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France's Rassemblement National: What to Make of the Party's First 6 Months in Parliament

France's Rassemblement National: What to Make of the Party's First 6 Months in Parliament
 Gilles Ivaldi
CNRS research fellow at the CEVIPOF
 Elizabeth Pineau
Political journalist 

This article, belonging to our Observatory of Populism, is part of Institut Montaigne's partnership with the Illiberalism Studies Program at George Washington University, which extensively covers populist voices, whether in Brazil, Europe, or the US political landscape. For this session, we interviewed Gilles Ivaldi, CNRS researcher in Politics at CEVIPOF-Sciences-Po, and Elizabeth Pineau, political journalist and correspondent at the Elysée for Reuters. Both provide their assessment of the state of the Rassemblement National 6 months into the most recent French parliamentary elections. 

Electoral consolidation and local entrenchment

In France's legislative elections of 2022, the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) secured 18.7% of votes, an all-time high for the party that was formerly known as the Front National. In the presidential elections, Marine Le Pen secured roughly 13 million votes, a far cry from the 5.5 million her father Jean Marie Le Pen received in 2002. The legislative tally resulted in the party securing 89 seats in the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale - the lower house of the French Parliament), an 81-seat increase over the 8 seats it previously held. This historic result was built on the back of high levels of abstention, high levels of "negative voting" against incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and his Renaissance party, and the waning of the so-called "Republican Front" which used to unify mainstream parties and voters against the French far-right. 

Even so, the RN's 2022 performance was not an anomaly. In fact, it has its roots in nearly 15 years of sustained efforts to normalize the party. Since 2007, the RN's support has consistently risen - a fact illustrated by Marine Le Pen's third-place finish in the 2012 presidential campaign and her subsequent advancement to the second round of the presidential election in both 2017 and 2022. This upward trajectory is the result of the party's local entrenchment, as it has managed to govern effectively at the local level for many years now while increasing its representation in regional councils, as well as a result of Marine Le Pen's "strategic recalibration" of the party away from its most radical elements. 

Jackets and ties: attempts to "de-demonize" the RN

This strategic recalibration mostly consists of efforts to make the party look less extreme in the minds of voters and political operators. But finding this "strategic equilibrium" (that is, a position where the party retains most of its radical elements while also gaining credibility) is a difficult task. Le Pen and the RN have adopted new behaviors and communication strategies. Rhetorically, the party tried to balance governmental credibility and social acceptability with a discourse of anti-elite populism which is meant to continue to appeal to radical, disenfranchised voters.

This strategic recalibration mostly consists of efforts to make the party look less extreme in the minds of voters and political operators.

In many ways, the party members want to present themselves as legitimate candidates who can accomplish their political objectives. On a policy level, the party has undergone a programmatic shift operating on a strategic "triangulation". Such strategy is exemplified by the RN's move towards a more liberal profile on social and family issues, and its co-optation of feminist language, however primarily as a vehicle for anti-Muslim policy prescriptions.

Additionally, the party has blurred its previous Eurosceptic positions, most particularly its core proposal to leave the Euro, which had cost Marine Le Pen many votes in the 2017 presidential elections, eventually leading to a split of the 'hard' Eurosceptic faction led by Florian Philippot. While these efforts found some success in their electoral base until now they have found much less success within the political establishment as it is still taboo to socialize with the RNs' MPs. This year, MPs from other parties refused for instance to play a charity soccer game because members of the RN wanted to be able to participate. 

"Social Populism"

Meanwhile, we have seen a turn towards social populism. This has mostly been a turn towards socioeconomic issues and away from its previous cultural niche i.e. mobilizing essentially on cultural issues such as immigration and law and order. This turn began in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis when the RN (then still called the Front National) turned sharply to the left on economic issues relating to wages, pensions, social welfare and public service. In the 2022 elections, the party prioritized messaging around the cost of living crisis, thus addressing the many fears and concerns of its lower middle-class and working-class electorate. Today, the social populism of the RN is reflected in its opposition to the pension reform package pushed by President Emmanuel Macron and the presidential majority in the National Assembly. 

Persistent difficulties

Despite all the normalization efforts, there remains an ideological continuity between the new Rassemblement National and what was previously the Front National. This continuity is seen through fervent nationalism, Euroscepticism, welfare chauvinism, law and order authoritarianism and the persistence of a far-right culture deeply entrenched at the grassroots level. Sometimes these tendencies boil over as seen for instance when Grégoire de Fournas, a Rassemblement National MP shouted "they should go back to Africa" as his Black colleague, MP Carlos Martens Bilongo, talked about immigration. Moreover, there is a stain resulting from the party's international connections to Putin's Russia and Orbán's Hungary. 

Looking at the party in the National Assembly over the past 6 months, we see a clear illustration of the RN's strategy of balancing traditional far-right themes with "triangulated" policies. This is exemplified by the RN’s proposals and amendments in the National Assembly. The RN continues to advocate for policies, big and small, that reflect far-right values: uniforms in school, a presumption of legitimate defense for police officers using their weapons, exclusion of foreign workers from professional elections, and calls for proportional representation.

Despite all the normalization efforts, there remains an ideological continuity between the new Rassemblement National and what was previously the Front National. 

Meanwhile, the party has been calling for a tax reform that would lower local taxes for the elderly while calling for parliamentary control over nursing homes. More recently, Marine Le Pen has agreed to the proposal to constitutionalize abortion rights, and her party has offered to chair the National Assembly's study group on antisemitism, thus pursuing further its efforts to distance itself from the ambiguity of the previous FN with regard to the history of World War II. 

Even on issues where the party has supposedly become more liberal, its practice fails to match its rhetoric, however. For instance, in order to appeal to female voters, Marine Le Pen has made a point of rhetorically embracing feminism. Such embrace also works as a vehicle to channel anti-Islam sentiment, as Islam allegedly presents a "danger to women". During the parliamentary vote to add abortion rights to the French constitution, Marine Le Pen simply disappeared and claimed she was ill, thus showing only false support for such change. The same can be said about immigration. While Le Pen refuses to use the language of "Great Replacement", she essentially uses euphemistic language to say the same thing, all the while retaining the party’s hard right policy position on immigration. 

These are all part of the persistent difficulties the party is enduring as part of its normalization strategy. Winning 89 legislative seats was a boost to the party’s credibility but also makes managing the party’s image a whole lot more difficult, as each new MP has ambitions, and many of them are young and trying to forge an image of themselves. Some of these MPs have some political experience, but most are not highly educated or highly elite. There is a deficit of highly skilled political operators in the RN party.

Far-right fractures and the challenges ahead

One storyline of the 2022 elections concerned the presence of two, observably viable, far-right parties running in the elections. In addition to Le Pen's Rassemblement National, far-right media personality Eric Zemmour launched a new party, Reconquête, and ran a presidential campaign. But the relationship between the two was extremely strained. On the one hand, Zemmour's moves helped Le Pen. Zemmour's extreme far-right positioning unintentionally made Le Pen look more moderate, and thereby helped the RN's normalization efforts. Moreover, the general rightward shift in the French political system helped the RN. 

While Zemmour voters ended up supporting Le Pen in the 2022 second-round presidential runoff, unsurprisingly, produced anger and hostility between the two far-right figures. 

On the other hand, Zemmour sought to pull voters from Le Pen. While Zemmour voters ended up supporting Le Pen in the 2022 second-round presidential runoff, unsurprisingly, produced anger and hostility between the two far-right figures. The two also differed on strategic questions; while Zemmour wants an alliance between the mainstream right, Les Républicains and the far-right, Le Pen prefers to build independent power and still calls for a broad Union of Patriots bringing together the left and right against what she deems the "globalist" elite embodied by Emmanuel Macron.

Finally, a series of high-profile defections from Le Pen's Rassemblement National to Zemmour's Reconquête - including that of Le Pen's own niece and rising star Marion Maréchal - did not help matters. While Le Pen can likely reconcile her relationship with her niece, it is unlikely that her relationship with Zemmour can be repaired, and Le Pen has made clear that she does not intend to take defectors back. 

Despite the party's efforts, a majority of the French public continues to see the RN as far-right, dangerous to democracy, and xenophobic/racist. Interestingly, however, that same public sees Marine Le Pen's RN in the National Assembly as less radical than the far-left La France Insoumise party led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Still, despite the fact that the RN has consolidated its position -  not only its position on the far right vis-à-vis its marginalization of Eric Zemmour's Reconquête, but its position as an opposition to Macron - it still has a long way to go. Moreover, the party faces serious financial problems, though its strong performance in 2022 will ease these challenges as it begins to receive public funding in 2023 to the tune of around €10 million per year. The party also faces internal challenges relating to the factionalism between its more radical and more "mainstreamed" members, as well as internal problems relating to the North-South ideological and strategic divide and the local-national divide. Finally, the party faces the challenge of building a professionalized party structure in line with its newfound electoral success. It still struggles to pull from a pool of national elites but has made only marginal gains in building links with Les Républicans, the mainstream right party. 

Solving the strategic puzzle

Surmounting these challenges will be difficult, as any tack toward the mainstream risks alienating the radical base of the party and vice versa. There is also a sociological hurdle: older, urban, educated, and/or upper-class voters continue to reject the Rassemblement National. The only way to bring those voters in is to continue the party's "de-demonization" and mainstreaming campaign. More importantly, this will involve policy changes in the economy to make the party more attractive to older and upper-class voters, of which we have already seen one example. While Le Pen used to advocate for lowering the retirement age to 60, she has now adopted a more complicated, technocratic policy where some citizens retire at 60, while others may be required to work until 61 or 62. Moreover, the party will need to clarify its positions on Europe and Russia, as voters today are increasingly supportive of the European Union relative to even a decade ago, and still see the RN as too close to Putin's regime. Finally, the party will need to address salient issues such as climate change beyond its current policies of "localism", economic nationalism and Euroscepticism. 

One dark horse in this affair is the role of the business and media communities. The new French media landscape, made up of new right-wing channels with an openness to platforming far-right figures, makes Le Pen's job a lot easier. On the business question, the Rassemblement National's relationship with business interests used to be quite low because the latter opposes the Euroscepticism and anti-Euro policies that the RN embraced for so long. Moreover, Le Pen's radicalization after 2008, where she embraced increasingly anti-capitalist positions, strained her relationship with business interests. Since then, she has tried to repair them with limited success. Co-opting big businesses and media outlets may be one path for the RN to further normalize itself and ultimately break through its electoral ceiling. 


This paper was co-written with the help of Aaron Irion, as part of Institut Montaigne's partnership with the Illiberalism Studies Program at George Washington University.


Copyright image: Geoffroy Van der Hasselt / AFP.

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