Can France’s Far-Right Reinvent Itself?


Through much of the last two years, the populist far-right seemed poised to conquer France. In the surreal aftermath of Trump and Brexit, the prospect of a victory by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front (FN), felt alarmingly possible. After decades of mounting racism and economic insecurity, Western democracies were lashing out at the ballot box.

But today, eight months after the French presidential election, the FN seems flummoxed by Emmanuel Macron, the country’s centrist president, who, with his hefty budget cuts and far-reaching welfare reforms, would seem to be the party’s ideal adversary. Instead, the Front’s deputies in the Assembly largely abstained from debates on pro-business labor reform and have kept similarly quiet on tax cuts that benefit the ultra-rich. When voters are asked to identify who they consider to be the primary “opposition” to the government, most pick the left-wing populist La France Insoumise over the FN. Tellingly, it was the fiery Jean-Luc Mélenchon, La France Insoumise’s leader, and not Le Pen, who coined “president of the rich,” a popular epithet for Macron.

The National Front’s inability to seize the moment stems, in large part, from a raft of internal contradictions. Some of the party’s most prominent members claim to be devoted to the welfare state; others see it, at best, as a necessary evil. Some are secular and favor gay rights; others are proud, “family values” Christians. Today, its big tent is being stretched to the limit—if not already showing signs of tear.

Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the FN’s identity crisis than the departure of Florian Philippot, the party’s former vice president and national spokesperson. He had embodied the FN’s “de-demonization” strategy—less racism and xenophobia, more education, healthcare and progressive economics. A graduate of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, he joined the FN in 2011, working with Le Pen to refine its critiques of globalization and reframe French politics as a clash between “globalists” and “patriots.” Electoral success followed, thanks largely to low-income voters, many of them from former bastions of the left. In the first round of the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen won more support from working-class voters than any other candidate, according to an Ipsos poll.

“Compared to the old platform of the Front, which was much more [economically] liberal, we were more focused on a defense of the forgotten France, of public services, of low-income earners and retirees, of re-industrialization,” Philippot told me when we met at his office in Strasbourg last fall.

But despite his achievements, Philippot irked many high-ranking party members with his constant calls for France’s departure from both the eurozone and the European Union—institutions that, in his view, largely benefitted multinational companies and German exporters, at the expense of French businesses and workers. He resigned from his post in September, citing both his stance towards the EU and concerns that the party seemed set to return to its doomed obsession with immigration. “They’re returning [to] an identity-based rhetoric. It’s really a step backwards,” …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Best of

      

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