This article was published on openDemocracy.
Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) is leading in the polls of the upcoming French presidential elections with more than 20% of the share of the vote; for the first time since WWII, the prospect of the far-right gaining power in France is not far-fetched.
The FN’s success in recent years is due, to a large extent, to its capacity to attract voters from the working class and the most vulnerable communities of France.
The party has adopted left-wing rhetoric to increase its appeal among working class people, and presented itself as the only political force fighting against finance, globalization and the “ultra-liberal” European Union, in the defence of workers.
As the Parti Socialiste (PS) abandoned working class communities, pursuing the anti-social path of the previous right wing government, the majority of French factory workers appear to either abstain in disillusionment or support the FN.
However, behind the leftist mask worn by the FN in recent years, lays the substantial, unchanged nature of the party.
Historian Enzo Traverso, expert on fascism, has argued that despite the transformations of the FN under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, the “anthropological fabric” of the party is still made of a “fascist hard core”, and that the party still has an important neo-fascist militant base. While it “dialectically transcends its fascist character”, Traverso continues, the FN does not entirely reject it.
Today, the FN’s ruling elite and activist base combines the remnants of party founder Jean Marie Le Pen’s legacy, some former national-leftist militants, such as party vice-president Florian Philippot, and an economically liberal, antistatist, socially conservative branch, embodied by Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen.
The combination of these different souls of the FN has resulted in a vague and incoherent political platform, combining right and left wing proposals, kept together by the party’s exclusivist chauvinism.
The FN’s stance on last year’s major popular upheavals in France, the mobilizations against the government’s regressive El Khomri labour law and the Nuit Debout movement, validated Traverso’s analysis, as the party displayed its real essence: deeply hostile towards working class values and institutions, and authoritarian.
The party’s official statements called for the repeal of the El Khomri law.
At the same time, however, the liberal wing of the FN stated that the law could be “an opportunity to introduce measures that could go in the direction of the aspirations of business”, and that the reform could be “part of the solution” to the economic crisis.
Also, when the same law was being discussed in Parliament, a number of FN deputies proposed a number of amendments to the law aimed at further liberalising the labour market and restraining trade unions’ influence and room for manoeuvre. In the end, the amendments were withdrawn after an article on the subject appeared in the press.
Thus, while Marine Le Pen was demanding the withdrawal of the bill, important members of the party still anchored to the laissez faire capitalism economic doctrine of the party during the 1980s were praising the reform.
Moreover, at the beginning of the protests, Marine Le Pen demanded that the government ban the demonstrations because of the state of emergency. However, after a month, seeing that the mobilisation was receiving substantial popular support, she retracted her statement.
To hide its ambiguities and inconsistencies, the FN tried to bring the debate onto its favourite terrains, immigration and the European Union. The party tried to shift attention from its internal contradictions, insisting instead on blaming immigrants for unemployment and low salaries, and denouncing the “retreat of secularism at the workplace” and the “religious grievances” of some employees that cause “enormous problems” to companies.
The efforts of the party to divide and undermine solidarity between protesters on the basis of ethnicity or religion represented a huge gift to the corporations and business groups supporting the reform, and further demonstrated that for the FN, the primary social divide is not one of class, between exploiters and the exploited, but rather one based on culture and race.
In fact, the FN spends most of its time and energy pitting people against one another: immigrants against “native” French, public against private employees, active workers against “scroungers” dependent on benefits. This divide-and-rule tactic is a well-known strategy employed by those in power to prevent people from collectively organizing and pressing for change from below.
How can a party claim to represent the “people” while it is committed tearing down the fragile bonds of solidarity that still exist between them, fuelling conflict and tensions?
Above all, the FN enthusiastically contributed to the effort to delegitimize protest. The party repeatedly denounced the “casseurs”, the thugs, and violent rioters, conflating the whole peaceful social movement with fringe rioutous groups.
While the FN expressed its unconditional support for the police’s crackdown on protesters, and condemned the chaos provoked by “extreme left militias”, it never explicitly expressed solidarity with the mobilisation, instead accusing French trade unions (the main organisers) and protesters of taking the country “hostage”.
These accusations should not sound surprising, considering the FN’s long-standing and strongly anchored antagonism towards trade unions. The party has regularly called for “the abandonment of a class-based syndicalism”, favouring instead a form of “corporatism” based on a fanciful “constructive concertation” between social partners rather than the alteration of power relations through strikes and collective organizing.
FN vice-president Louis Aliot made the party’s stance explicit during an interview at the peak of the mobilisations against the El Khomri law, stating that “strikes are an archaic system” of expressing grievances.
Earlier in 2016, the party was also strongly opposed to the emergence of the Nuit Debout movement, a spontaneous, progressive social movement born out of the protests against the labour law of the government. Protestors gathered in Place de la Republique, in Paris, and held night assemblies on various themes of public interest.
The movement quickly spread across many cities in France, before dissolving after a few months.
At the time, the FN described Nuit Debout as an “operational centre of pillage” of Paris and a security threat, liable for acts of “violence” and the “degradation” of the French Republic, composed of “violent, sectarian and intolerant extreme left” groups. FN called for the a hardening and prolongation of the state of emergency, the repression of protests, and, ultimately, the “dissolution” of the movement.
These statements are consistent with the party’s ideology and project for France. In its presidential programme, the FN envisages a militarisation of French society by “massively rearming” police forces with new arms and equipment, as well as “morally and juridically”. This last passage clearly indicates the FN’s intention to give the police a free hand and drastically increase its power of repression, notably against demonstrators, as last year’s events demonstrated, eliminating all forms of accountability.
Opportunistic, vague, authoritarian, contradictory: this is what the FN proved to be during its twists and turns around the El Khomri reform and the Nuit Debout movement.
The FN’s aversion and estrangement towards popular mobilizations was evident, as its ambiguities and class contempt came to the fore, and its double discourse was exposed.
When it came to choose which side to support, the FN either remained silent, or positioned itself against protesters.
The party’s fake solidarity with workers and its opaque and incoherent stance reveals its real nature, one fundamentally opposed to workers’ aspirations, its hostility towards trade unions, the main vehicles for the working class to fight for its rights, and its authoritarian reflexes.
Despite its suggestive rhetoric and its appeals to the lower classes, the party’s disguise as a champion of “the people” is a sham, and must be uncovered.
The electoral progress of the FN among working class communities and the diffusion of its reactionary and racist ideas fuel divisions within French society, and represent a big setback for the prospect of creating a unitary social movement from below.
In addition to the necessary indignation and condemnation of the party’s chauvinism and undemocratic nature, it is crucial to challenge the FN’s social discourse directed at rightfully angry and disillusioned working class communities in France.
In this respect, we cannot rely on traditional mainstream parties to fight the FN.
In fact, the centre-right, represented by Les Républicains, which continues to push for more austerity measures, and the Parti Socialiste, which under the mandate of François Hollande fully embraced neoliberalism, betraying its original constituencies and promises, are at the root of the FN’s rise: both have uncritically defended the socially destructive policies of the European Union, increased inequalities and unemployment, and participated in the gradual erosion of the country’s social safety net.
They have lost all credibility, and, although they declare themselves as the only barrier to the FN, they carry the historical load of its ascent.
Only a radical, strong, alternative discourse, based on hope and solidarity, that denounces both the FN’s racism and xenophobia and that exposes its disguise as the upholder of worker’s needs, along with a credible political vision, will succeed in regaining the lost ground, and redirecting people’s anger in a progressive direction, towards those at the top of society, instead of readily available scapegoats.
© Tommaso Segantini