorable position, we must look beyond opinion polls and the immediate present. We must move away from the idea that her election as head of the party was the turning point in the fate of the far right in France. Her more modern image certainly helped sanitize it, particularly compared to her father, known for his support of the Vichy regime and his Holocaust denialism. Still, it would be naïve in the extreme to think that the apple fell far from the tree and that Marine Le Pen would somehow altogether reject her father’s politics. She had, after all, grown up in the party, led her father’s last campaign in 2007, and took over the reins of the party willingly. Her recent decision to run a former spokesperson for Génération Identitaire — an extreme-right group recently banned by the government — as a prominent candidate in an upcoming regional election demonstrates that ties with more extremist forces remain strong.

An exaggerated focus on Marine Le Pen as sole modernizing force ignores the fact that the detoxification of the Front National (or as she renamed the party, Rassemblement National) has been a long and carefully orchestrated process. From the 1980s onward, the party purposefully evolved to move away from illiberal, violent forms of biological racism towards reconstructed liberal articulations of racism based on culture and religion. Already back in the 1990s, Jean-Marie Le Pen tried to distance his party from the “extreme right” label, insisting that it instead be called “populist.”

This label was taken up by many mainstream commentators, helping it not only shed more pejorative epithets but appropriate one with an unwarranted democratic flavor. And, finally, the party’s turn to Islamophobia can be traced back to the turn of the millennium. Marine Le Pen is, then, a logical step in the party’s evolution rather than a break.

Allowing the Front National to Flourish

If we are to understand the mainstreaming of the far right and take it seriously, we instead need to pay attention to the role of the mainstream in that process. As Aaron Winter and I argued in Reactionary Democracy — and in more depth in an upcoming article cowritten with Katy Brown — the far right could not have achieved the success it has in normalizing its discourse in recent years if it had not been helped, consciously or not, by mainstream actors. Whether through disproportionate or legitimizing media coverage or hyping of certain policies or discursive positions by politicians, the far right has only managed to set much of the agenda because it was allowed to.

In France, the role played by mainstream parties from both the Left and the Right in boosting the far right is easy to trace. In 1984, embattled Socialist president François Mitterrand offered prime-time public television platforms to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s then irrelevant party in an attempt to split the right-wing vote, while Laurent Fabius, his prime minister, declared that “Le Pen asked the right questions but provided the wrong answers.” In 1985, former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing talked about immigration as “a threat to national identity.” In 1989, Mitterrand declared that “a tolerance threshold had been reached” in terms of immigration. In 1991, former prime minister (and future president) Jacques Chirac talked about immigration as an “overdose” and mocked “the noise and smell” of immigrant families.

He would then base his 1995 presidential campaign on “insecurity,” a topic core to the Front National agenda, and appoint hard-right Charles Pasqua as minister of the interior, before turning to Nicolas Sarkozy during his second term. The latter’s role in pushing the mainstreaming of the Front National further has been well documented, with the Wall Street Journal even calling him Nicolas Le Pen during the 2012 election campaign. His defeat to the Socialist François Hollande did not mark the end of mainstreaming, and Hollande’s interior minister, Manuel Valls, proved a rightful heir to Sarkozyism. Since then, Macron’s administration has followed suit, as demonstrated by his interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, unashamedly treading on the far right’s turf. This culminated in Darmanin calling a stunned Marine Le Pen “too soft on Islam” on prime-time television.

This is not just about discourse, though. Those at the sharp end of racism and far-right politics more generally have seen their rights increasingly curtailed. This has been particularly clear with regard to Muslim communities (or anyone thought of as Muslim), that have become increasingly stigmatized by the now widespread reactionary understanding of laïcité and by liberticidal laws such as those against the hijab in 2004 and the burqa in 2010. A string of deadly terrorist attacks has been used to paint the diverse Muslim communities in France as an essentialized and racialized enemy from the inside, whose belonging to the Republic came at the cost of increasingly strident and unachievable demands of expiation of crimes they never committed.

The 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo pushed this trend further. Playing right into the hands of terrorists, reactionaries hijacked the concept of free speech to add further stigma to already victimized minorities and to silence dissenting voices. Just last month, to avoid dealing with the unprecedented crisis in universities exacerbated by the pandemic, higher education minister Frédérique Vidal created a diversion, using an old far-right conspiracy about “Islamo-leftism” in universities. This took place in a tense climate where research on racism, and Islamophobia in particular, is increasingly discouraged in French academia. In this spirit, Macron himself denounced the threat of “certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States.” More recently, an official account from the French government pushed an old far-right conspiracy theory that claims the term “Islamophobia” was invented by radical Islamists to prevent any criticism of Islam.

Yet it is not just unscrupulous politicians who have played a key role in the mainstreaming of the far right in France (and beyond). Reactionary intellectuals, who often complain of “cancel culture” and left-wing cultural hegemony have received enormous coverage, and often used it to censor or intimidate their opponents. Perhaps most symbolic was reactionary intellectual Pascal Bruckner accusing writer and journalist Rokhaya Diallo of having ”put the weapons in the hand of the terrorists” by criticizing Charlie Hebdo’s Islamophobic stance.

No Alternative?

The idea that the far right is the alternative to an increasingly and often rightly despised status quo is also spread by many mainstream journalists. By focusing disproportionately on the far right and constructing it as a threat to democracy, it has naturalized the idea that there are only two choices available to the people: the same old dysfunctional liberal-democratic system or fascism. As the oligarchic nature of the former becomes ever clearer, it has lent a false veneer of democratic support to the latter.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about the far right. But we should talk about it better — by focusing on its wider historical, political, and sociological contexts. This would mean treating the far right as a symptom of a wider disease rather than the disease itself. It would require more nuanced and critical coverage of elections, which would avoid pinning the blame for the rise of the far right on the wrong culprits. For example, the working class has too often been blamed for the rise of the French far right, Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory, and Brexit, based on a skewed reading of data.

In all three cases, this has resulted in the racialization of the working class as white alone, when this is the most diverse section of the population. It has also obscured the fact that the vast majority of the left-behind have simply switched off from the electoral circus, as they rightly feel that no one cares about their plight unless it can be attached to an elitist far-right agenda. Finally, it has shifted the blame away from the many well-off voters who support reactionary politics for their own selfish reasons.

Considering the working class is far greater in number, we might instead pay attention to the left-behind who are not turning to the far right. These are the people left to fend for themselves as left-wing parties try to outbid reactionaries on their own turf, promising more policing, more stigmatization of those they should be defending, and more lethal borders to keep those in need out and the racists happy.

As our political elite fail to respond decisively to the many crises facing our societies, the far right has been a useful decoy for those in power. However, their ongoing failure to address the deepening distrust in the current democratic landscape has meant that the far right is no longer scary enough to keep this sham going. As a terrifying poll for Libération shows, left-wing voters say that they are now more likely to abstain in a Macron–Le Pen second round, if offered a repeat of the 2017 election, than vote once more for the lesser of two increasingly similar evils.

And who could blame them? While many more French people continue to oppose the far right, their demands remain unmet, unheard, or twisted.

The 2002 election was the first I could vote in; I voted against my will in both rounds, first for Lionel Jospin, who was socialist in name only, and then for Chirac, who was embroiled in countless corruption scandals and had just received the worst ever first-round score for the candidate who would go on to win the presidency. Chirac was elected in a landslide victory and we all patted ourselves on the back, thinking we had defeated the fascist threat and democracy had triumphed. But, since then, history has been in a loop. The far right is hyped up, its discourse mainstreamed by governments of all shades unable to find solutions to their people’s real issues. They instead choose to deflect attention onto others, until they have to plead voters to vote for them, if only to defeat the far right, which is itself increasingly normalized.

Things do not have to be this way; this is not what democracy looks like.