Mainstream alarmism cannot distract us from the actual dangers of the Nazi Front National, writes John Mullen
The presidential elections are taking place in France at the end of April and the beginning of May (the two most popular candidates from the first round go through to a second round run-off). It looks highly likely that the fascist candidate, Marine Le Pen, will come top in the first round and thus get to the second round. She will probably then lose, but with well over thirty per cent of the vote, double that her father got in the second round in 2002. How can fascism be so popular in France, a multicultural country characterized by massive workers’ struggles in recent years? And what specific dangers are we facing?
The National Front has one member of parliament and two senators, 358 regional councillors and around 1500 local councillors, with majority control on 11 town councils. In the 2012 presidentials 6.4 million voted for Marine Le Pen; in the departmental elections of 2015, 5.1 million people voted FN.
The party now manages to present itself as mainstream. A recent interviewer began his programme by asking Marine Le Pen “What will be your very first trip abroad to visit a foreign leader, if you are elected president?” The media does little to expose the fascist core of the FN. On every issue which hits the news, an FN spokesman is interviewed to give their view: even the BBC in Britain recently produced a horribly positive portrait of the fascist leader.
The organization has been gaining support among groups which were previously resistant to its ideas: among women, among civil servants, and one sees even among teachers supporters emerging. Polls show that half the police force supports the FN.
Collapse of the mainstream
The main reason for its rise is the deep disillusionment with traditional parties of both left and right, who have been pushing through neoliberal reforms for the last twenty years (even though working class combativity has ensured that the neoliberal attacks have advanced much more slowly than in, say, Britain). The last five years, under Socialist Party president François Hollande shocked people so much that at one point his popularity dropped to a record breaking four per cent of the population. Hollande had said he should be judged on his record on unemployment: unemployment continued to rise. Worse, he pushed through a vicious Labour law attacking national minima in working conditions and overtime pay and likely to severely weaken trade unions. The law was forced through despite very little public support for it, mass strikes and a huge wave of creative demonstrations. The result was a rise both in abstention and in the vote for the fascists.
The mainstream right has also no solutions to the economic and social crisis, and is deeply split. Its presidential candidate, François Fillon has been shown to be a thief and a liar (stealing around a million euros of public money paid to his wife and children as salary for jobs which they did not in fact do). In this context, the FN has been able to present itself as the untried alternative. The convergence of “left” and right governments on neoliberal policies, and the success in opinion polls of Blairite “neither left nor right” candidate, Emmanuel Macron, allows the fascists to present themselves as the only alternative to a system which is making workers suffer.
In local elections in 2014, two of the biggest towns where the FN gained control of the municipal council were places where the previous administrations (Conservative in one case, Socialist in the other) were notoriously corrupt. Public disgust with corruption has added to the power of Le Pen’s message.
The FN’s success has also been very much helped along by the opportunistic use of Islamophobia over the last twenty years by the mainstream right and left, often supported by parts of the radical Left (as with the law in 2009 banning the wearing of the niqab in the streets, and the 2004 law expelling from high schools those girls who wore headscarves). This Islamophobia was vividly illustrated last year with the farcical but dangerous campaign by right wing mayors to ban full body swimsuits from the beaches of their towns.
The Socialist Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, applauded the bans and spoke of the dangers of Islamic jihadism being built via selling such clothing. He also declared that questions of French identity were more important than questions of economics. Valls spoke of Marianne, the symbol of France, in the following manner “Marianne bares her breast, since she nourishes her people; she wears no veil, since she is free. That is the meaning of the Republic.” Muslims around France nervously cancelled seaside holidays. Meanwhile right wing leader Nicolas Sarkozy called for a national law banning the swimwear.
Tragically and scandalously, all left wing organizations, including the far left, refused to put significant energy into mobilizing to defend Muslims. They satisfied themselves with occasional symbolic actions and well-written press releases: not one major left or far left public meeting about the beach racism circus was organized, because all the organizations are divided on Islamophobia and are often at best unable to distinguish secularism from racism. It is unsurprising that Le Pen reaps the benefits of this situation, and is calling for headscarves to be banned on public transport, in hospitals and elsewhere.
From open fascism to detoxification
The National Front was founded in 1972 by fascist groups who understood that they could no longer grow without hiding their sympathies with the Vichy government which had worked hand in glove with the Nazis, and without masking their nostalgia for French colonialism. As the crisis hit in the 1980s and the Socialist government disillusioned its supporters, the FN began to get a larger percentage of votes.
The main strategies used to fight its ideas were woefully insufficient. On the one hand, groups such as SOS Racisme concentrated on a moralistic anti-racism which brought many people into activism but could not stop the fascists from building. SOS Racisme later degenerated into a campaign “in favour of integration” rather than against racism. On the other hand, groups such as SCALP (Sections Totally against Le Pen) concentrated on aggressive small group street actions against the FN, which could not involve wide layers of ordinary people. Finally, groups such as Ras l’Front (Fed Up with the Front) concentrated on the production and selling of a somewhat highbrow magazine with a far left image, which had great difficulty attracting anyone who was not already a revolutionary. I do not write this with the intention of giving out good and bad marks: activists within all these types of groups often did essential work in difficult circumstances, but at the end of the day the strategies were insufficient to stop the FN.
In the late nineties, a national campaign, led by social-democrats, “Manifesto against the National Front”, aimed to protest everywhere the FN was active in public, and, in particular, to harass those sections of the mainstream Right that were prepared to ally with Le Pen. It was effective and led to the FN splitting in two over differences in strategy. The breakaway group collapsed after a few years; as for the FN, it was very much weakened and took 15 years to recover, from an organisational point of view.
Electorally, though, it was a different story. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen got through to the second round of the presidential elections, before losing, with 18% of the votes, to 82% for Conservative Jacques Chirac. In 2011, his daughter, Marine, became leader of the party and set about “detoxifying” the FN to allow it to gain much wider support.
Although 58% of French people still see the FN as "a danger to democracy", Marine Le Pen's campaign to pretend the FN is no longer fascist has had tremendous success. She pushed her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, out of the party he founded, because he would insist on suggesting openly that the WW2 massacre of millions of Jews was not a problem for him. FN members who make openly antisemitic statements are, these days, suspended or expelled (as was the local leader in Nice three weeks ago). Marine Le Pen herself never refers directly to “race” nor does she make anti-Jewish “jokes” like her father did. She has promoted young and talented cadre with a managerial style, including Florian Philippot, the gay vice president of the party, who is now working hard at recruiting other future leaders in some of the most prestigious universities in the country. Since Marine Le Pen became leader in 2011 the membership of the party, which then stood at 20 000, has more than tripled.
Abandoning traditional right wing economic viewpoints, she has preached false left-seeming policies with an anti-immigrant slant. “The mainstream left and right have been cutting social services” she says, “we will restore social services by saving the money spent on immigrants”. She is now positioning protectionism, wanting to oblige shops to carry a certain percentage of goods made in France and calling to leave the European Union if it does not make huge concessions. Enthusiastically welcoming the election of Donald Trump and his racist and nationalist priorities, Marine Le Pen presents this as the beginning of a reawakening of (white) nations across the world.
Although Marine Le Pen declares that no one is her party has extreme views, she makes sure to regularly reassure the fascist core by making indirect references to their shared tradition. She will recommend a little known white supremacist novel, or compare Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of France. She defends the thesis of the “great replacement” according to which the French population and its identity are being swamped and will drown in the influence of hordes of immigrants. She warned in a recent speech that magistrates and other civil servants taking part in criminal proceedings against her and against other FN leaders will be punished if she comes to office. Finally she participates in Europe-wide meetings with other fascist organizations.
Although she denies that her “French people first” policy does not apply only to French white people, a hundred signs show that this is not the case. She loudly declared her support for the policemen who were recently filmed raping a young Black man with a truncheon. She is calling for the banning of free health care and free schooling for undocumented migrants, and she demands that it be made harder for children of immigrants to get French nationality. Links with groups of Nazi street thugs are discreetly maintained. In March, in a sinister echo of Nazi pogroms, an elected FN councillor suggested that to pay for housing for Roma families, “their gold teeth should be collected from them”.
Rebuilding fascist forces
The FN has a long term and sophisticated project, but it has a long way to go. Its highest vote at an election to date has been over six million people, but its annual demonstration in Paris every May attracts only a few thousand. In many towns, the FN cannot give out leaflets in the market place because of left wing mobilizations, and fully one third of the 1500 local councillors the FN got elected in 2014 have since resigned.
The party is taking very seriously the building of a national machine. Funding has been found from generous loans from Russian banks close to Putin (and Putin’s representatives attend FN conference). Regular weekend schools for FN cadre are training them in modern communication methods. In the 11 towns controlled by the FN, great care is taken not to be too openly racist or fascist, in contrast with the tactics of ten years ago when the town of Vitrolles had a fascist mayor. The FN town councils concentrate for the moment on good governance and keeping the books balanced. In many other towns, patient grassroots activism around local issues is being built up.
Although much of its support depends on the old hate, the bash the immigrants, the “hang them and flog them” discourse, the FN has been careful to round out its programme. It declares its support for proportional representation in all elections, has jumped on the ecology bandwagon by claiming to champion organic farming, and, despite the traditionalist catholic wing inside the Front, it pretends to champion secularism (in order to use it against Muslims). A number of its new cadre have come from traditionally left-wing organizations which were hardline secularists and ever more Islamophobic.
For the moment, the FN has some sympathy from a third of the population, but only a small percentage of the elected representatives. Its political influence is far wider than its street presence. Its widespread popularity in the police force can only help to reinforce the violent racism and repressive thuggery which are so clearly on the rise. And its influence has moved the whole of the political debate to the right. This is why the mainstream Conservative candidate has been talking recently about “anti-French” (meaning “anti-white” racism) and why Islamophobia has been so much of a priority for governments of left and right. Attacks on mosques and on individual Muslims are on the rise.
The antifascist movement we need
The last time a fascist candidate got through to the second round of the presidential elections, in 2002, this caused a huge wave of daily demonstrations against the fascist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, with university and high school students striking against fascism. Tragically, this episode, which saw millions on the streets, did not leave behind it a powerful and broadly based national antifascist organization. Small antifascist networks and local ad hoc mobilisations are regularly seen, but nothing systematic on the level of what is required. A national antifascist campaign is sorely needed to coordinate national initiatives against FN conferences and marches and to produce systematic educational material. It is a very serious weakness indeed that mass antifascist activity on a national scale is not being organized right now, when Le Pen’s reaching the second round seems likely.
The reason for this lack is the confusion on the activist left about how to fight fascism: in the local networks, several groups in practice exclude non-revolutionaries, others refuse anyone who speaks on behalf of any section of a political party. It is not unusual to hear in antifascist groups confused ideas such as that “the Socialist Party are also a kind of fascist organization”. In addition, many left wing activists think that only success against unemployment and poverty will weaken the fascists, and do not see the need to stop the fascists building their machine. The worst possible outcome in May would be if Marine Le Pen gets through to the second round without any mass reaction in the streets.
The Front National has a number of obstacles in its path. For the last twenty years the mainstream right has refused to make alliances with the FN, and internal faction fighting is also rife between a traditionalist wing, including Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion, who joined the demonstrations against gay marriage despite Marine’s recommendations, and a more opportunist wing around Marine Le Pen, Florian Philippot and her newly promoted cadre.
However, if the number of votes and supporters keep rising, the faction fights will cause little damage, and the disintegration of the mainstream right, which now seems inevitable, will probably give rise to mainstream right parties willing to build alliances with the fascists. Whatever the year to come holds, the need for a broad, national, antifascist campaign is ever more urgent
John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.
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