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Why is the far right gaining ground in France?

Paris, France – A decade of shrewd planning by Marine Le Pen and opportune timing has put the French far right in a position of unprecedented strength heading into 2024.

Le Pen’s party, the National Rally (Rassemblement National, RN), has been able to build on its historic success in last year’s French presidential election and is set to gain seats in the European Parliament elections next June.

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Support for far-right parties is growing across Europe. Populist, anti-immigrant parties across the continent have racked up a series of impressive – if once unthinkable – victories, most recently in the Netherlands.

Mainstream politicians worry the far right is already poised to strike in France as well.

In a joint interview, two special advisers to the former French Presidents, Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, recently told French newspaper Le Monde that the country was “living through its worst democratic crisis since the 1930s”, mostly because of the RN’s rising power and popularity.

A host of factors are working in favour of the far right in France. Top of the list is widespread dissatisfaction with President Emmanuel Macron’s government, with many still angry about the government’s continued use of a constitutional manoeuvre to pass unpopular legislation, most notably to raise the retirement age, without a vote in the National Assembly.

In addition to this, people are struggling to cope with inflation and the cost of living.

The public has also not forgotten the urban riots that rocked the country following the killing of a teenage boy by police in June.

Furthermore, the rise in anti-Semitic incidents linked to the Israel-Hamas war as well as recent terror attacks, such as the fatal stabbing of a teacher, Dominique Bernard, in northern France, have once again sparked debate about French identity, immigration and extremist violence.

“The mix of those three issues – immigration, security/terrorism and economic anxiety – this makes a very powerful cocktail for the far right,” said Gilles Ivaldi, a professor at the university, Sciences-Po in Paris, and an expert on the radical right and populism in Western Europe.

The rise of the right

The RN’s rise from a fringe movement known as racist and xenophobic to a firmly entrenched player in mainstream French politics is a testament to Le Pen’s political savvy.

The 55-year-old scion of France’s most famous radical right family has spent years “detoxifying” the movement founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. She even expelled him from the party in 2015 over comments he made which minimised the significance of the Holocaust.

In an effort to make the extreme right more palatable to mainstream French voters, Le Pen and her acolytes have softened their tone or even backtracked on some of their more unpopular proposals, such as leaving the European Union, and staked out other positions to attract voters. During the 2022 presidential election, Le Pen’s campaign focused mostly on cost-of-living issues as French households struggled to cope with rising inflation.

The RN has also benefitted from a much friendlier media landscape, with the proliferation of right-wing media that are “clearly ideological and which are propagating far-right themes and ideas”, Ivaldi said.

Although she ultimately lost the contest to Macron, Le Pen managed to net more than 40 percent of the vote – an unprecedented success for the French far right. Parliamentary elections a month later saw the RN take a record 88 seats in the National Assembly.

As 2023 draws to a close, polls show that never before has so much of the French electorate viewed the far right in such a positive light. An annual survey conducted on behalf of Le Monde and Franceinfo found that, for the first time, the number of people who think the RN poses a threat to French democracy is smaller than the number who think the party does not pose a threat.

The survey also showed that more people believe the RN is capable of participating in a government than those who believe it is only part of the opposition – another first. And just 54 percent of respondents said they disagreed with the RN’s ideas, the lowest since the poll first began in 1984.

Forging friendships in Europe

An RN victory in June’s European elections seems increasingly likely.

More French voters stay home for European elections than for national contests, an electoral phenomenon that has historically worked in the RN’s favour. A poll by OpinionWay published in mid-November revealed that the party had moved ahead of its rivals in the run-up to June’s European elections, with 28 percent of respondents saying they would vote for the RN if the contest was held in the coming days. Macron’s party came in second, with just 19 percent.

“This is an election for both ideological and protest voters, with proportional representation, that is good for RN,” said Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on far-right movements at the Paris-based Jean Jaures Foundation.

Le Pen and RN President Jordan Bardella have already begun meetings with their allies around Europe in the hopes of cobbling together a sizeable bloc in the next EU parliament. In late November, for example, Le Pen gave a joint press conference with Andre Ventura, president of the Portuguese far-right party, Chega (“Enough”) during an event hosting several leaders of European far-right political parties in Lisbon.

These right-wing, populist parties are taking advantage of what Camus called a “’clash of civilisations’ atmosphere that we now see in Europe, with the issue of immigration, but also that of Islam being on the agenda of many parties, including mainstream conservatives”.

What has centrist and pro-European politicians in France concerned about for June and beyond is the fact that the RN is well-positioned to use the rise in violence and hate crimes that have followed the Israel-Hamas war to win support from new swaths of the electorate.

The more than 1,760 anti-Semitic incidents that have been reported in France between the start of the year and November 14 – four times the number reported throughout the whole of last year – have rattled the French Jewish community, Europe’s largest. Despite her party’s history, Le Pen has attempted to court their support by loudly denouncing anti-Semitism.

“The idea that French Jews live in fear in their country is inexcusable and deeply anti-French,” Le Pen said in an interview before participating in a 100,000-plus person march against anti-Semitism in mid-November.

“For many Jewish voters in France, Islam and Islamic terrorism in particular are seen as a very, very strong threat and very, very dangerous phenomenon,” said Ivaldi, the professor at Sciences-Po. “Some Jewish voters might be tempted to vote for the far right, because they might see the far right as some sort of protection against the threat of Islamic terrorism.”

A series of violent attacks on civilians, including the fatal stabbings of a 26-year-old German tourist in Paris earlier this month and of a 16-year-old boy at a school dance in the rural French town of Crepol in November, have also provided fodder for extremist politicians eager to present Islam as “violent” or “incompatible” with French values.

Le Pen herself claimed that the teenager, a boy named Thomas who was killed at the school dance, was a victim of a “razzia”- a reference to hostile raids carried out in the Arab and Muslim world centuries ago, sometimes for ethnic or religious cleansing purposes – despite a lack of proof. Though several people have been detained over that crime, investigators have not released their identities nor clearly established a motive for it.

Ten years ago, Le Pen’s comments might have been brushed off as bluster. But the far-right media has given her what the French call a “sounding board”. Tragedies like Thomas’s killing now seem to many French citizens signs of a dangerously fractured society.

A survey by French pollster Elabe carried out following Thomas’s killing showed that 91 percent of French people were worried about violence and confrontation between social groups.

Some 83 percent of respondents agreed with the following belief expressed by Gerald Collomb, the longtime mayor of Lyon and former interior minister who died in late November: “Today, we live side by side. I fear that tomorrow we’ll live face to face.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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