Europe's Right Wing Wave: Is France Next to Fall?
Bruno Barbey. FRANCE. Paris. December 8, 2018. Yellow Vests ( " Gilets Jaunes " ) Protest. jstor.org
In a little over a half-decade, Europe has transformed from a bastion of progressivism to a hotbed of nationalism and far-right-wing political ideology. Right-wing parties have recently seized power in numerous European countries, such as Poland, Italy, Hungary, and Sweden, while far-right movements are gaining popularity in other European states. Nowhere is this trend more concerning than in France, where far-right political ideologies have been rapidly growing. France is often praised as the one of strongest liberal democracies in the world and the keystone of the European Union (EU), but the growing far-right movement threatens to undermine the country’s political, economic, and social values, as well as its traditional leadership role in Europe.
How did we get here?
The far-right movement in France has traditionally been a fringe movement dominated by a single party. The National Rally (RN) was formed in 1972 under the name, the National Front (FN). The party was led by Jean-Marie Le Pen for 40 years, whose platform was centered on antisemitic, anti-immigrant, and nationalist rhetoric. In 2011, Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, took leadership of the FN. One of Marine’s top priorities as the new leader of the party was to distance the FN from the extremist views of her father. In her attempt to soften the party’s image, she placed increased emphasis on economic populism that appealed to France’s working middle class and isolationist political policies that sought to diminish France’s role in the EU.1 Le Pen even went as far as to change the name of the party to the National Rally in 2018 to further demonstrate its rebirth. Despite these attempts to reshape the party’s image, it is clear that the RN is still dominated by discriminatory beliefs. For example, one of Le Pen’s major policies that she advocated for in her 2017 presidential campaign was a ban on wearing hijabs in public, a view that she has continued to support to this day.1 2
Though France’s right-wing movement was an unpopular ideology mired in political obscurity for years, the movement gained traction in the mid-2010s, largely due to issues in France relating to terrorism and economics. In 2015, a series of terror attacks shocked France, permeating a sense of fear throughout the French public. The right-wing movement politicized these horrific tragedies by promoting an anti-immigrant, Islamophobic stance that emphasized law, order, and security. These policies aided the party in winning the first round of the French regional elections in 2015.3 While the RN failed to maintain their lead through the second round of voting, their success in the 2015 regional elections was an early indication of how the far-right movement was beginning to gain a political foothold in France.
During this time, anti-globalization sentiment and dissatisfaction with the French economy also began to spread within the country. Many French citizens, especially members of the working class living in rural areas, felt excluded from the benefits of globalization. These citizens also felt as though the French government was disregarding their needs and giving too many benefits to the wealthy. This dissatisfaction was exemplified in the 2018 Yellow Vest movement, in which a series of protests over a government-issued increase in gas prices spiraled into a larger, violent movement aimed at a broader array of French domestic economic policies, such as the high cost of living and tax breaks for the wealthy.4 French president Emmanuel Macron revoked the increased gas prices shortly after the protests began, as well as introduced other economic reforms aimed at appeasing the working class, but the damage had already been done. In the aftermath of the Yellow Vest movement, the protestors, and those sympathetic to their plight, began to align themselves with the economic populist ideology of the RN. These key events and their resulting factors established the RN as a legitimate political force.
The 2022 elections: A harbinger of far-right power
Nevertheless, a disappointing showing for the RN in the 2021 regional elections caused many to question how much political influence the party had actually gained. While it was clear that the RN would not revert to its status as a fringe movement, there was doubt it could generate enough popular support to compete for a high level of political control. The 2022 presidential and legislative elections dispelled these doubts by proving just how influential the movement had grown. In the presidential election, Le Pen advanced to a run-off against incumbent President Emmanuel Macron for the second time in a row. While Macron easily won their first battle in 2017 by a 66% to 34% victory, the 2022 election was far closer. Le Pen captured 41% of the vote this time, managing to flip twenty-six districts and two overseas territories. Additionally, Macron’s margin of victory decreased in every district that he won in the 2017 election.2 The eerily close 2022 presidential race made implications for the legislative elections months later much higher. The RN sought to build on its success from the presidential election, while Macron looked to prove that he still had the support of the public.
When the results of the legislative election were final, they showed that the RN did not merely build on its previous gains, but had performed historically well. Originally projected to win 20-50 seats, the RN managed to capture a total of 89 seats, the most they had ever won in a legislative election.5 Meanwhile, Macron’s centrist party struggled, losing its absolute majority. The gains made by the RN did not just signal a moral victory, though. By winning a large enough number of seats, the RN became an official parliamentary group, which gives it tangible benefits, such as increased funding, as well as ideological benefits, like establishing the party as a legitimate member of parliament.5 These benefits will give the RN increased exposure and means to influence voters. The RN’s meteoric rise in power in the past years undoubtedly indicates that the right-wing movement is a serious threat to French politics.
New factions, new faces
Just months after the RN’s historic wins in the legislative election, Le Pen surprisingly announced that she would be stepping down as head of the RN to focus more attention on managing the party in parliament. Le Pen’s choice of successor was a young right-wing politician by the name of Jordan Bardella. Bardella was born to Italian immigrants and raised by a single mother in a lower-class neighborhood outside of Paris.6 He originally joined the RN as a teenager and secured a prominent position within the party by the time he was twenty-three years old. Bardella’s most notable political achievement was leading the RN to victory in the 2019 European Parliament elections, where he championed Euroskeptic viewpoints and aligned himself with far-right politicians from other EU member countries, most notably the current Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini.6 Bardella’s appointment to the head of the party reflects yet another attempt by the RN to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Bardella’s youthful image and humble beginnings have helped him create a “man of the people '' persona, which appeals to many middle and working-class voters. This unprecedented step away from the traditional Le Pen leadership is also a strategic move by the party to attract more moderate voters to its cause.
The RN’s leadership change is not the most significant development in France’s right-wing movement, however. In November of 2021, Eric Zemmour, an inflammatory far-right TV pundit and author, announced that he would be running for president in the 2022 election. A month later, he launched his new political party, Reconquette!, otherwise known as “Reconquest.” The RN was previously considered to be France’s most extreme right-wing party, yet Zemmour and his party’s views are even more dangerously radical. Not only does Zemmour adhere to the typical anti-immigrant rhetoric espoused by the far-right, but he also holds bigoted views against women and minorities, typically attacking progressive social movements. Additionally, Zemmour idealizes France’s past, utilizing historic French figures such as Charles de Gaulle and Joan of Arc as propaganda for his nationalist beliefs.7 However, Zemmour’s most dangerous view is his promotion of the “Great Replacement.” Originating in France, this conspiracy theory asserts that traditional white, European culture is being overthrown by minority groups and immigrants. Zemmour has latched onto this view, asserting that France’s traditional cultural values are under threat from migrants settling in France. Though Zemmour has accumulated a substantial following, one may view his rise as inciting factionalism within the right. The RN’s economic populism largely appeals to working-class citizens living in urban areas, while Zemmour’s reactionist, nativist ideologies cater towards upper-class conservatives.7 Zemmour’s rise may be creating some factionalism within the right, but his greatest ambition, the union des droites, seeks to solve this dilemma. The union des droites is Zemmour’s vision for a unified right-wing party in France under one leader.7 A united right wing in France would be troublesome, as it would consolidate the right’s voter base, which would likely give the movement enough power to seize political control in France. However, what is more worrying is that the far-right may have the perfect social climate and candidate to realize this goal.
While France’s wealthy conservatives living in urban areas may not be able to sympathize economically with the rural, working-class conservatives, these two differing groups have found common ground in their anti-immigrant sentiment and increased nationalism. Many conservative French political parties, even moderate ones, have found success in advocating for harsher restrictions on immigration and increased national security.8 According to a 2021 poll by Harris Interactive, two-thirds of French citizens strongly fear the possibility of a “great replacement”.9 The nativist attitudes sweeping across France could be the determining factor in the formation of a right-wing coalition. Part of the far-right’s initial political success came from aggravating the xenophobia that spread in France after the numerous terror attacks in 2015. They seem to be utilizing a similar tactic to gain more popularity now, with immigration being the catalyst. France’s far-right has created an illusion that immigration is a massive social and economic issue that is harming France, despite immigration having grown less in France over the past decade compared to other European countries.8 The key piece that France's far-right lacks is a leader who could command the union des droites, but a strong candidate may have recently emerged to carry this mantle.
The niece of Marine Le Pen, Marion Marachel at one point seemed to be the RN’s next star politician. At the age of twenty-two, she became the youngest member ever of France’s National Assembly.10 Marachel found tremendous success in the RN, cultivating a large constituency in the southern regions of France, where her anti-immigrant and economic populist views quickly became popular.10 Nevertheless, Marachel’s rising popularity created a rivalry in the RN between her and her aunt, and in 2017, Marachel withdrew from the party. After a near five-year hiatus from politics, she made her return, officially aligning herself with Zemmour in March of 2022. Marachel is capable of leading a unified right-wing party. Much of her political and social ideology panders to the upper-class faction of conservatives, while her economic policies have evidently drawn support from the working class. Additionally, her family name may also aid in swaying voters who have been traditionally loyal to Le Pen and the RN. Marachel’s leadership potential, combined with the current political, economic, and social climate in France, makes the union des droites seem like a feasible goal that could dominate French politics.
A glimmer of hope: The left-wing alliance
With France becoming increasingly polarized, and no obvious heir from Macron’s centrist party, the 2027 presidential and legislative elections will be one of the most significant elections in France’s history. These elections will likely be a battle between opposite ends of the political spectrum, and the victor will dictate the trajectory of France’s political future for years to come. Although the left dominated French politics for decades, many of France’s left-wing political parties have been reduced to shambles since Macron’s stunning victory in 2017.11 However, there is still hope for the left to fend off the far-right threat. After its various candidates all performed poorly in the 2022 presidential elections, France’s most prominent leftist parties - the Socialist Party, the Green Party, the Communist Party, and France Insoumise - formed a coalition known as the New Social and Ecological Peoples Union (NUPES) in preparation for the legislative elections. Many overlooked the subtle narrative of NUPES’s strong performance in the 2022 legislative elections, as they captured a total of 131 seats, sufficient for second place. Though the NUPES coalition is a promising challenger to the far-right, the group must overcome many obstacles if it is to seriously contend in the 2027 elections.
The most prominent challenge that NUPES faces is remaining united. The coalition consists of a multitude of leftist parties, each with its own interests and ideologies. These interests sometimes come into conflict on major issues, most notably their policies on the EU. While the Green Party and Socialist Party favor strong French commitment to the EU, the Communist Party and France Insoumise hold more Euroskeptic views, believing that decreasing reliance on the EU would be beneficial to France.12 It is imperative that the coalition create a coherent political agenda, as this will display to voters that NUPES has a concrete plan for France’s future. NUPES presents the strongest threat to the far-right movement, and a failure to stay together could shatter any hope of a serious left-wing coalition.
Furthermore, the left must regain the confidence of key voter demographics in the country, with special emphasis placed on restoring trust in France’s political institutions. In the second round of the 2022 presidential election, the voter abstention rate was 28%, and the abstention rate for the second round of French presidential elections has increased every year since 2007.2 Voter apathy is often a beneficial phenomenon for right-wing candidates and parties, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory in the United States and Giorgia Meloni’s election in 2022 as prime minister of Italy. In both these scenarios, voter turnout reached historically low numbers, which assisted these right-wing candidates in their victories.13 14 Evidence of this trend can also be observed in France itself, as lower voter turnouts have coincided with the far-right performing better in presidential elections. France’s left-wing must avoid this fate by urging their constituents to place trust in France’s strong democratic institutions, so the far right does not capture victory simply because supporters of the left did not cast ballots. It will be imperative for the left to garner large voter turnouts and support from the younger generation. France’s youth have been increasingly dissatisfied with the electoral system, feeling as though it is dysfunctional and not representative of their interests.15 NUPES must reassure the young French voters that it will adequately address their needs and concerns, as the far-right will also attempt to gain voters from this demographic.
Finally, France’s left wing must not make the mistake of underestimating the right. Too often have right-wing politicians and parties around the world been disregarded, only for them to surprisingly seize power when the election results are final. This is especially true for candidates similar to Zemmour, who are often belittled and overlooked due to their extremist views. What makes Zemmour so dangerous is his nationalist ideology, which appeals to many in France, despite their differing economic and social identities. NUPES must discern that all far-right parties and candidates in France pose a serious threat to the country, and they must be treated as such.
The future of France
If France’s NUPES alliance can remain united, secure the trust of crucial voter demographics, and avoid underestimating their far-right opponents, then they will have a strong chance of success in the 2027 elections. However, if they neglect even one of these critical steps, then the far-right will certainly claim victory, and France will become yet another casualty of Europe’s far-right wave. Such a result would have disastrous implications for both France and the rest of Europe. At the domestic level, France’s progressive, liberal institutions founded on the ideals of freedom and tolerance would be upended. A far-right government would attempt to create xenophobic and nationalistic laws that target migrants and minority groups. Internationally, a right-wing government in France could drastically distance itself from the EU, creating a power vacuum in Europe. However, an even more terrifying scenario would be the formation of a dominant far-right bloc within the EU between France and the other EU member states that have succumbed to the far-right. This would not only undermine the EU’s status as one of the most democratic institutions in the world, but it would also harm the institution’s cooperative element, as many of the right-wing governments of Europe favor isolationist policies that emphasize autonomy from the EU. If the far-right were to seize political control of the country, disaster would not only befall both France and Europe, but also the entire world. France must contain the far-right pathogen that has infected the rest of Europe before it falls ill itself.
 Berlinger, Joshua and Joseph Ataman. “Emmanuel Macron Wins France’s Presidential Election.” CNN. April 25, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/04/24/europe/french-election-results-macron-le-pen-intl/index.html
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