Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National
I have swallowed a monstrous dose of poison.
~Arthur Rimbaud, “A Season in Hell”
When the far-right Front National (FN) changed its name to Rassemblement National (National Rally, or RN) in June 2018, media commentary tended to follow a familiar pattern, taking party leader Marine Le Pen’s words at face value. The Associated Press interpreted the change as an indication of the party’s desire to “appeal to a broader range of voters”. It drew a similar, if rather odd, conclusion about the party’s modified logo: the organisation’s “traditional flames” had been put “inside a partially closed circle to signal a new openness”.
A more sceptical eye might have discerned a rather closed kind of openness here, while a more informed one may have noted that the “traditional flames” were originally the emblem of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, a neo-fascist organisation of diehard Mussolini loyalists. More curious commentators did note the parallel between the new, voter-friendly name and the wartime collaborationist organisation, the Rassemblement National Populaire, led by the rather less-than-voter-friendly Marcel Déat, co-founder of the French division of the Waffen SS, whose soldiers fought in Nazi uniform to defend Hitler’s regime on the Eastern Front.
Two political narratives dominate media representations of the RN and the threat it poses to democracy. The first views the party’s supposed “dédiabolisation”, or “detoxification”, as some kind of watershed for the extreme right, evidenced by the public stance Le Pen has taken towards her father’s Holocaust negationism and anti-Semitism. The second, discussed below, sees President Macron as some kind of bulwark against the ambient threat of “populism”.
Meet the new boss…
The expulsion of Le Pen senior from the organisation he built has been much remarked upon. Less noted is the fact that his very public feud with his daughter did not prevent him from bankrolling her 2017 election campaign to the tune of six million euros. Detoxification has, in reality, always been part of the FN/RN’s make-up. Indeed, the organisation only came into existence as a vehicle for far-right activists to reach a wider audience. For many journalists and academics, however, detoxification operates as little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Rassemblement National is more moderate because it says so.
This stems from a problem pointed out by Annie Collovald over a decade ago: viewing parties like the RN through the prism of “populism”, focusing on proclaimed values and ideas rather than an analysis of strategy and organisational practice, tends to create a blind spot. Episodes like the expulsion of Le Pen senior, or cosmetic changes to its name, simply slot into a predetermined narrative: the ascendancy of a modern, “populist” party that cannot be assimilated with France’s fascist past.
One drawback of this approach is that the political affiliations Marine Le Pen has chosen to cultivate cannot fully be explained. Both she and her niece, Marion Maréchal, have ties to Philippe Vardon, former leader of the violent, Islamophobic, white nationalist Bloc identitaire. Le Pen, like Steve Bannon, is an admirer of Jean Raspail’s “visionary” novel “Le Camp des Saints”, which tells the story of a million immigrants who settle on the Côte d’Azur. Raspail described his work as a warning about “racial incompatibility”, in which “a million microbes” slowly devour a body from the inside. It is not hard to join the dots between such ideas and Renaud Camus’ notion of the “Great Replacement”, the inspiration for the 2019 Christchurch massacre.
Marine Le Pen also retains close ties to former members of the violent far-right student organisation the GUD (Groupe Union Droite), men like Axel Loustau, former treasurer of her front organisation, Jeanne, and RN councillor in the Hauts-de-Seine region, and Frédéric Chatillon, former leader of the GUD and a close friend and colleague of Le Pen’s since her student days. Chatillon, remembered by one former GUD member for his “sick hatred of the Jews”, used to organise an annual dinner celebrating the birthday of Hitler (“Uncle” to members of the GUD), once marking his arrival by theatrically kissing a portrait of the Führer. He also held “striped pyjama” parties meant to mock Jewish death camp deportees. Other highlights on his CV include a visit to Syria, where an army officer presented him with an Arabic translation of “Mein Kampf”, and a meeting with the Belgian fascist Léon Degrelle, who told Chatillon that “If I’d had a son, I’d have liked him to be like you”.
Such associations should prompt serious questions about the credibility of the RN’s “detoxification”, the process that led to the expulsion of Le Pen senior, whose formative political allies included former Vichy militia-men and collaborationists, ex-Waffen SS officers and veterans of terrorist defiance of Algerian independence, but not to the expulsion of his daughter’s coterie of associates, whose outlook is shaped by the very same legacy.
In 2009, her friends Chatillon and Lousteau swapped Facebook messages lamenting Hitler’s death, an exchange somewhat at odds with claims that Le Pen and her circle are making the party less toxic. As Britney Spears would say, guys like this should wear a warning. The prominent role played by such individuals is an indication that the Rassemblement National’s “new openness” is similar to the Front National’s old openness, still influenced by the “revolutionary nationalist” currents that founded the party, and which are intent on adapting France’s fascist heritage to modern conditions.
The Republic on the march… toward what?
Today, core aspects of this heritage, in particular authoritarianism and racist scapegoating, are being legitimised by the mainstream. This brings us to the second political narrative that skews efforts to understand the Rassemblement National. It is a narrative that depicts the party as one among various “populist” threats to President Macron’s defence of liberal values and the European Union. As one tremulous commentator lamented, unless “sober-minded people” are prepared to help rebuild faith in Macron, then democracy itself will be put at risk. In the immediate aftermath of his election, one of Macron’s advisors went as far as to suggest that he could become an inspiration to the whole world by “winning the war on populism”.
The vague generality of this term means that any individual or party that invokes “the people” or criticises “elites” tends to be labelled populist, ranging from Marine Le Pen to Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the yellow vest protesters. Le Pen’s “populism”, for example, has been associated with ultra-conservativism, socialism and communism. Nuance and difference between tendencies are effaced by the blanket label. The corollary of this is that the accentuation of authoritarianism in liberal governance tends to go unnoticed.
For all the hyperbole that greeted his election, Macron has simply placed himself on the same trajectory as his immediate predecessors, trapped, as Ugo Palheta notes, in a position of “domination without hegemony”, and therefore increasingly reliant on authoritarian methods.
Statistics on the yellow vest protests, for example, indicate a significant rise in state violence. The first six months of the demonstrations, from November 2018, were met with the biggest show of police repression since May 1968. Over 12,000 people were arrested, including a record 1,500 on a single day and thousands of “pre-crime” arrests. Two thousand were convicted. Around 13,000 baton rounds were fired and nearly 2,500 protesters wounded. Of these, 25 lost an eye to rubber bullets or tear-gas canisters, with many victims and witnesses claiming that officers were deliberately aiming at faces. Five people have lost a hand to exploding tear-gas grenades.
This repressive trajectory was already well-established under Macron’s predecessor François Hollande, notably with the imposition of a state of emergency in 2015. In the absence of sustained, widespread public identification with government action, repression, scapegoating and racism have become important tools for state actors. One key means of asserting the authority of the state has been the deployment of Republican secularism, or “laïcité”, as a means of stigmatising and disciplining France’s Muslim population.
A preoccupation of the Republican left for most of the twentieth century, laïcité began to be embraced by the right starting in the late 1980s. After Jacques Chirac won the 2002 presidential election, seeing off Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round, the right concluded that it could marshal laïcité for its own ends and use it to capitalise on the mobilisation that had swept Chirac to victory.
The left was to prove incapable of countering this development. This was largely due to its fidelity to Republican ideology, an historic weakness underpinning the longstanding failure to build a socialist current with genuine independence from the state. But it was also due to a more basic shortcoming: the inability to defend a stigmatised minority group and to recognise that, in a country where a party with fascist roots was polling at 20%, confronting racism was a greater priority than the defence of the secular values and regulations that successive governments were wielding against France’s Muslim population.
A decade and a half later, the results of this failure are there for all to see. Bans have been imposed on the hijab in schools and the niqab in public space. Islamophobia has become a prominent, respectable and almost permanent feature of public life in France.
In September 2019, Marion Maréchal, along with various other far-right figures like the mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard, organised a Convention of the Right. The ultra-reactionary journalist Eric Zemmour, twice convicted of incitement to racial hatred, made a speech in which he called upon his audience to fight the “army of occupation” whose uniform was the djellaba. Denounced by Le Monde newspaper as a speech “of fascist inspiration”, it was broadcast live on the LCI channel, a subsidiary of France’s main TV station TF1.
Throughout the autumn of 2019, political debate turned once again to the question of what Muslim women should wear, and when. TV stations convened panel discussions to ask whether Muslim mothers who wore the hijab should be allowed to accompany their children on school trips. Personalities from the influential “new reactionary” current of Islamophobes, like Zemmour, were in high demand. Asked what it meant to be French, Zemmour remarked that when General Bugeaud had arrived in Algeria he had started “massacring Muslims and some Jews”. “So today I’m on the side of General Bugeaud”, he went on, “that’s what it is to be French”.
And so it continued. A journalist on the LCI channel compared the banning of the hijab to banning SS uniforms. The assistant director of Le Figaro newspaper, Yves Thréard, launched into a long diatribe against the hijab and the state of a nation where “alcohol was banned across entire neighbourhoods”. Islamophobia, he insisted, did not exist: “Me, I hate the Muslim religion and I’ve got a right to say it”. At the end of October 2019, the French Senate approved a measure proposing to ban the wearing of the hijab on school trips. It was in this climate that an 84-year old former FN member tried to set fire to a mosque in Bayonne, shooting two worshippers who tried to stop him.
Macron the enabler, and what comes next
Macron’s role in ramping up these tensions has been a far cry from that of liberal innocent, or anti-populist warrior. Throughout a year marked by the turbulence of the yellow vest protests, that sent his poll ratings plummeting, he has sought to divert attention toward the inconvenience posed by having a Muslim population in France. He has recently begun evoking the dubious notion of “cultural insecurity”, propagated by the secular activist Laurent Bouvet, founding member of the faux-progressive Printemps Republicain. This notion contends that France’s white majority feels uneasy about minorities making themselves visible. Minorities should therefore comply with the demands of the majority. Laïcité has become the most effective means of permitting the state to exert this kind of discipline.
During a high-profile televised address to the nation devoted to the yellow vest protests, whose preoccupations had primarily focused on inequality, the cost of living and unemployment, Macron lamented the way that secularism had been called into question, threatened by “ways of life that create barriers”. In the autumn of 2019, as the climate of Islamophobia spiralled, he chose to give a lengthy interview to the hard-right weekly, Valeurs Actuelles. Although he was careful to distance himself from the notion of “anti-white racism” and from calls to ban the wearing of the hijab in public space or on school trips, the mere fact that the President’s face was on the cover of a magazine convicted of provoking discrimination against Muslims and hatred or violence towards Roma people sent its own message, along with his vow to ‘take charge’ of the three issues that dominated the interview: immigration, Islam and integration.
In the March 2020 municipal elections, the far-right will hope to build on its 2014 performance, when it won control of ten towns. The notion that the Rassemblement National is coming in from the cold, or cleaning up its act, appears not simply fanciful, but dangerous. In an environment where openly racist rhetoric is being given an unprecedented platform and where Islamophobia has, under the guise of “France’s secular traditions”, become an important component of everyday statecraft, the FN/RN does indeed appear more mainstream. But its quest for “respectability” is no more of a new departure than the Rassemblement National label itself, which was actually first used by the FN as early as the 1986 parliamentary elections. The quest for respectability, as Alexandre Dezé underlines, has always co-existed with the FN/RN’s commitment to a doctrine that pulls in the opposite direction.
The illusion of “moderation” today is simply an effect of the radicalisation of a mainstream political establishment that has been far more willing to embrace racism and authoritarianism than defend the values of democracy and tolerance that it purports to uphold. Until now, the Islamophobic trajectory of mainstream politics has encountered little opposition. On 10 November, however, a sizeable march was organised in Paris to protest against the rise in anti-Muslim prejudice. Although the initiative was met with the usual equivocations and denunciations, there was meaningful support for the mobilisation from across the left, making it the first anti-Islamophobia march to unite Muslim associations and the left, and perhaps a harbinger of change that has been a very long time coming.
Jim Wolfreys lectures at King’s College London. He is author of “Republic of Islamophobia. The Rise of Respectable Racism in France” (Hurst/OUP, 2018) and co-author (with Peter Fysh) of “The Politics of Racism in France” (Palgrave, 2003).
 Associated Press in Paris, ‘Marine Le Pen rebrands Front National in push for support,’ The Guardian, 1 June 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/01/marine-le-pen-rebrands-front-national-in-push-for-support.
 Hélène Combis, ‘Le FN devient “Rassemblement national” : un nouveau nom au lourd passé,’ France-Culture, 12 March 2018.
 Jean-Claude Coutausse, ‘Marine Le Pen va emprunter 6 millions d’euros à son père pour sa campagne présidentielle,’ Le Monde, 31 December 2016.
 See Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys, The Politics of Racism in France, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003.
 Annie Collovald, Le ‘Populisme du FN’. Un dangereux contresens, Paris: Editions du Croquant, 2004.
 Cyril Simon, ‘Immigration : mais quel est donc ce roman, qui inspire Marine Le Pen et Steve Bannon?’, Le Parisien, 9 March 2017, www.leparisien.fr/politique/immigration-mais-quel-est-donc-ce-roman-qui-inspire-marine-le-pen-et-steve-bannon-09-03-2017-6748263.php.
 Liz Fekete, ‘Who facilitated the Christchurch terrorist’s journey through hate?’ Institute of Race Relations, 21 March 2019, www.irr.org.uk/news/who-facilitated-the-christchurch-terrorists-journey-through-hate/.
 Michel Deléan and Marine Turchi, ‘“Néonazi”: le témoignage qui accuse un proche de Marine Le Pen’, Médiapart, 3 February 2014, www.mediapart.fr/journal/france/030214/neonazi-le-temoignage-qui-accuse-un-proche-de-marine-le-pen?onglet=full).
 Pauline Moullot, ‘La défense bancale de Frédéric Chatillon par le FN,’ Libération, 28 March 2017.
 Natalie Nougayrède, ‘Macron’s crisis in France is a danger to all of Europe,’ The Guardian, 4 December 2018, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/04/emmanuel-macron-crisis-france-europe-far-right.
 Mathieu Laine, ‘Now Macron can help Europe win the war against populism,’ The Guardian, 8 May 2017, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/08/macron-help-europe-win-war-with-populism-presidential-election-le-pen.
 See Ugo Palheta, La Possibilité du Fascisme. France, la trajéctoire du désastre, Paris: La Découverte, 2018, Kindle edition, loc 4229.
 Palheta, La Possibilité du Fascisme, loc 1990.
 One of these was 80-year old Zineb Redouane, fatally shot in the face with a tear-gas grenade while standing in her apartment. See Stéphane Frangi, ‘Hommage à Zineb Redouane à Marseille: “Elle était convaincue d'avoir été visée,”’ Europe 1, 15 September 2019, www.europe1.fr/societe/hommage-a-zineb-redouane-a-marseille-elle-etait-convaincue-davoir-ete-visee-3919798.
 Editorial, ‘Gilets jaunes, quel bilan chiffré 6 mois après l'acte 1?, Le Journal du Dimanche, 17 May 2019, www.lejdd.fr/Societe/gilets-jaunes-quel-bilan-chiffre-6-mois-apres-lacte-1-3899090.
 See Jim Wolfreys, Republic of Islamophobia. The Rise of Respectable Racism in France, London: Hurst, 2018.
 Editorial, ‘Eric Zemmour et la haine télévisée,’ Le Monde, 1 October 2019, www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2019/10/01/zemmour-et-la-haine-televisee_6013769_3232.html.
 Mathieu Dejean, ‘Mais qui était le général Bugeaud, qu’admire tant Eric Zemmour?’ Les Inrockuptibles, 24 October 2019.
 L’Obs, ‘Le journaliste Olivier Galzi compare le voile aux “uniformes SS” sur LCI,’ L’Obs, 17 October 2019, www.nouvelobs.com/societe/20191017.OBS19931/le-journaliste-olivier-galzi-compare-le-voile-aux-uniformes-ss-sur-lci.html.
 Nabila Ramdami, ‘The Bayonne mosque attack is the latest symptom of France’s rampant Islamophobia,’ The Independent, 4 November 2019, www.independent.co.uk/voices/bayonne-mosque-attack-france-islamophobia-terrorism-far-right-a9184516.html.
 Fabien Escalona, ‘En dégainant le concept d’“insécurité culturelle”, Macron prolonge l’hiver républicain,’ Médiapart, 6 October 2019.
 Le Monde, ‘Verbatim : Le discours d’Emmanuel Macron face aux “gilets jaunes,”’ Le Monde, 10 December 2018. See also Romarin Godic and Ellen Salvi, ‘Macron réduit « le grand débat » à ses propres choix politiques,’ Médiapart, 14 January 2019.
 Louis de Raguenel, Tugdual Denis and Geoffroy Lejeune, ‘Immigration, islam, intégration… “Je dois reprendre en main ces sujets”, nous confie Emmanuel Macron,’ Valeurs Actuelles, 30 October 2019.
 Le Monde, AFP, ‘“Valeurs actuelles” condamné en appel pour provocation à la haine,’ Le Monde, 9 December 2015.
 Étienne Girard, ‘Quand le FN s'appelait déjà "Rassemblement national"... sous Jean-Marie Le Pen,’ Marianne, 12 March 2018.
 Alexandre Dézé, Le Front national: à la conquête du pouvoir? Paris: Armand Colin, 2012.