Jordan Bardella Jordan Bardella. Photo: European Parliament / CC BY 2.0

With the fascist National Rally leading the polls in France’s general election, Chris Bambery unpicks the lineages of Marine Le Pen’s party back to nineteenth-century fascism

Faced with the likelihood of the Rassemblement National (National Rally, RN, formerly the Front National) of Marine Le Pen running off against the New Popular Front in the second round of France’s parliamentary elections, the Financial Times reports that: ‘France’s corporate bosses are racing to build contacts with Marine Le Pen’s far right after recoiling from the radical tax-and-spend agenda of the rival leftwing alliance in the country’s snap parliamentary elections.’

Accordingly, Marine Le Pen stated: ‘Financial markets don’t really understand the National Rally’s project. They have only heard the caricature of our project. When they read about it, they find it rather reasonable.’ Those same corporate bosses re-assure themselves that the RN has moved on from the days when Marine’s father, Jean Marie Le Pen, was in charge.

Yet the ideological differences between the ‘old’ FN of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the ‘new’ RN of Marine Le Pen are few. The RN has continued the stress on nation and identity, presenting itself as the champion of preserving French national identity, society, and culture, in the face of the rise of Islam and immigration.[i]

It is true that since Marine Le Pen took her father’s place as leader of the FN in 2011, the party has experienced a revival, after she launched a campaign of dédiabolisation (de-demonisation), aimed at removing negative perceptions of the party. That centred on removing any taunt of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and admiration for the wartime collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain. This was in line with the shift made by European fascism in recent years, with its adoption of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ narrative pitting Judeo-Christian civilisation, as currently championed by Benjamin Netanyahu, against ‘barbarous’ Islam.

So Louis Aliot, a vice president of the RN, has explained this openly: ‘De-demonisation is only concerned with anti-Semitism. While handing out leaflets in the street, the only glass ceiling I saw wasn’t immigration, nor Islam … Others are worse than we are on these issues. It is anti-Semitism that prevents people from voting for us. It’s the only thing … As soon as you break this ideological stranglehold, you free the rest. That’s all there is. Marine Le Pen agrees with that. She did not understand why and how her father and the others did not see it was the stranglehold.’


Her father did not and that led to a split between daughter and father. Already in January 2005, after he referred to the Nazi occupation of France as ‘not so inhuman’ in an interview with the fascist journal, Rivarol (founded in 1951 by supporters of Vichy), Marine Le Pen condemned his words, saying she regarded the Holocaust as ‘the height of barbarism’.

When, in April 2014, Jean-Marie Le Pen said of the singer Patrick Bruel, who is of Jewish ancestry and who refused to perform in a town with a FN mayor, ‘On fera une fournée la prochaine fois’ (‘Next time we’ll do a batch’, as in a batch of loaves), a reference to the gas ovens of the Nazi death camps, she removed her father’s blog from the party’s website. When he was once again interviewed by Rivarol in April 2015, and described the gas chambers as a ‘minor detail’ and defended Pétain and the Vichy regime, Marine expelled her father.[ii]

A key part of this new strategy is presenting RN as a Republican party championing Republican values against the supposed threat of Islam. In particular it champions the Republican concept of laïcité (secularism). This has usually been about the state being neutral towards religion, promoting religious tolerance and freedom of worship. Today the RN uses it to justify Islamophobia. So, during the 2012 presidential election, Marine Le Pen promised that, if she was elected, she would create a ministry for immigration and laïcité, promising to stop immigration.[iii] Le Pen, therefore, presents the RN as defending the secular republic against the ‘barbarous invaders’ of Islam.

With anti-Islam xenophobia spreading, that aids the openly fascist fringe, and their racist violence. When we look at Marine Le Pen and the RN’s hostility to Islam and migrants, what becomes clear is that far from being a break with France’s fascist tradition, it sits easily with it, particularly if we substitute Islamophobia for anti-Semitism.

France’s anti-Semitism

At the end of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism was at its most murderous in Tsarist Russia, with state-sponsored pogroms, but the intellectual centre of that modern poison was France. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a general staff officer in the French army, who was convicted of espionage in 1894. The evidence was flimsy, to say the least. Stripped of his position, Dreyfus was imprisoned on a disease-ridden island in the Caribbean.

Dreyfus was a Jew, one of a handful in an officer class dominated by reactionary royalists. Documents backing the evidence against Dreyfus proved to be forgeries, yet all attempts to reopen the trial were quashed. He was eventually granted a presidential pardon in 1899 and then in 1906 his sentence was annulled. By then, it was known that a fellow staff officer had been in the pay of the Germans, passing them military secrets, but the military command had covered this up.

‘The Affair’ led to anti-Semitism becoming part of the platform of anti-republican movements of extreme rightists, as well fuelling professional anti-Semites, like Édouard Drumont – whose 1886 book, La France juive (Jewish France), attacked the role of Jews in France and argued for their exclusion from society. This was a case of ‘conservative elites in search of a mob.’[iv]

The publication of the novelist Emile Zola’s J’accuse, defending Dreyfus, on 13 January 1898, led to eight nights of rioting in Oran and Algiers where colonial settlers attacked 158 Jewish shops, killing two Jews. In Paris, students led anti-Jewish protests on 14 and 16 January under the slogan, ‘A bas le juif!’ (Down with the Jews). On the second day, they marched on Zola’s apartment shouting, ‘Down with the Jews! Death to the Jews!’

Amidst all this, Charles Maurras’s Action Française arose. Charles Maurras was born in I866 of a royalist and Catholic family in Provence, and would go on to overthrow the old conservative tradition and make Action Française into an anti-Semitic, nationalist organisation. It was a precursor of fascism, particularly in its Italian variety. Its primary slogan was not royalist but ‘tout ce qui est national est nôtre’ (everything that is national is ours).

Maurras wanted to cleanse France of four groups who he argued were alien to it: Jews, Freemasons, Protestants and the decadent, cosmopolitan world of Paris. These he blamed for France’s 1870 defeat by Prussia, the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, the creation of a unified Germany and the 1871 Paris Commune. Added into this mix was his racism towards the peoples of France’s colonial empire.

For Maurras, the ideal would be a restored monarchy with an extreme expression of anti-Semitism, a chauvinist foreign policy and a programme of decentralisation to the provinces, so that local traditions could flourish free of Paris’s insidious influence. Bosses, managers and workers would be joined in corporate bodies for each profession in order to remove class hatred. These ideas influenced the Italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, and the Spanish fascist dictator, General Francisco Franco.

Continuity of French fascism

Maurras stated: ‘France is catholic, and so must be rid of Protestants, Freemasons and Jews; France is agricultural, and so needs a protectionist policy and back-to-the land movement; France is military, hence her glory and the glory of her arms are a condition of her happiness; France is republican, but not democratic.’[v] In May 2017, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, niece of Marine Le Pen,  President of the Rassemblement National, spoke at the annual meeting of the still existing Action Française, speaking approvingly of its chief ideologue Charles Maurras, and his distinction between what he called ‘le pays légal’ (the ‘fake’ legal country) versus ‘le pays réel’, the authentic country of the people. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen had broken from the RN to its right, joining Eric Zemmour’s Reconquest party, but has since partially reconciled with her aunt, backing a RN vote in the 2024 European elections, in which she was elected an MEP for Reconquest.

The former advisor to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, is an admirer of Maurras, calling him his guru. In 2018 Bannon addressed the RN conference to thunderous applause. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron said  this: ‘rather than be outraged, we need to understand. I fight all the antisemitic ideas of Maurras, but I find it absurd to say that Maurras must no longer exist.’ Yet Maurras is described by Jeffrey C. Alexander, a Yale sociology professor, thus:

‘The rabidly anti-Semitic French Catholic political intellectual; fan of Mussolini and Franco; leader of the “anti-Dreyfusards” who persecuted the Jewish Army Captain falsely accused of treason; decades long-agitator against the democratic and secular Third Republic; sentenced to life imprisonment after World War II for collaborating with the Nazi occupation.’[vi]

Not a great CV for a guru!

For Maurras, the nation’s unity was the primary consideration, and all those who could not assimilate to it were the ‘foreign element’; Jews, Freemasons, Protestants, Bolsheviks, decadent Paris and those he called les métèques, the Greek term for ‘outside the household’, for example, Polish and Italian migrants who could not be assimilated.

In his view Frenchmen (for him Frenchwomen should be subservient) had become foreigners in their own country. This invasion of foreigners had, since the French Revolution, propagated cultural decadence, oppressed the true French citizenry, and distorted French traditional values and the French collective identity. Maurras believed there were ‘two Frances’. The one he stood for was the ‘pays réel’, the real country: a rural France. In contrast, Maurras loathed the ‘pays légal’, the legal country: the secular republic, controlled by alien interests.

Jean Marie Le Pen did make approving references to a few far-right intellectuals, one of whom was Charles Maurras. In contrast Marine Le Pen and the RN leadership avoid referencing the name of Charles Maurras, but theirs is the same form of xenophobia, that the influx of foreigners threatens French identity. Marine Le Pen presents herself as the saviour of the everyday French person and traditional French identity that is being destroyed at the hands of liberal economic and cultural policies.

For her, Macron represents the elite globalising bourgeoisie, while she champions the rural and small town, working and middle classes who feel left behind by Macron’s policies. It is they who have turned to Marine Le Pen and the National Rally for hope and support.

In 2017, just after he had won the first round of the Presidential election Macron visited his home city of Amiens only to be heckled by local factory workers. Afterwards he grumbled, ‘people are talking about two Frances, one of the cities and one of the fields.’ In the Financial Times article I quoted at the beginning of this article, they interviewed Matthieu Pigasse, an investment banker at Centerview Partners who specialises in sovereign debt advisory, who said the French economy was ‘protected by the euro’ and the EU itself. The EU has shown it has no issues with fascists being in government – Georgia Melloni in Italy being a case in point – as long as they accept the neoliberal economic template and drop support for quitting the EU.

A RN victory and the creation of a government led by its leader, Jordan Bardella, would lead to a further increase in Islamophobia in France, with fascist fringe groups given the green light to go on the rampage. It would encourage the employers to go on the offensive, particularly in the fall out of the unions losing last year’s strikes against an increased retirement age.

Do not be fooled by the RN’s new rhetoric.

[i] Daniel Stockemer, The Front National in France: Continuity and change under Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen, (Springer International Publishing, 2017), p.15.

[ii] Nonna Mayer, ‘The Radical Right in France’, in Jens Rydgren, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right, (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp.433–451.

[iii] Per-Erik Nilsson, ‘Secular Retaliation: A Case Study of Integralist Populism, Anti-Muslim Discourse, and (Il)liberal Discourse on Secularism in Contemporary France’, Politics, Religion & Ideology 16, no. 1 (2015), pp.87–106.

[iv] Jean-Denis Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, (George Braziller, 1986), pp.521-2 and 530, and Herbert A. Strauss, Hostages of Modernization: Studies on Modern Antisemitism, 1870-1933/1939 (Walter de Gruyter, 1993), p.455.

[v] Eugen Weber, Action Française: Royalism and Reaction in Twentieth-Century France, (Stanford University Press, 1962), p.22.

[vi] Jeffrey C. Alexander, ‘Raging Against the Enlightenment: The Ideology of Steven Bannon’, American

Sociological Association: Culture Section, 18 August, 2017.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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