The Front National is one of Europe’s most renowned and long-standing populist parties. The party was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972. It rose to prominence in the 1980s after strong performances in European Parliament elections and local elections in the town of Dreux. The party is known for its fierce anti-immigration position and its hostility to the political class. Le Pen, who led the party for nearly forty years, in the past courted controversy for his insensitive comments about the Holocaust and unsavoury connections with extremist movements. He presided over the rise of his party, reaching a personal high point with his second place finish at the 2002 presidential election. But in the 2007 presidential election the FN suffered as centre right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy successfully wooed their voters.
In 2011, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter, succeeded him as leader, promising to “de-demonise” the party and remove any extremist or anti-Semitic associations. She has focused her attacks on financiers, rating agencies, multinationals and EU institutions, advocating protectionism and deriding “ultra-liberal” economic policy, and has argued that parts of Islamic belief conflict with France’s republican values. Since the younger Le Pen took to the helm, the party has gained ground, performing strongly both in the 2012 presidential election and the 2014 local elections. The Front National’s electoral support is multi-layered and varies according to region – the political scientist Joël Gombin argues that “the strength of the FN comes from the fact that it has diverse electorates”, held together by a belief that the political system does not take into account their concerns.
Front National's rhetoric is composed of three interlocking frames:
1. Order versus chaos The bringers of chaos have undermined order, destroyed the social fabric, and wreaked havoc on people’s lives. The prime application for the FN is immigration: a prior age of order, simplicity and homogeneity has become fundamentally disrupted by agents of chaos. These actors, including national and EU politicians and big business, have undermined the social order. Working people, who desire order and fear “insecurity”, face on-going social fragmentation and instability, including the weakening of the welfare state and of French identity. To reverse this disaster, immigration needs to be reduced and priority needs to be given to French nationals.
Tied in with this frame is the metaphor of the nation as a family. For the FN in France, the family represents security, stability, and strong social ties. The metaphor of the nation as a family consequently evokes feelings of order and solidity; immigration threatens to disrupt these familial bonds.
2. Exploited by the powerful The FN applies this frame in many different ways: economic policy, where the powerful are financiers, EU institutions and US multinationals and the exploited are French farmers; immigration policy, where the powerful are national governments and the exploited are working class French citizens who face lower wages, higher unemployment and strained public services as a result of immigration; and EU policy, where the powerful are the EU institutions and the exploited are the European people who suffer from authoritarian, misery-inducing and ineffective EU policies (for example, the troika imposing the provisions of the memorandum on the Greek government).
While UKIP primarily appeals to the value of liberty, the FN primarily appeals to justice. Le Pen borrows the language of the left – the language of exploitation and equality. UKIP politicians, on the other hand, mine a British tradition of libertarianism, e.g. freedom from the 'big state'.
3. Reinstating common sense Professional politicians have subverted the natural order of things, because they have no appreciation of nature, “real life” or the heartland. For the FN, the EU is the archetypal case of an institution dominated by professional politicians. The FN, on the other hand, is composed of outsiders and dissidents, who have a unique connection with ordinary people and who are willing to take on the EU elite.
Here are three typical exchanges between Front National politicians and other MEPs in the European Parliament:
1. 'Social dumping'
In April 2014, the European Parliament passed legislation to improve the rights of posted workers (employees working within the EU who are sent by their employers to temporarily work in another EU member state). One of the aims of the legislation was to address “social dumping” (when local businesses find themselves undercut by companies from countries with weaker labour regulations), something that Marine Le Pen has often highlighted as a major issue for French workers. The legislation reformed the 1996 Posting of Workers Directive. At a plenary debate on the legislation, Marine Le Pen addressed other MEPs.
Marine Le Pen (non-attached):
Mr President, in the run-up to a likely outcry against Brussels in a few weeks, the frightened advocates of the European framework are attempting to show a different face by strengthening the directive on the posting of workers, the most potent symbol of this ultra-liberal and antisocial Europe that the people no longer want.
Adopted in 1996 under the guise of improving the freedom and protection of European workers, the directive on the posting of workers has become within a few years the most powerful means of aligning wages in Europe with the lowest salaries and of implementing social dumping.
Over the years, we helped the flood of low-cost workers into our countries. According to the statistics, they will amount to more than 500,000 – in France alone – in a country, which, I reiterate, has over 5 million unemployed people. Faced with this organised unfair competition, local businesses have no other option but to import low cost workers or vanish. In my region, on the methane terminal at the Dunkirk site, no less than 40% of employees are low cost workers. They amount to so many that the administration in charge of work controls is no longer in a position to verify whether these workers have a job contract or whether they are working on the black market.
To try and absolve yourselves from your tragic errors, you seek to marginally amend this text – a crime against the dignity and wellbeing of employees – by allowing states to strengthen controls. How laughable and hypocritical! When, at the same time, you demand that States suppress whole areas of their administration to save the euro.
I have said it and I will solemnly say it again: strengthened or not, the directive on the posting of workers is a terrifying social dislocation time-bomb. There is only one solution: this text must be suppressed.
This is why we will abstain from the compromise amend- ment, a real piece of political trickery.
Marek Henryk Migalski: (European Conservatives and Reformists):
You call this a criminal directive. Don’t you think that your fear of a flood of immigrants that want to work in your country is a manifestation of nationalism, protectionism and socialism. The richest country in the world, the most powerful country in the world, the United States, was formed in the main by immigrants. Shouldn’t you be concerned with how to make the French economy more open and liberal, rather than scaring your citizens about floods of people from Poland and other countries, who want to work, who don’t want to take your jobs but just want to work?
Marine Le Pen (non-attached):
Mr President, the United States was not founded by immigration but by colonisation and a very brutal colonisation at that, because they made the people they replaced disappear. That’s the first point already.
Secondly, yes, I do find it a crime against workers for them to be put in competition with other workers who are obviously paid 30 to 40% less than the pay advertised because of the level of social dumping.
So, evidently, sir, businesses will have a great time finding very cheap labour. When there are 5 million unemployed in a country, giving work to 500,000 people that come from abroad is not allowed. 500,000 today!
Migalski makes at least two mistakes. First, he plays into Le Pen’s hands by repeating her language (“criminal directive”) and by referring to the United States, a traditional target of FN censure. Second, he does not address the fundamentals of Le Pen’s critique – that the impact of a liberal immigration policy is not just about jobs but about the tearing apart of France’s social fabric. A stronger response would avoid Le Pen’s own frames but would take on her claim that immigration threatens social cohesion.
2. Free movement of Roma
In January 2014, amid criticisms from a number of populist parties, transitional controls for Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants were removed in the nine EU member states, including France, that were still imposing restrictions. In the same month, the European Parliament held a debate on the free movement of labour. Marine Le Pen had the opportunity to speak.
Marine Le Pen (non-attached):
Mr President, dearest colleagues, free movement in the European Union has now reached its limits. Intra- and extra-European mass immigration, the Roma problem and the Posting of Workers Directive that has brought about unrestrained competition and social dumping among European workers have legitimately awakened anger and Euroscepticism.
The debate on intra-European immigration is intensifying in France, Great Britain and Germany, what with the opening of the market to Romanians and Bulgarians from January 1st. And the European Council’s response? Increased controls through work inspections to avoid fraud and abuse, but under no circumstances has the posting of workers directive been suppressed.
Concerning the Roma, member states are obliged to commit to national strategies of integration by providing access to employment, to education, to housing and to healthcare whilst numerous nationals are victims of unemployment and poverty because of the economic crisis and cures of austerity.
It is high time that the sovereignty of States is re-established, that the principle of free movement is called into question and that borders are re-established. Those who defended the free movement dogma in defiance of all wisdom and against all logic cannot today provide solutions to problems that they themselves created.
Le Pen portrays the EU as trapped in a political cocoon, so encased in their philosophy that they for a long time they were incapable of perceiving what had gone wrong, let alone rectifying it. Indeed, Le Pen’s pro-free movement politicians were not just ignorant; they defended their positions “in defiance of wisdom”, as if they were aware of the facts but, led by ideology, marched on regardless. This critique, if accepted, nullifies any response made by a mainstream politician: they can be readily dismissed by her as naïve or short-sighted. An effective response should not just focus on the question of reforming the free movement of people. It needs to take on Le Pen’s complaint that mainstream MEPs are the enemies of rational thought. Simply put, it needs to explain why - for example, on how to combat unemployment and fight poverty - they should be taken seriously and why Le Pen shouldn’t.
In October 2013, a boat carrying immigrants from Libya was shipwrecked on its way to Lampedusa, an island off the coast of southern Italy, resulting in the deaths of 366 people. A debate in the European Parliament one week later on migratory flows in the Mediterranean focused on how to ensure that this tragic event would not happen again.
Marine Le Pen (non-attached):
Mr President, following the tragedy in Lampedusa the European governments are paving the way to provide far greater access to European territory to foreigners. Yet, it is evident that diplomacy based on emotion is the most dangerous and least adapted to the situation. We must do exactly the opposite.
As soon as you allow these men and women to think that they can risk their lives, and that, if they succeed in setting foot on European territory, they will then be saved; that they will then be able to stay on European territory, that they will then be looked after, that their children will then be educated “for free”, that they will be then be cared for “for free”; when I say “for free”, that’s in inverted commas, because it’s not free of course, it’s paid for by the national communities; that they will benefit from a council home, that they will benefit from social welfare that we are all nevertheless finding increasingly difficult to accord to our own fellow countrymen; they will risk the venture. They will risk the venture and you personally will be morally responsible for the dead that will be strewn along this path and for this terrible risk-taking.
Evidently, the only way to stop these deaths that are multiplying is by sending out a clear message of firmness, and by explaining that risking this crazy adventure is futile because we will have a firm reaction and we will send these illegal immigrants back home.
Here is the only solution that is humane for them and that is viable for us.
David Casa (European People’s Party):
I would like to ask whether Ms Le Pen is telling us that when there is a boat in distress and sinking, we should save the lives of these immigrants. Good. We agree here. However, if they are being persecuted in their country, should we still send them back to be killed by their dictatorial governments? Is this what Ms Le Pen is suggesting?”
Marine Le Pen (non-attached):
Sir, the number of asylum seekers has exploded by 72% in the last 5 years. How many asylum seekers do you think we can take in?
It’s clear that the European capitals bear a heavy responsibility, since the victims of the Lampedusa tragedy, that happened a few days ago, were leaving Eritrea or Somalia to escape the reign of terror imposed by Islamist governments. And yet instead of combatting these governments, the European capitals have created Islamic governments through direct military intervention in Libya and perhaps tomorrow in Syria.
Casa’s response is effective in cornering Le Pen on her empathy for the migrants who travel to Lampedusa. This is clearly an issue she realises is difficult for her, given that she makes efforts to pre-empt this attack in her speech by accusing the mainstream of having a significant share of responsibility for the Lampedusa tragedy. But Casa can do more to address the core frames underpinning Le Pen’s rhetoric. He should address in particular the 'Exploited by the powerful' frame – is compassion for migrants necessarily in conflict with justice for Europe’s current citizens?
This Counterpoint report, Populist Rhetoric: Front National was originally published ion May 12, 2014. For the full Counterpoint feature in the series on populist rhetoric leading up to the European elections, including recommendations for how to respond to populist rhetoric, please see here.
Read more from our European elections coverage here.