“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”
― William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Similar to fifteen years ago, the French National Front will once again be on the ballot of the second round of the French presidential election. The leader of the party, Marine Le Pen, is the daughter of Jean Marie Le Pen, who leaded the party from 1972 to 2011 and transformed it into a serious contender that has a serious chance of winning the French election.
The National Front from 1972 to 2011 was embodied by Jean-Marie Le Pen. The party presented, at the time, the common features of typical far-right parties. The two main aspects are the presence of a charismatic leader and a xenophobic ideology that often crosses the line of racism. The discourse of Jean-Marie Le Pen was violent from the beginning of its presidency, and filled with biological images and references to “French blood”, genetic interbreeding, and race. To help clarify, it is useful to revisit his most famous declarations. Here is a selection:
On race: “I believe in the inequality of races. At the Olympic games, there is an obvious inequality between the black race and the white race, it is a fact. I note that races are unequal“
On gas chambers: “I am passionate about the history of the Second World War. I ask myself a certain number of questions. I’m not saying that the gas changers didn’t exist. I haven’t seen them myself. I haven’t especially studied that question. But I think it is a minor point in the history of the Second World War.”
On homosexuality: “Homosexuality is not a crime, but it is a biological and social anomaly”
On women: “There must be an authority, and we believe that the most qualified authority in a household is the man’s”
On democracy: “I absolutely understand people who question democracy and fight it.”
Jean-Marie Le Pen and the image of strenght
Concerning the Le Pen figure, from the 1970s to the 2000s, all the posters of the National Front had similar characteristics which persisted over the decades. The background was plain and the face of a man who did not seem to age stood out, with a bright smile and a tanned complexion. There was no specific logo or messaging. The National Front wanted to be representative of its leader, which would not change for forty years. This alone was a great asset over its competitors. Jean-Marie Le Pen is indeed the founding father of the party.
From the very beginning it was recognized that this man was the creator of a political venture whose destiny was meant to last for decades. The party created an entire set of imaginary representations of Jean-Marie Le Pen, with one word standing out: “strength”. Marie-Christine Arnautu, a former executive of the party said: “Physically, the man had a very impressive stature”. He was “the man with the head band, with the same character trait coming back every time at first: his strength”.
The will of the party to assimilate Le Pen to this image of strength at times borders on the ridiculous. For instance, the National Front made a video in 2002, where one can see Le Pen performing repetitive boxing movements reminiscent of the skills of Sylverster Stallone in the Rocky movies; raising his arms, hitting a virulent opponent, and practicing uppercuts. All of this is set to the Rocky musical theme, mixed with traditional French music.
In 2011, the National Front was in dire straits. Its popularity was at its lowest point in recent years. 2011 marked a significant shift, caused by the handover of the presidency from Jean-Marie Le Pen to his daughter Marine Le Pen. Since then, Marine Le Pen has initiated a vast undertaking which would later be called “dédiabolisation”, or “de-demonization”. This endeavor, still ongoing today, attempts to make the National Front more attractive for a wider spectrum of voters coming from different political beliefs, normally differing from the National Front’s original ideology. To that end, Marine Le Pen decided in 2011 not to follow the path of the far-right catholic traditionalists, ultra-nationalists and anti-Semitic conspiracists.
The first reform saw Marine Le Pen approaching Bruno Mégret, a former executive of the party who was excluded since the beginning of the 1990s. Bruno Mégret was one of the first to support the idea of de-demonization. Furthermore, Marine Le Pen focused her attention on economic arguments rather than solely focusing on passionate, emotional and mystical analogies, like her father had done. The de-demonization of the National Front took place on a two track basis: making the national Front a republican party, and building a complete and comprehensive socio-economical program as a viable alternative to the dominant free-market ideology.
One of the landmark dates of the de-demonization was the claim, made by Marine Le Pen, of an ideological connection between the National Front and Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a former left-wing minister who, at first glance, did not seem to share any beliefs with the party. This claim became clearer when, in 2012, Florian Philippot, a former Chevènement supporter, was nominated as Vice-President of the National Front. Through these maneuvers the National Front started to evolve a classic populist party strategy, much like the ones found in South America during the XXth century. For many, the nomination of Florian Philippot as Vice-President of the party was a great move; it enabled the National Front to fit in with its “catch-all” strategy, it confirmed the will of the National Front to be perceived as a “republican” party, and it thickened its ideological body.
Marine Le Pen uses double-speak to satisfy different segment of the French population
It is universally acknowledged that the National Front’s discourse in the eyes of the mainstream media has changed. It has softened and progressively drifted away from the virulent rhetoric of Jean-Marie Le Pen. However, doubts remain with regards to the real motivation behind this sudden ideological shift. Is it the result of the genuine views of the leaders of the party, or is it simply an effort to adopt a catch-all approach and act as a chameleon, changing its surface without changing its core?
Emmanuel Macron has been accused, often rightly, of using double-speak to satisfy different segments of the French population. Nevertheless, Marine Le Pen uses the same strategy, as she has for a certain number of years now. Depending on her audience, she heavily adapts her opinion. While she has softened her rhetoric in the mainstream media, she still uses abrasive words in front of her activists. The French TV show “Envoyé Spécial” (“Marine Le Pen, la bataille des mots”) displays some great examples.
For instance, in response to accusations of racism, in 2011 she declared on French television that: “I say immigration is an economical problem and that it must be treated economically”. By dealing with immigration on economic grounds rather than identity grounds, the National Front has adapted its strategy to persuade voters of the legitimacy of reduced immigration. By contrast, Madame Le Pen adopts a different tone in front of her supporters. For instance, she declared at a meeting a few weeks later: “Not only has immigration in France not slowed down, but it has voluntarily accelerated into an absurd process leaving us to wonder if its ultimate goal wouldn’t be the pure and simple replacement of the French people”. Here, Le Pen replaced the rational economic argument with the emotional identity approach. Le Pen has even implicitly referred to the theory of the “Great replacement”, a conspiracy theory put forward by a French author, claiming that there is a great plot, at an international level, aiming to substitute the French population with Muslim populations.
In the same vein, being “French” does not convey the same meaning depending on if it is on television or in front of supporters. In 2014 she said that the “national priority is a benefit awarded to all French. Not ancestral French, not white French, but to all who have the French nationality, irrespective of their origins, or their religion”. However, in front of her supporters, Marine Le Pen declared: “To obtain the French nationality, one needs a French nature, a French land, a French look. One will never obtain the French nationality with just a gloomy concrete and asphalt ground. Besides, one cannot obtain the French nationality, even if his parents have been French for generations, if one does not consider he belongs to a certain land, descent and roots.”
In summary, one can conclude that there indeed has been a break between Jean Marie Le Pen’s National Front and his daughter’s. However, the break is mainly a semantic difference. This major change in the history of the French National Front reflects the party’s wish to adopt a more “catch-all” approach, a very common strategy for populist parties. In this sense, the National Front improves its image in front of the media, in order to seduce a broader spectrum of voters, coming from the left or from the less extreme right. Nevertheless, in front of its supporters, the National Front still uses a violent rhetoric, in order to maintain its far-right base. The nomination of Florian Philippot is a reinforcement of the strategy to entice a wider range of voters, thus enabling the party to have a viable presidential ticket as it enables the party to have a true presidential ticket. Instead of a genuine transformation, the National Front has changed its surface without changing its core, which remains the same.
► Press Articles
► TV show:
– Envoyé spécial. Marine Le Pen : la bataille des mots
► Books :
BETZ, Hans-Georg, « The Revenge of the Ploucs: The Revival of Radical Populism under Marine Le Pen in France » in KRIESI & PAPPAS, European Populism in the Shadow of Great Recession, ECPR, 2015, pp. 75-89.
IGOUNET, Valérie, Le Front national de 1972 à nos jours : le parti, les hommes, les idées, Paris, Seuil, 2014. P74.
Hermet G., Les populismes dans le monde. Une histoire sociologique. XIXe-XXe siècle, Paris, Fayard, 2001.
Ivaldi G. et Zaslove A., « L’Europe des populismes : confluences et diversité », Revue européenne des sciences sociales, n° 53, 2015/1, pp. 121-155.
Kriesi H., « The Populist Challenge », in West European Politics, n° 2/37, 2014, pp. 361-378.
Kriesi H. and Pappas T. (eds.), European populism in the shadow of the great recession, Colchester, ECPR Press, 2015.
Mazzoleni O., Nationalisme et populisme en Suisse, Lausanne, Le Savoir Suisse, 2008.
Reynié, D., Populismes : la pente fatale, Paris, Plon, 2011.
Zarka Yves-Charles, « Le populisme et la démocratie des humeurs », Cités, 2012/1 n° 49, p. 3-6. DOI : 10.3917/cite.049.0003