Can Europe Make It?

2019 and beyond: growing threat of the radical right in French politics

Two years on from the historic electoral ‘rise’ of Emmanuel Macron as French President, the French political landscape is even more volatile.

James Downes
6 March 2019, 12.21pm
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, February 6, 2019. Pool/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The last two years have been a landmark occasion for a number of populist radical right parties across Europe. A number have even entered into coalition government, most notably in Italy and in Austria..The electoral success of the radical right[1]has also not been confined to just western Europe. At the same time, in central-eastern Europe, former conservative centre-right party Fidesz has now made a full ideological transformation to becoming a populist radical right party in Hungarian politics and is dominating the political system with its two-thirds ‘supermajority’ secured at the 2018 national parliamentary elections. 2017 and 2018 were thus landmark years for populist radical right party successes and further electoral setbacks for mainstream political parties in Europe.

Two years on from the historic electoral ‘rise’ of Emmanuel Macron as French President, this article examines the French political landscape – in particular ‘protest politics’ in France alongside latest polling evidence and how the current political climate appears to be favouring Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally) Party. It briefly outlines the implications for the upcoming 2019 EU Parliament elections in France and the future of French politics.

Volatility: the French political landscape in 2019

President Emmanuel Macron’s historic election victory in 2017 appeared to herald a new era of French politics, having defeated the populist radical right Front National under Marine Le Pen in the Presidential run-off and his centrist En Marche Party (On The Move, LaREM) sweeping up seats from both left and right alike in the French National Assembly.

However, since Macron became President in 2017, the French political landscape has been volatile. The so-called yellow vests or the ‘gilet jaunes’ have protested since November 2018 over the lack of economic prospects in France. The protesters have largely focused their discontent on the rising costs of living, the low minimum wage alongside taxation that has affected both the working and middle classes.

President Macron has done little to dispel this disparate political movement (made up of both radical left and radical right activists alike) and the momentum has continued well into 2019. President Macron has appeared too ‘technocratic’ and out of touch with the general population. Combined with the ‘gilet jaunes’ movement, President Macron’s approval ratings have also declined considerably and are now only second to his Socialist predecessorFrançois Hollande in terms of being the worst of any French President in the twenty-first century.

Though they improved slightly at the start of 2019, the low approval ratings for Macron are a serious cause for concern, particularly with the upcoming 2019 European Parliament elections in May and the ‘rise’ of the populist radical right National Rally under Marine Le Pen.

Protest politics in the form of partisan dealignment and the fragmentation of both parties and voters has continued in 2019. Traditional party politics in France are also extremely divided, with mainstream political parties on the centre left (namely the incumbent Socialist Party, PS) seeing a significant electoral decline at the 2017 legislative election and still now only polling in single digits.

The future of French politics looks increasingly bleak for mainstream centre-left (PS) and centre-right parties (LR) alike.

As discussed previously, this is part of a long-term electoral decline for the centre left across Europe in the refugee crisis period. Furthermore, the centre right (The Republicans, LR) are also still polling low and are struggling to get through to the electorate. Meanwhile, the populist radical right National Rally continues to perform well electorally, particularly in the wake of the 2019 European Parliament elections and domestic level opinion polling. The only significant challenger right now to President Macron’s En Marche Party is Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.

Party rebranding: from the National Front to National Rally

Under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, the former National Front (Front National) has been transformed ideologically. The Party changed its name in 2018 from the Front National to Rassemblement National (National Rally). This name change is part of a longer-term strategy by Marine Le Pen to detoxify and distance the party from its ‘extreme right’ ideological roots, particularly under her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, and at the same time make the party more electable amongst French voters. A similar strategy has also been deployed recently by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine Le Pen's niece and prospective future leader, who has dropped the ‘Le Pen’ name and is now referred simply as Marion Maréchal.

Marine Le Pen’s ideological revamping of National Rally has sought to mark a clear departure from the ideology held by her father. She has also sought to tone done the rhetoric on the party’s anti-immigration positions. Immigration is still central to the ideology of the FN Party, however Marine Le Pen has strategically sought to link the issue with a populist discourse that has resonated with the French electorate in recent years, particularly amongst the disaffected working classes.

Le Pen has linked immigration to the undermining of both the French nation-state and sovereignty. In recent years, she also sought to link the discourse of immigration to the Eurozone crisis and the failure of the EU project to achieve reform. The continued salience of the immigration issue amidst the refugee crisis in Europe has created further electoral opportunities for National Rally.

National Rally: the future of French politics?

The future of French politics looks increasingly bleak for mainstream centre-left (PS) and centre-right parties (LR) alike. Political momentum for President Macron’s political party En Marche has also stalled, with the ‘gilet jaunes’ (yellow vests) protests demonstrating an appetite for welfare reform in France and widespread volatility amongst French citizens on both left and right alike. Political trust for President Macron has evaporated and there is a growing divide between political elites and French voters.

A resurgent National Rally Party led by Marine Le Pen is making increasing ground in the polls, benefiting from anti-political establishment politics and continued dissatisfaction with the European Union. Based on current polling projections (both vote and seat shares) the transformed National Rally Party is virtually neck and neck with Macron’s En Marche Party in the 2019 European Parliament polls.

There is now a very real possibility that political momentum for National Rally will increase. Whilst the 2022 French Presidential and Legislative elections appear on a distant horizon, political momentum for now at least seems very much on Marine Le Pen’s side, with President Macron’s En Marche struggling. As I wrote previously for CARR back in November 2018, “we may only be at the beginning of the populist radical right surge in European politics.”

Visit the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (#CARR)

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