The Impact Of Le Pen And The

National Front On French Politics Essay, Research Paper Over the last fifteen years the Front National in France has risen from being an obscure and insignificant actor to one of the more visible and most discussed parties in

National Front On French Politics Essay, Research Paper

Over the last fifteen years the Front National in France has risen from being an

obscure and insignificant actor to one of the more visible and most discussed parties in

French politics. The Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, has managed to attract a sizable

proportion of the electorate in nearly every election at every level of government over this

time period. The support the FN has garnered can be attributed to the populist themes it

addresses in its policy platform – law and order, immigration and unemployment. This

essay examines the rapid ascent of Le Pen and his party, and the circumstances that made

the rise feasible. It also analyses the FN’s policies and their subsequent effects on French

politics and society. Finally, the Front National’s electorate and future in French politics

is investigated.

The Rise of Le Pen and the FN

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who lost his left eye in a political brawl,1 began his political career

long before the conception of the FN. As a lieutenant to Pierre Poujade, the leader of the

Poujadist movement,2 Le Pen became a member of the National Assembly from 1956 to

1958. During this time he acquired many of the values and ideals on which he later used

to formulate the Front’s platform. After his stint in the National Assembly, Le Pen

traveled to then colonized Algeria and saw active duty as a paratrooper officer. The years

leading up to the naming of Le Pen as leader of the FN were comparatively calm to the

years he would spend with the Front.

The Front National’s creation in 1972 with Le Pen at the helm, might be described

as anything but auspicious. During the first decade of its existence, it remained at best a

fringe party with a radical and extreme right wing slant. In the Presidential election of

1974, which was won by the moderate right’s Valery Giscard d’Estaing over the Socialist

Francois Mitterand, Le Pen managed to obtain only 0.75 per cent of the vote. In fact

seven years later he failed to procure the five-hundred elected sponsors needed to run in

the French election.3 The FN survived these disappointments and were soon revived by an

unexpected resurgence of the extreme right only two years later.

A reversal of fortunes occurred for the Front in isolated municipal and National

Assembly by-elections in 1983, where they amassed close to 11 per cent of the vote. The

following year in June, they built upon their success by compiling a surprising 11 per cent

of the national vote in elections to the European Parliament, enabling them to send 10

delegates to Strasbourg.4 Despite this success many observers, such as Subrata Mitra,

maintained that the success of the Front would be short-lived and fade as suddenly as they

had originated,

Movements that rise almost out of nowhere and shoot into political prominence within a

short span of time, basing their appeal on a relatively restricted platform and drawing

support from across established political and sociological cleavages are sometimes

referred to as single-issue movements… Characteristically, the single-issue movement

galvanizes support from different political camps on the basis of a single, all-

encompassing issue, and, predictably, disappears once the issue has been articulated and

aggregated into the political agenda.5

The meteoric rise of the Front National, coupled with the narrow platform of the party,

appeared to make it vulnerable to the changing focus of French Politics. In the 1986

legislative elections the FN managed to secure 10 per cent of the vote and elected 35

deputies under a system of proportional representation. Why didn’t the FN fade and

vanish like the Poujadists of the 1950s or other ’single-issue’ movements?

The political and economic instability of the 1970s created a much more

hospitable climate for the FN, than the Poujadist movement of the 1950s. A broad trend

of voter instability on both the left and the right characterized the late 1970s. In an article

by Martin Schain, Suzanne Berger maintains that the established parties failed to recognize

and acknowledge the changing political grievances, nor the shifting values and interests of

its citizenry. Also, there was a “sense of economic crisis encouraged by government

policy and rising unemployment.”6 A year or so after the Socialists gained power in 1981,

people were increasingly dissatisfied and lacked confidence in the leftist policies, yet they

had little faith in the right as an alternative. It is within this political climate that the FN’s

policies became attractive to the disgruntled population. The FN’s stance offered an outlet

for voters frustrations over the state of the economy and the increase in crime and

violence. The people had reason to hope that perhaps now their concerns would be


Effects of Policy

It’s no secret that Le Pen and the Front are dangerously nationalistic, typified by extreme

statements such as the following made by Le Pen, “Two million unemployed, that’s two

million immigrants we don’t want.”7 Inflammatory declarations of this sort are not only

provocative and shameful, But they also have explosive consequences in society. They

incite violence and hate and create fear in particular segments of the population.

Moreover, they reflect a decrease in the social fabric of a nation and a lack of

imagination amongst its leaders for developing solutions with constructive consequences

rather than destructive ones. Attitude such as these are reminiscent of the Holocaust. Of

course the situation in present day France is different from those which infected Germany

during the interwar period. Nonetheless, the potential for unnecessary violence is genuine

and arguably, inevitable.

The success Le Pen had in capturing a significant aggregate of the vote assisted in

the legitimization of the ‘immigrant issue’, and placed it at the forefront of the political

agenda as the established parties took aim on the FN’s supporters.8 The consent, or

acknowledgment, by the established parties that immigrants represented “a source of

unemployment and urban tension, and a drain on the national purse,”9 as the leader of the

RPR Jacques Chirac stated in an interview, led to an increase in the severity and the

frequency of racist conduct. Had the major parties denounced Le Pen and the Front

National as racists that were a threat to democracy and an embarrassment to the French

people rather than passively allow them to creep their way onto the political stage, perhaps

people would look elsewhere for explanations to the economic malaise. Who can fault

people for taking the easy way out by blaming immigrants for their problems when none of

their leaders were able to articulate a more reasonable way of thinking.

The increase in racist anger culminated on the 10th of May in 1990 with the

desecration of a Jewish cemetery at Carpentras. The reason this particular incidence of

anti-Semitic activity stood out from others was the manner in which the cemetery was

desecrated. A recently buried body was excavated and abused and 30 other graves were

tampered with.10 The connection between the events at Carpentras and the FN is very

convincing when the political context surrounding them is taken into consideration. Three

events prior to the 10th of May are worthy of examination. First, opinion polls prior to

the incident showed an increase in popularity for the Front National and Le Pen. Second,

the 8th of May was the anniversary of the end of the second world war which was marked

by an anti-Semitic television program on Nazi Germany, and lastly, on the 9th of May Le

Pen confirmed his anti-Jewish stance in a speech on the same television station.11 The

media exposure that accompanied the episode, was followed by a dramatic increase in

anti-Jewish acts that preceded it. It is important to note that persons of the Jewish faith

are not the only one’s to whom racist acts are directed. North Africans, Black Africans,

Asians and Spanish are also frequently perceived to be too numerous in France by those

who support the far right.12 This leads to the obvious question of from where does the

Front generate support for its policies?

The Electorate

The FN receives a large amount of votes from those that used to support the Communist

party. “The national Front has appealed primarily to the groups most marginalised by the

modernization of French society along with those most affected by its economic crisis.”13

The 1988 Presidential elections showed that Le Pen did well in the industrial suburbs

around Paris, which used to support the PCF. Unemployment in that region had

skyrocketed, and voting for the extreme right was viewed as a means to protest the

dissatisfaction over the established parties’ unsuccessful efforts to deal with the problem

effectively.14 In that election, in which the Front amassed four and a half million votes for

14.5 per cent of the electorate, they also received much support from farmers,

shopkeepers, small business, salaried workers and the young. It is not surprising that the

regions where the Front was most successful were areas with high concentrations of

immigrants and minorities, and as already mentioned, the highest unemployment rates.15

The FN’s electorate in the 1995 presidential elections shared many of the same

characteristics that were present in 1988. Again Le Pen secured four and a half million

voters for 15 per cent of the vote, and again they came from the same groups in society.


Although the Front National is managing to attract a significant segment of the

electorate, one has to question its future. Due to the reversion to a two-ballot majority

electoral system, it is unlikely that the Front will ever manage to elect any deputies to the

National Assembly as they did in 1986. For the same reason, it is unlikely that they will

ever elect a president. Another problem the FN will have to overcome in the future is its

ability to continue to retain around 15 per cent of the vote. Although they do have

supporters who can be described core xenophobes, a large part of the votes they received

in the presidential and legislative elections were protest votes. By opting for Le Pen on

the first ballot, voters were able express their dissatisfaction while at the same time feel

safe that their safe vote would not affect the outcome.16

Although the Front will not be able to have a direct influence on legislation, their

voice will continue to be heard at least indirectly through the moderate right, who are

more receptive to them. If the FN is to survive into the foreseeable future it will have to

broaden its policies and increase its political base in order to become a party for the

improvement of French society as a whole. So long as they remain a conduit for radical

disgruntlement they will remain a dangerous presence lingering on the fringes of French