The National Rally (RN), France’s far-right party, gained a record high of 89 seats in the lower house of Parliament in France’s June 2022 elections. The party’s gains demonstrate the success of efforts by the former party leader Marine Le Pen to sanitize the RN of its racist and antisemitic past, as it is now the second largest party after President Emmanuel Macron’s own centrist party in Parliament. However, a recent racist outburst in Parliament by an RN party member demonstrates that the National Rally is far from politically mainstream, holding on to far-right values despite efforts to “un-demonize” the RN platform. To a certain extent, the National Rally’s electoral gains reflect Ms. Le Pen’s work to portray the party as a force of legitimate opposition in France, yet they also reflect dissatisfaction with party politics in France’s political system and a willingness to support outsider parties.
A recent faux pas by a member of Parliament from the National Rally blotted the sanitized image Ms. Le Pen has been trying to project. Grégoire de Fournas, the member in question, shouted “Back to Africa!” while a Black colleague in Parliament was speaking. The National Rally and de Fournas both stated that he was referring to France’s acceptance of occupants of a refugee boat under discussion at the time, but the remark damaged the sanitized image members of the National Rally were reportedly ordered to preserve and kept de Fournas out of Parliament for 15 days. The remark may be damaging for the image of legitimate opposition that Ms. Le Pen and the National Rally have been working to project, but it may also serve to reinforce the party’s status as an outsider party and further appeal to the far-right in France.
The RN has thus far demonstrated commitment to utilizing what Assistant Professor Laura Gamboa termed institutional strategies to achieve party goals, working within the institutional framework provided by the government to achieve its potentially more radical political aims. For example, Ms. Le Pen has been working to moderate the party’s platform in 2022 to encompass the energy crisis and debt concerns, and has dropped her plan to leave the Eurozone. This was done so that the RN could come to power through gaining more votes, focusing on changing the political system from inside of the government over prior anti-system rhetoric.
Further, the RN is now using the institutional powers it has gained to pursue its more radical aims, while still utilizing institutional strategies. The RN now has the power to bring no-confidence votes, ask for laws to be reviewed, create special investigative committees, and use new speaking and amending power to its advantage. These institutional powers can be used by the far-right to pursue more radical aims. For example, the National Rally recently moved on a no-confidence vote over President Emmanuel Macron’s budget along with the far-left, demonstrating the difficulty for President Macron in working with the more extreme parties now in Parliament.
By following the institutional rules of the game, the National Rally has so far portrayed itself to a greater extent to be what Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan term “loyal opposition,” displaying a commitment to working within the confines of France’s democratic system. Laura Gamboa argues in her article that using institutional methods may legitimize the opposition and make it more difficult for incumbents to undermine opposition parties. The RN’s pursual of institutional strategies may have increased the mainstream legitimacy of the party, making it harder to eradicate as blatantly undemocratic because institutional strategies preserve the legitimacy of the opposition. Yet as the recent outburst in Parliament shows, the party still holds on to its more radical racist positions and it now has a stronger base of power from which to advocate for those positions.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt illustrate the idea of distancing to keep populist or other non-democratic parties out of power, where mainstream, pro-democracy parties collaborate to keep extreme parties out of government. Author Jan-Werner Müller argues in his book What is Populism? that a key feature of populist parties is anti-pluralism, a position which the RN has exhibited through harsh anti-immigration rhetoric, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism. Despite its past blatantly radical platforms, France’s mainstream Republican Front and centrist President Macron have failed to keep the RN out of the mainstream. While this is partially explained by the choices of the RN to maintain a sustained commitment to legitimacy and institutional strategies, this does not tell the full story.
The political party system in France has shifted, leading to an increased support among the population for candidates which differentiate themselves from the mainstream center. Ellen Lust and David Waldner explore frameworks for democratic backsliding, one of which is political institutions. In France, support for the traditional left-right party divide has increasingly moved away from the center and toward extremes which are opposed to the status quo.
A 2017 report by the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation found that only 36 percent of French respondents classified themselves as centrist, with the number classifying themselves as either extreme-right or extreme-left almost three times higher than in the rest of the European Union (EU), and the number classifying themselves as extreme-right four times higher than in the EU. The report noted a high distrust on the far-right of established institutions in France, views reflected in a Pew Research Poll from 2018 which found that only about a third of French respondents surveyed trust the mainstream media.
The statistics found by the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation indicate a pattern identified by Professor Sheri Berman in her article comparing support for populist candidates in the US and Europe. Berman describes the weakening and decline of traditional political parties in Europe, losing their appeal to voters and making outsider populist platforms more appealing. This change was reflected in the recent June 2022 elections in France, where only 46 percent of the population turned out to vote, and President Macron’s party performed poorly, bringing to power a far-left coalition and the RN in Parliament.
While the RN may have succeeded in breaking through to the mainstream, it still embraces the far-right policies which have made it appeal to supporters seeking alternatives to the center. The RN’s sanitized image may show cracks as its members continue to hold a large opposition bloc in Parliament. The coming months will be a test for the National Rally as it chooses between following the institutional rules of the game or taking the opportunity to pursue more extreme platforms after gaining votes from an electorate tired of the status quo.
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Linz, Juan J. & Stepan, Alfred. 1978. The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Chapter 2.