Could Marine Le Pen’s dominance of the French far right be under threat?
***Version française ci-dessous***
After her setback in the regional elections, Marine Le Pen now finds herself rattled by the unexpected rise of far-right media polemicist Éric Zemmour. Between its desire to represent a break with the status quo on the one hand, and its aspirations to electability on the other, her National Rally party is going through an identity crisis coupled with a weakening influence. But should this phenomenon be viewed as progress in the fight against the far right, or as heralding the emergence of more menacing spectres ahead?
Long regarded as a rallying point for economic, social, cultural and political frustrations, the National Rally (Rassemblement national, RN) prides itself on being the leading opposition force to President Emanuel Macron and as challenging the establishment. This is politically advantageous given that only 37 percent of French people have confidence in the presidency as an institution, and just 38 percent in the National Assembly. However, the strategy of "detoxifying" the party pursued by Marine Le Pen since taking over as leader, with a view to making it a viable proposition for presidential office, is undermining this stance. While issues such as security and immigration are front and centre of media and political debates, Le Pen no longer seems to be the only – or even the most credible – presidential contender espousing these causes. Poor election results and the emergence of candidates such as Éric Zemmour, seemingly more divisive and better able to rally the far right, are seeing Le Pen slump in the polls and making the prospect of an RN victory in the 2022 presidential election less likely. In its desire to represent change and a real break with the status quo, coupled with its aspirations to respectability, RN is certainly going through a period of weakening influence. But should this be seen as progress in the fight against the far right? Can Marine Le Pen still be considered the French far right's "natural" candidate?
National Rally: a successful far-right party traditionally perceived as a party of protest
The motivations of RN voters seem to confirm that the party is capable of capitalising on growing mistrust of the political system and the traditional parties. Indeed, the number-one reason for voting RN, shared by 40 percent of those who have ever cast a ballot for the party, is the desire "to express dissatisfaction with the other political parties". This rises to 55 percent among those who have only voted RN once in their life. A vote for RN is therefore seen by many as a way of punishing politicians, suggesting that it is more a vote of last resort than one based on genuine support. RN has got such voters behind the party with its traditional discourse, centred on criticism of the elites, who are said to be incapable of addressing the problems faced by French people. Indeed, RN's rhetoric accuses various elites (those of the European Union, business, the media and the political establishment) of being remote from ordinary people and seeking to defend their own interests at the expense of the common good. These accusations are reinforced by an idealisation of working people and a championing of those left behind by the system. In addition, RN benefits from being seen as an outsider, an opposition party capable of rallying the protest vote. This is thanks in part to its scant history of electoral alliances. The only occasions on which RN has joined forces with the conservative right were in the municipal elections in Dreux in 1983, on the Provence-Alpes Côtes d'Azur regional council between 1986 and 1992, and on the Rhône-Alpes regional council in 1998. Since then, RN's marginalisation has been endured rather than sought, resulting as it did from decisions by the conservative parties Union for French Democracy (Union pour la démocratie française, UDF) and Rally for the Republic (Rassemblement pour la République, RPR) to exclude from their ranks any elected representatives who forged electoral alliances with the party of Marine's father and predecessor as party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. However, this "lone ranger" image was cleverly exploited by the party leadership, which was able to present itself as a full-fledged political group against which the other parties closed ranks to form a "republican front".
RN's anti-establishment credentials are also linked to its ability to subvert the political space by reshaping it and presenting itself as an alternative to the established contenders alternating power between them. First and foremost, Marine Le Pen sought to replace the traditional left-right divide with one of "globalists" versus "patriots". In what had now become a tripolar political space in France, RN made its mark by lambasting the conservative right and the social-democratic left as incapable of finding solutions to rising unemployment. Its discourse-based strategy was to amalgamate the two parties that had dominated the French political scene for decades – the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (Union pour un mouvement populaire, UMP) and the centre-left Socialist Party (Parti socialiste, PS) – in the single acronym "UMPS", suggesting that it was much of the same whichever one was in government. In a situation where power alternated between the same two parties, RN wanted to portray itself as the real alternative, breaking the inertia that characterised French politics.
The idea that the political contest is now being fought between these two moderate camps has been fuelled by the media's focus on RN's favoured issues. Insecurity, immigration and national identity feature regularly in public debate, particularly in the run-up to elections. Thanks to the media exposure it has enjoyed for several decades, RN has managed to raise the profile of its societal issues, thereby becoming, for many media outlets, the best-placed political organisation to offer an analysis of current events – to such an extent indeed that, after a day of protests in support of regularising the status of undocumented migrants, held to mark International Migrants Day, several TV channels gave air time to RN members to comment on the demonstrators' demands. RN's strength as an anti-establishment party has allowed it to build up an electoral coalition that has brought it some success. However, with six months to go before the presidential election, its momentum is no longer a given.
Electoral, discourse and policy weaknesses
RN has consistently found it difficult to translate its national success to the local level. Even so, the most recent regional and departmental elections were a real admission of failure for the far-right party, signalling a loss of its electoral momentum. While RN was declared the winner in at least one region, it failed to win the presidency of a single regional council and lost half of its departmental councillors and around 100 regional councillors. These failures in the 2020 municipal elections and 2021 departmental elections can be explained by the lack of a strategy to establish a strong local base: RN's lead candidates in the previous elections were not fielded again in the same places, whereas incumbents generally did extremely well in these elections. The influx of new candidates was not a matter of chance but the result of elected representatives leaving the party. Indeed, a quarter of RN's regional councillors deserted the party during their term of office and so did not feature again on its lists in 2021. The party's disappointing electoral performance could fuel the notion that Marine Le Pen, unable to maintain the stability of her party, is incapable of making it to the country's top job or representing a unified far-right bloc.
With its very weak network of local elected officials, RN comes across as a solely media-focused opposition force rather than as a party that listens to and stands by the people it claims to defend. Worse still, the far-right party appears to have been conspicuous by its absence from the reactionary movements of recent years, thus missing out on an opportunity to gain a solid footing in civil society. The protests against same-sex marriage spawned open conflict between RN officials and fundamentalist Catholics, a group that had been won over to voting for the far right. More recently, the demonstrations against the introduction of the COVID health pass seem like a missed opportunity for Marine Le Pen to expand her electoral base. While there is still insufficient data regarding the profile of anti-health pass demonstrators to chart the precise ideological contours of these demonstrations, in many medium-sized towns they were organised by activists from nationalist parties Debout La France (France Arise) and Les Patriotes (The Patriots). This unprecedented social movement has therefore upstaged RN by propelling "minor" far-right candidates into the media spotlight, even though among the voters of all the "major" presidential candidates, Le Pen's are the least opposed to this movement (37 percent). Meanwhile, the far-right weekly news magazine Valeurs Actuelles has accused Le Pen of a lack of political courage for not taking part in demonstrations in support of police officers and Génération Identitaire (a French far-right identitarian political movement that was dissolved in March 2021 for inciting hatred and discrimination). RN's distancing of itself from reactionary movements is a source of tension within the far right, once naturally inclined towards Marine Le Pen.
Whereas in the 20th century the mantra "France for the French" was very much the preserve of RN, the current political scene has given rise to a raft of far-right candidates for the 2022 presidential election: Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, Florian Philippot and (possibly) Éric Zemmour. Thus, the political space carved out by RN to the right of the conservative right is now being contested by other groups that are not afraid to use less carefully honed language. Standing out from the opponents with which it is ideologically closely aligned will be tricky in a radically altered political landscape where the old governing parties have become considerably weaker and the neoliberal policies of Macron and his predecessors have triggered a widespread rejection of politicians. Since 2017, the electoral horizon has been dominated by the clash between Le Pen and Macron, and RN's opponents accuse Le Pen of taking too soft a line. The debate between her and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – the third most senior member of the French government – crystallised the loss of RN's anti-establishment credentials, with Darmanin criticising her "softness" on reform of Islamic practices. This media episode highlights the limitations of RN's strategy of focusing on its favourite issues – issues which many political players are now competing over, accusing RN of not going far enough.
The end of RN's dominance of the far right?
In the run-up to the 2020 regional elections, internal tensions within RN led to a group of senior officials being ousted from the party's investiture committee, the body that nominates its candidates for elections. Party unity is at risk because of the existence of two distinct strategies: that of Marine Le Pen and that of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Marine Le Pen's inner circle, mainly consisting of elected representatives from Hénin-Beaumont (an RN stronghold in northern France), follows the "marinist" approach of adopting more polished language (for example, ditching the term "national preference" in favour of "national priority", referring to the right-wing idea of favouring French citizens over foreign nationals in employment and welfare), as well as making economic measures more central to the far-right project. However, there are still some in the party who advocate a more right-wing position and for whom questions of identity, security and immigration are virtually all they talk about. This long-standing divergence led to the historic split in 1998 that saw the formation of the National Republican Movement (Mouvement National Républicain) under Bruno Mégret, whose vision for RN had been of a party willing to forge alliances with the conservative right. The party lost many officials, activists and voters in the years that followed, but this did not prevent Jean-Marie Le Pen from reaching the second round of the presidential election in 2002. The departure of Jean-Marie's great-niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen following Marine Le Pen's heavy defeat in the 2017 presidential election significantly weakened RN's traditional core. Traditionalists include the likes of Bouches-du-Rhône Senator Stéphane Ravier, who have no qualms about using the term "great replacement", which Le Pen herself avoids.
In addition to RN's internal fragility, the crisis facing the Le Pens' party as the dominant force in far-right French politics is being compounded by the strong polling of Éric Zemmour. Could this mark a return of RN's traditional mindset outside the party framework? Zemmour's single-issue approach centred on immigration, his penchant for controversy and neoliberal economic proposals resembles the strategy deployed by Jean-Marie Le Pen to build up his electoral base. The former Le Figaro journalist is polling well among the most highly educated voters and a sizeable chunk of those who voted for conservative François Fillon and for Marine Le Pen in 2017 say they would vote for him this time round. The issue at stake in these polls is not which candidate would be most capable of winning the next election but who can best represent the conservative/identitarian wing. Le Pen's social demands, such as lowering the retirement age to 60, could also present an obstacle in this regard because the dominant groups in this wing are opposed to these demands. On the other hand, Zemmour's neoliberal rhetoric will not go down well with working-class voters. The next few months will therefore be key to determining how the French political landscape is reconfigured. Even if RN loses its dominant status, the party has paved the way for the acceptance of reactionary ideas, making the establishment of a neo-fascist government a possibility. RN's past electoral defeats are ideological victories in the present. However, neither voter disillusionment with RN nor the profusion of far-right candidates will necessarily benefit progressives, as the defeat of RN could just as easily lead to the emergence of much more menacing spectres in the future.
About the author
Bilal Berady is pursuing a Master's degree in sociology at Sciences Po in Paris. His areas of research are political sociology and the radical populist right. He is a member of the Espaces Marx foundation, part of the transform! europe network.
 Le Pen's party was formerly known as the National Front (Front national), but for the sake of simplicity this article will use its current name throughout.
 https://www.sciencespo.fr/cevipof/sites/sciencespo.fr.cevipof/files/OpinionWay pour le CEVIPOF-Baromètre de la confiance en politique - vague12 - Rapport international (1).pdf (in French)
 In response to the question "Why did you vote for National Rally candidates or lists?" https://www.ifop.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/118005-R Rapport-RN-23.03.2021.pdf (in French)
 Bocquet, Benjamin. "Le populisme du Front national de Marine Le Pen : Continuités et changements dans le discours frontiste". Master's dissertation. Université Catholique de Louvain, 2017.
 Brustier, Gaël, and Escalona, Fabien. "Chapter 21 / La gauche et la droite face au Front National", in Crépon, Sylvain (ed.), Les faux-semblants du Front national. Presses de Sciences Po, 2015, 505-528.
 Hargreaves, Alec G. "La percée du Front National", Hommes & migrations, 1313 | 2016, 29-35.
 https://www.acrimed.org/Dans-la-rue-marche-des-Sans-Papiers-A-la-tele-l (in French)
 Cébille, Paul. "Défaut d'implantation, l'épine dans le pied du Rassemblement national ?", Fondation Jean Jaurès, 23 July 2021: https://www.jean-jaures.org/publication/defaut-dimplantation-lepine-dans-le-pied-du-rassemblement-national/ (in French)
 RN's then Vice President Florian Philippot gave low priority to the fight against same-sex marriage, much to the irritation of the president of La Manif Pour Tous, a protest movement opposed to same-sex marriage: https://www.bvoltaire.fr/nous-attendons-des-excuses-de-marine-le-pen-apres-les-propos-de-florian-philippot/ (in French)
 For example at Saint-Brieuc in Brittany: https://www.liberation.fr/societe/sante/manif-anti-pass-a-saint-brieuc-droite-ou-gauche-on-sen-fout-20210807_OUQD7X4S5FEI7BKY4RFW3LTYEE/ (in French) Les Patriotes also organised marches at many demonstrations against the COVID health pass in Paris.
 https://www.ifop.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/118356-Rapport.pdf (in French)
 Editor’s note: "Possibly" because Zemmour has not yet formally filed his candidature, and efforts to disqualify him as a candidate are currently underway.
 "Great replacement" is an example of RN's cautious approach to language under Marine Le Pen. Unlike some RN and far-right figures such as Éric Zemmour and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, Le Pen never refers explicitly to this theory, despite agreeing with its tenets.
 Vous avez la parole, broadcast on TV channel France 2 on 11 February 2021. Darmanin said: "In her attempts to detoxify [her party], Madame Le Pen has gone a bit soft, I think. You need to take some vitamins […] Madame Le Pen doesn't name the enemy and I think, actually, you're being softer than we can afford to be."
 Marine Le Pen fait le ménage au Rassemblement national avant les régionales: https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2020/08/04/marine-le-pen-fait-le-menage-au-rassemblement-national-avant-les-regionales_6048075_823448.html (in French)
 According to an Ifop poll in October 2021, 24 percent of those who voted for Fillon and 18 percent of Le Pen voters in 2017 would favour Zemmour in the 2022 presidential election: https://www.ifop.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/118400-Rapport.pdf (in French)
A Harris Interactive poll conducted in early October 2021 put the figures at 31 percent and 30 percent respectively: https://harris-interactive.fr/opinion_polls/barometre-dintentions-de-vote-pour-lelection-presidentielle-de-2022-vague-16/ (in French)
 Palheta, Ugo. La possibilité du fascisme, La Découverte, Paris, 2018.
- Version française Bilal Berady