The 2022 French Presidential election was controversial for a variety of reasons, the largest being the fact that a far-right populist managed to reach the final stages. Marie Le Pen and her political party have long-lasting ties to xenophobic, anti-semitic, and racist ideologies. While Emmanuel Macron has faced robust opposition from the French populace for being the “president of the rich”, most French politicians knocked out in the primaries called for their supporters to vote for Macron in order to ensure the loss of Le Pen. Marie Le Pen’s popularity is high due to the rise of far-right and anti-immigrant sentiment across France and the rest of Europe. Why are far-right populists gaining popularity across the globe? What factors are motivating constituents to vote along far-right lines? These factors vary from state to state, but in the case of France, anger regarding the effects of globalization and anti-Muslim sentiment seems to be two of the largest motivating factors.
A look into French History
French democracy has produced systems of oppression and violence before. Following the French revolution, the French political systems slipped into illiberal democracy and then dictatorship under Napoleon Bonaparte. The illiberal democracy that emerged following the French Revolution put an estimated 20 to 40 thousand people to death for “counter-revolutionary efforts”. However, following the collapse of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire, a violent uprising referred to as the “Paris Commune” led to the transition to the Third Republic, France’s third attempt at democracy. This third effort was the best yet, supplemented by social, economic, and cultural reforms. These reforms created the true “French identity”, and consolidated French nationhood and democracy. While the Third Republic fell during WWII, but following the end of the conflict democracy returned, and has remained since.
Far-right ideals have been increasing in popularity
Extremists have been making attempts to normalize autocratic-friendly nationalistic messaging throughout Europe, and Le Pen’s political success is confirmation of that fact. Many news outlets have been acknowledging the loss of Le Pen as a win for the far-right, considering the proportion of votes she was able to win over Macron (41%). Her ideas to distance France from Germany, the European Union, and NATO are in line with other isolationist movements across Europe (i.e. Brexit). So why have European political attitudes shifted towards nationalism and isolationism? When Le Pen faced Macron in the 2017 French presidential election, she only garnered 34% of the vote, and when her debatably even more radical father was in the running, he only managed to get 18% of the vote. While Le Pen lost this election, the support for her far-right and borderline fascist ideas is increasing.
What do the experts think?
Jean-Yves Camus, a French journalists and political analyst, says that a portion of the French population “believe in the war against Islam, and view the Muslim community as the enemy within.” Evidently, anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise within France, and far-right politicians have been capitalizing on this hate and utilizing the French Muslim community as a scapegoat for economic and social issues. Some of Le Pen’s main platforms include the French re-establishing full sovereignty from the European Union, limiting or ending immigration, and the fact that Islam is not compatible with the French Republic. French political scientist Vincent Martignty has pointed towards the “double polarization” phenomenon gripping the French constituency, with many French citizens viewing both Macron and Le Pen as polarizing figures. When he burst upon the political scene, Macron was perceived as a symbol of hope, a young man who could bring an end to the whims of older politicians and needed social change. However, his campaign has been an amalgamation of successes and failures, and while he presented himself as neither a left or right candidate, it has become clear that he is center-right. His center-right oriented policy has left much of the French working class wishing for more. So, Le Pen has capitalized on the working class’ woes, by presenting herself as the champion of those “left behind” by globalization, who have seen their competitiveness in the global labor market decrease as the world has become more globalized
Anxiety regarding immigrant integration has also been shown to increase support for far-right political actors. This is certainly true in the case of France, where anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment have been on the rise the past few years. A terror attack that took place in Nice in 2016 increased anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment across France, resulting in an unstable social life for France’s Muslim immigrants. Shortly following the attack Le Pen said that “Islamism has hit again”, and stated that “it is possible to assimilate individuals, but not an entire people, who bring with them their culture and religion.” However, in areas with high concentrations of immigrants, anti-immigrant sentiment is lower. In Ile-de France, the region with the highest concentration of immigrants, has the lowest rates of anti-immigrant sentiment as of 2017. In FrancheComte, where the proportion of foreign-born individuals is lower than average across France, anti-immigrant sentiment is highest. These statistics provide evidence for contact theory, which purports that contact between two groups can promote tolerance and acceptance under certain conditions.
How Should France Combat Far-Right Politics?
Considering the aforementioned factors that encourage support for far-right political parties, the French government needs to combat income inequality and discontent regarding immigration. Considering the evidence supporting contact theory, distributing immigrants more evenly across the state may lead to anti-immigrant attitudes being lessened. However, placing immigrants in an area where anti-immigrant sentiment is high could lead to friction or even worse, violence. In regards to income inequality, Macron needs to make a concentrated effort to appease the working class so that they aren’t forced into the arms of far-right politicians such as Le Pen. In short, the French government should construct policy geared towards supporting the working class, and make efforts to reduce anti-immigrant sentiment across France.