For those of us who have been following the radical populist right over the past couple of decades, one of the central questions today is whether the radical populist right is likely to capitalize on the CoVid-19 crisis or whether the crisis will relegate it to the margins of contemporary politics. At the moment, it appears that the dramatic socioeconomic impact of the crisis has generally negatively affected these parties.
In most countries, support for these parties – as measured in polls – has declined, in some cases, for instance in Norway, quite precipitously. Yet these results should be taken with caution. National crises tend to provoke a “rallying around the flag” no matter what – how else could one explain the temporary rise in support for Donald Trump and the British Tories?
Once the crisis is over, however, it is to be expected that the situation will change. It is likely to give way to a critical examination of the multiple failures of leadership, instrumental in turning a serious health threat into a national disaster of epic proportions. And with it, there will be a moment of reckoning that is likely to leave few governments untarnished. Under the circumstances, it is reasonable to expect that the radical populist right – given it was not in a position to make decisions during the times of CoVid-19 – is going to make somewhat of a comeback.
Prominent radical right-wing populist leaders are already gearing up their rhetoric for the day after. In what follows, the focus is on the arguably most influential current leaders, Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National, RN, formerly Front National) and Matteo Salvini (Lega, formerly Lega Nord). Under Marine Le Pen’s predecessor, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Front National had the status of the primus inter pares – a first among equals – on the radical populist right, particularly with respect to programmatic innovations.
Even if with Marine Le Pen, the Front has lost some of its luster, it still serves as a point of reference for a number of like-minded parties. With Matteo Salvini, however, Marine Le Pen is confronted with a serious challenger. Under his leadership, the Lega soared in the polls, surpassing by far its competitors on the right, such as Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italy, relegated to the margins of the Italian party system.
Like other major politicians in France and beyond, Marine Le Pen was caught cold by the dramatic surge of the pandemic; worse still, after a meeting with a right-wing politician in mid-March who tested positive, she went into voluntary self-quarantine although she was asymptomatic. As the leader of one of France’s major political formations, she was consulted by the president of the republic. As a result, she could hardly claim that she had been sidelined. More significantly, the next presidential elections in France will be held two years from now. And Marine Le Pen is once again likely to be Macron’s main opponent. Under the circumstances, Marine Le Pen had to tread lightly, moderating her tone.
In fact, in early March, Marine Le Pen had already noted positive signs that the president of the republic was taking leave of his “anti-national ideology,” being prepared to agree to closing the EU’s external borders. She also noted that she was not only seeing signs of “a total questioning of the ultraliberal model,” of outsourcing no matter the price, of privatization, but also of “an ode to public service.” All of this, she noted, suggested that the president had “understood his errors: with respect to these issues”.
This conciliatory tone did not last long however; neither did moderation. By the end of the month, Marine Le Pen switched to full attack mode, ready to exploit the crisis for potential political gain.
There was a simple reason for this reversal of strategy: unfavorable poll data. As the crisis progressed, Marine Le Pen’s public image deteriorated. By the beginning of April, only a bit more than a fifth of the French public had a positive impression of her.
The crisis brutally exposed the prevalence of inequality and social injustice in French society
For Marine Le Pen, these numbers were more than disconcerting, given a political constellation that should have been favorable to the populist radical right: by the end of March, opinion polls registered wide-spread dissatisfaction with the government’s response to the crisis. Within a week, confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis fell by 10 percent, from 53 to 43 percent. At the same time, the crisis brutally exposed the prevalence of inequality and social injustice in French society. In the homeland of liberté, égalité, fraternité it was particularly the couches populaires that were hit hardest by the crisis.
In response, Marine Le Pen abandoned any pretense of being part of a united political front in the face of the crisis. Instead she embarked on a full collision course with respect to the government. In an interview with Franceinfo at the end of March, she accuses the government of having lied to the French people, of having left the French public in the dark with regard to the “weakness of the French state, of our stock [of protective gear], of the lack of preparedness of our country.”
In a long interview end of March with Valeurs actuelles – France’s leading arch-conservative weekly magazine – Marine Le Pen charges that the government is the “biggest purveyor of fake news since the beginning of the crisis” and the “main responsible for the loss of confidence in public statements”. At the same time, she accords more than a touch of legitimacy to conspiracy theories that claim that the virus had “escaped” from some secret laboratory. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that four out of ten RN supporters believe that the virus had been “intentionally” bred in a lab.
What about Islam?
Over the past several years, the success of radical right-wing populist parties in Germany, Spain, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and elsewhere was to a large extent owed to their alarmist rhetoric with respect to the “Islamization” of Europe. One might expect that in the face of the current crisis, the question of Islam to have become an ideational backburner. Not even close. In an open letter to the French interior ministry, Marine Le Pen claimed that in a number of French cities, mosques took advantage of the general lockdown to allow muezzins to call for public prayer, in this way using sound to “illegally occupy the public space.” For Marine le Pen, this was just one more instance of Islam seizing every opportunity to “drive back the principle of laïcité of our republic and, in this way, openly flout the republican state.”
The crisis has opened up opportunities for a populist mobilization provided Marine Le Pen is prepared to adopt a genuine populist program that goes beyond worn-out nativist tropes
It is anyone’s guess whether or not Marine Le Pen’s rhetoric will boost her political fortunes in the years to come. Much depends on the way the current crisis will be resolved. As of now, her invectives appear to have had little traction. This might change, as the crisis progresses. For the moment, Marine Le Pen is in an uncomfortable position, given the extent of the crisis, and her lack of opportunities to have a real impact on what is happening in the country. The crisis has, however, opened up opportunities for a populist mobilization provided Marine Le Pen is prepared to adopt a genuine populist program that goes beyond worn-out nativist tropes.
The results of a poll from early April offer suggestions as to what such a program might look like. Among other things, respondents were asked which measures might promote national solidarity and whether or not these measures would improve respondents’ image of a range of economic actors. Large majorities voted for top executives voluntarily halving their salaries; shareholders “exceptionally” renouncing their dividends this year; and landlords freezing rent payments or lowering the rent by at least 20 to 30 percent. Against that, less than a third of respondents agreed that everybody should renounce one week of vacation.
These reflect genuine populist concerns and demands. Today, it is largely forgotten that at one time, for instance in late 19th century America, populism was a progressive movement, fighting for genuine equality, more social justice, for true democracy. This type of populism was against those “on top” or as they say in French, les gros, against the big corporate monopolies and banks, against all those who lived off the hard work of ordinary people and exploited them, against corrupt politicians colluding with the wealthy and mighty.
Marine Le Pen’s future as a major relevant force in French politics will largely depend on both her ability and willingness to live up to the challenge which widespread demands for more equality, more social justice, and more solidarity will pose to all political formations in post-CoVid-19 France.