The Nine Lives of the Rassemblement National
By Therese Mager, Research Institute Social Cohesion (RISC)/ReCentGlobe, Leipzig University
On 24 April 2022, French president Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in a run-off vote, securing a second five-year term. In the days leading up to the election, French journalists and experts emphasized a polarized France, speaking of a face-off between opposing camps in society: urban versus rural, well-to-do versus working class, Europhile versus Eurosceptic. Amid so much division, the chances of a far-right Le Pen victory seemed greater than ever; nonetheless, Macron won the run-off by a comfortable margin. As European Union supporters breathe a sigh of relief, Le Pen’s partisans note her historic score and say that it’s only a matter of time before her party, the Rassemblement National, reaches the Elysée Palace. So, what’s next for the French far right? With legislative elections on the horizon, Therese Mager, a researcher from the Research Institute Social Cohesion (RISC), takes stock of the Rassemblement National’s strengths and weaknesses.
Last month, Emmanuel Macron became the first sitting president of France to win re-election since Jacques Chirac’s victory in 2002. Like Chirac, Macron benefited from a “false choice” presented to the French electorate: just as voters had to choose between right-wing incumbent Chirac and extreme-right outsider Jean-Marie Le Pen in the presidential run-off vote in 2002, so did this year’s electorate have to decide between centre-right Macron and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter and successor, Marine Le Pen. Unlike Chirac, however, who won a colossal 82 per cent of the run-off vote and enjoyed near unanimous support from politicians across the spectrum, Macron saw doubts raised about his chances. Similar to Chirac, he called on the French to rally behind him in a “republican front” and block the far right; unlike his predecessor, he watched as his pleas for unity fell flat.
In the end, Macron prevailed with an ample 17-point lead – the post-election headline. The subheadline? Le Pen’s Rassemblement National(RN)achieved the best score in its history, with 41.5 per cent of the vote.[i]
Several factors account for these results, starting with Macron’s fragile popularity. No longer an unknown quantity, the president has faced a strong backlash over his reformist economic policies, scandal-plagued administration, and seemingly arrogant attitude. Another factor is the waning power of the “republican front”, a French political term meaning the coming together of left- and right-wing voters to obstruct the RN (seen as an anti-democratic party). Having already been forced to choose the lesser of two evils in 2002 and again in 2017 (when Macron was first pitted against Marine Le Pen), many left-wing voters in particular vowed that they would not violate their consciences a third time; this helps to explain the unusually high levels of voter abstention in the run-off election.[ii]
Perhaps most importantly, Macron’s narrowing lead can be attributed to growing voter acceptance of his far-right populist opponent. Shrewd, opportunistic, and resilient, Le Pen has gone to great lengths to overhaul public perception of her party. While the RN is still shunned by alliances at nearly every level of government, its current degree of electoral prominence would have been unthinkable a decade ago. How did this happen? Is the RN on an unstoppable path towards becoming a dominant force in French politics? What can we expect from this movement in the coming months?
A Party that is (Almost) in the Electoral Mainstream
Ever since Marine Le Pen took over leadership of her father’s party in 2011, she has rigorously pursued the normalization, or “de-demonization”, of the RN, with the aim of building a coalition-worthy organization. In addition to superficial adjustments, such as the party’s rebranding in 2018 (from Front Nationalto Rassemblement National), this process has involved content-related changes. Touting social and economic policies aimed at protecting low-wage earners and vulnerable families – as long as they are “deserving” of support, as per discriminatory criteria – the RN has also abandoned dusty discourses about traditional values. Le Pen has sought to expel openly anti-Semitic or racist members from the party’s ranks, ousting her own father in 2015. Moreover, she has worked to soften her own image; once combative and acerbic, the head of the RN now carefully maintains a calm and good-natured demeanour in public, with her love of cats frequently in the media spotlight.
While harsh immigration policies and nationalism remain at the core of the RN’s platform, the party’s normalization has recently been accelerated by what at first seemed like a threat: the arrival of Éric Zemmour in French politics. A reactionary political journalist and TV pundit, Zemmour entered the presidential race in late 2021 with an overtly xenophobic platform, centred on national identity and cultural clash. Next to this polarizing figure, Le Pen and her surrogates appeared more tolerant, inclusive, and professional. Even though Zemmour’s campaign siphoned off a number of RN officials and a segment of its voters, it also served the unexpected function of diverting criticism away from Le Pen, who was hailed throughout much of the election season as the “candidate for purchasing power”. Indeed, it wasn’t until after Zemmour was eliminated in the first round of voting that Le Pen’s most disturbing policies – including a ban on wearing the hijabin public spaces and troubling plans to modify the French constitution via referendum – became widely discussed and contested.
Amid these shifts in public perception, and especially in the context of a binary choice for the second-round vote, it is important to note that RN voters are not necessarily ultraconservative or chauvinistic. Popular among working-class voters in deindustrialized regions, the RN capitalizes on economic grievances and presents itself as the party of “the people”, a defender against the ravages of unchecked globalization processes. As a consequence, sociologists have remarked time and again on the RN’s attractiveness among former Communist Party supporters. Perhaps more surprisingly, the party has made considerable inroads into France’s overseas territories. In the second round of last month’s election, Le Pen prevailed in all five overseas departments, the majority populations of which are non-white. The reasons range from virulent opposition to the Macron government’s Covid policies to feelings of neglect; many overseas voters have also gravitated to Le Pen in recent years because of her promises to diminish clandestine migration[iii] and lower their cost of living.
In view of this growing influence among a heterogeneous electorate, we could imagine that the RN is indeed on the up-and-up, poised to win big in the legislative elections scheduled for this June. However, there are quite a few limits to what this party can currently achieve.
A Structurally Weak and Financially Depleted Political Apparatus
As Le Pen’s star continues to rise, it can be tempting to overestimate her party’s real capabilities. Readers may be surprised to learn that the RN, despite its international renown, currently holds little meaningful government representation. A handful of important mayorships, less than 15 per cent of the regional council seats, and six seats in parliament make up the sum total of the RN’s electoral turf in France.[iv] With so few elected offices, the RN lacks both administrative clout and sufficient public financing. Dues from party members can only carry them so far; consequently, the RN is currently France’s most indebted political party (and beholden to foreign creditors, no less). Le Pen said it herself in her debate against Macron on 20 April: “We are a poor party”.
On top of its financial insecurity, the RN is chronically bereft of capable personnel. Prone to splits over ideological disagreements, the party has seen some of its most charismatic personalities burn bright and then take their leave, a challenge which is only exacerbated by the RN’s rigid hierarchical structure. Lacking the influence and mobility they desire, several core members (such as Florian Philippot or Bruno Mégret) have broken off to create new parties. Still other figures are easy pickings for rival movements, as was the case when Zemmour lured away the RN’s only senator as well as several of its European Parliament representatives. Critically, the RN has also failed to attract senior officials with significant government experience, such as former ministers; the party therefore lacks expertise and a thorough understanding of institutions, a fact which Le Pen was unable to hide in last month’s presidential debate. Indeed, as of the writing of this article, the RN has few up-and-comers. Should Le Pen vacate her position as head of the party, it is difficult to imagine who could take up the mantle.
In short, the RN may look successful, but it is in full crisis mode behind the scenes. Even if Le Pen accepts Zemmour’s standing invitation to combine forces in the legislative elections in June – an unlikely scenario– she will have difficulty preparing enough talented candidates to win a significant number of districts in a two-round voting system. June may well bring more disappointment for the RN, after which we can expect to see additional fallout within the party.
Playing the (Decades-)Long Game?
Neither a flash in the pan nor a juggernaut, the RN is nothing if not persistent. While the party has received growing international attention in the past few years, it made its first big splash not in the presidential run-offs of 2017 or 2002, but in the European elections of 1984, when Jean-Marie Le Pen and his list of delegates scored 10 seats in the European Parliament. Le Pen’s chief ideological foe, the French Communist Party, lost an equal number of members of the European Parliament – and the stage was set for the next four decades. Since this initial breakthrough, the RN’s rise and demise have both been foretold countless times. All this author can say for now is that the party will continue to find a way to occupy headlines, if not a substantial role in governance.
In terms of a future presidential bid, Marine Le Pen stated earlier this year that her run in 2022 – her third attempt at winning the nation’s highest office – would be her last. Her father had run for president of France five times before ceding his role to her. That makes a total of eight presidential campaigns between them, all signed Le Pen. Perhaps the adventure stops here. Or perhaps, like Marine’s famous cats, the RN still has one life left.
[ii] At 28 per cent, voter abstention was the highest it has been for a presidential run-off election since 1969.
[iii] As outposts of a wealthy European nation in otherwise poor regions, several French overseas departments – notably Mayotte and French Guiana – contend with a great deal of unregulated migration.
[iv] Interestingly, the party has its best representation in the European Parliament. The RN contingent makes up about a fourth of French members of parliament.