Whatever anyone says, the Front National is a party heading straight for middle age. At the time of its first success in the municipal elections of 1983, the Cold War was in full swing, Donald Trump was a 37-year-old aspiring property tycoon, the word ‘Brexit’ had not been invented, and the French music charts were dominated by songs from Michael Jackson’s seminal album ‘Thriller’.
It is somewhat ironic, then, to hear Marine Le Pen repeatedly claim her position as an outsider. She isn’t — and nor is her party. The French have been voting for, fighting against or ignoring the Front National for over 30 years. Two generations of voters have been brought up in the shadow of Europe’s longest-standing far-right party. Ms. Le Pen has even managed to get herself embroiled in a series of corruption scandals, the ultimate hallmark of any accomplished French politician.
So why are so many people convinced that she can win this year’s presidential election?
Making the impossible possible
Part of this is a well-founded fear amongst European and North American liberal elites that the impossible has become possible. Mr. Trump’s unexpected victory has galvanised the far-right all over the world and Brexit has shown the potential electoral power of anti-immigrant populism.
This is certainly what Ms. Le Pen is counting on and she has been working hard to clean up her — and her party’s — image. Ever since she took control of the Front National in 2011, she has purged the anti-Semitic, racist and fascist language that has traditionally blighted its rallies and manifestos. She has helped to recruit thousands of young activists. And she has hired canny advisers like Florian Philippot to give her advice on political strategy.
This has been accompanied by sustained efforts to modify the party’s ideas. Already before she took over the reins of power, the Front National had abandoned its commitment to free market economics and embraced an explicitly protectionist, anti-European line to appeal to working-class voters. She has continued in this vein in the hope of capturing widespread discontent in France with globalisation and austerity.
The anti-immigrant idea of “national preference” remains a core part of the party’s platform — as it always has been — but it is no longer framed in terms of mass deportation of foreigners. Instead, Ms. Le Pen wants to penalise employers for hiring foreigners and limit non-French access to public services. To the untrained eye, this does not look so different to discriminatory immigration policies already in place in countries like the U.K.
On social issues, too, she has softened the party line. Despite opposition from Marion Maréchal-Le Pen — Marine Le Pen’s niece and one of only two Front National members of parliament — the party has mostly abandoned its strict anti-abortion position and it has side-lined one of its signature policies, the reinstatement of the death penalty.
These changes appear to have had the desired electoral effect. In the first round of the 2012 presidential election, Marine Le Pen scored 17.9%; in the 2014 European elections, the party scored 24.8%; and, in both rounds of the 2015 regional elections, the party scored over 27%. Today, the Front National makes much of the fact that it considers itself to be the “biggest party in France”.
But statistics can be deceptive. Spectacular though such electoral progress might appear, there are all kinds of problems. For a start, the Front National has always performed better in elections with low turnouts. Second, and more important, the party does not benefit from the necessary vote reserves to win run-offs in a two-round electoral system.
In the past ten years, the party has repeatedly failed to increase its vote share in the second round of an election. If Marine Le Pen manages to get 30% in the first round of the presidential election in April, it will be an extraordinary achievement. But she will, in all likelihood, get 30% again in the second round, which would mean an emphatic defeat for her.
There are deeper issues as well. Long-time surveys of French public opinion indicate clearly that, at best, 30% of respondents identify with the Front National’s views and favourable external events — like the recent wave of terrorist attacks — have done little to change this. So, while it is no longer taboo to vote for a far-right party, it is still not usually considered a “serious” vote.
This is most obvious in the party’s startling paucity of elected officials. There are over 560,000 elected positions in France — from local councillors to European MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) — of which 2,059 are currently held by the Front National. That is a mere 0.003%. This institutional weakness is manifest at both the local and national level, and it is a severe break on the party’s ambitions.
Mr. Trump succeeded because he could lean on the vast infrastructure of the Republican Party and its voters; Marine Le Pen has had to rely on her charisma alone. Without alliances and the ability to appeal to floating voters, she faces an uphill task.
Weight of the past
There is one last point that makes a Marine Le Pen victory in 2017 unlikely: the weight of the past. Unlike the Americans or the British, the French have a strong memory of political instability and radical politics.
The electoral system of the Fifth Republic was forged in the 1950s out of the political crises of the Fourth Republic and the violence of decolonisation, which led to a virtual civil war. It was specifically designed to stabilise France’s volatile political culture and sideline extremist parties. At the time, the main threat was the far-left — in particular, the French Communist Party, which was poorly represented at a national level despite its substantial vote share. Today, this same system keeps the far-right at arm’s length.
Of course, there is always the possibility that an extremist candidate or movement could ‘break’ the system. But the vast majority of French voters have, time and again, demonstrated their aversion to radical change. They did so after the protests of May 1968 and they did so again after Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, squeezed through to the second round of the presidential election in 2002.
This means that, for Marine Le Pen to win, she would have to convince the French that she is both radically different and more of the same. For now, at least, this seems an impossible task.
Emile Chabal is a Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh and the author of ‘A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France’.